ARLINGTON, Texas — Zac Gallen tries not to think about 2021.
“Those are some dark times in Arizona,” he said.
But driving to Globe Life Field on the eve of the World Series, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Game 1 starter couldn’t help but reflect just a little.
“Like, 730 days ago, whatever it was, who would have really thought we would be here right now, this soon, this quickly?” he mused to the media.
Seven hundred and thirty days before, the Atlanta Braves won the first game of the 2021 World Series over the Houston Astros en route to a championship. That year, the Braves won 88 games, the Astros 95. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks won just 52. Their opponents in this World Series, the Texas Rangers, won 60 that year.
The Braves and Astros were back in the postseason again this season, seemingly having cracked the code on sustainable success, but at the end of October, still standing are two teams that lost more than 100 games two years ago.
“Losing 110 games, it's not fun coming to the baseball field,” Gallen said. “It's supposed to be fun — it's a game. When your job becomes a job, and it's, like, ‘Oh, we're just monotonous, and we're coming to the field,’ I think that's a huge motivating factor for myself. And I think you'd find a similar answer for a lot of guys in there.”
To jump 30 wins for the Rangers and 32 for the Diamondbacks, there had to be a decent amount of roster reconstruction — prospects called up, stars signed, bullpens bolstered, finishing pieces added at the deadline to put them over the top — but on each team, there are several holdovers. Guys who have gone through the gauntlet, seen rock-bottom, played months and months of meaningless baseball with little to no national attention — and maybe learned something along the way that can help them now that they’ve reached baseball’s promised land.
“Yeah, how not to play baseball,” Arizona’s presumptive Game 2 starter, Merrill Kelly, said. “I would assume that is probably the biggest one.”
Which is not to say there aren’t valuable lessons if you look for them.
“I think that with those losses, I also learned how to take losses when they happen and how games develop, the game plan, how pitchers will pitch to you when you're winning or when you're losing,” Rangers ALCS MVP Adolis García said through interpreter Will Nadal.
The 2021 season was his first full season of big-league baseball. It was a winding journey in which two teams — including the Rangers — gave up on him. But given a shot, he had an All-Star season and found a way to make the most of a lost season in the standings.
“I think it's all applicable,” he said.
And since every failure comes at the expense of another team’s triumph, even a 100-loss season includes plenty of winning ways being modeled.
“Losing stinks. And when you do it a lot, no one feels good about it. You go home feeling bad,” Rangers reliever Josh Sborz said. “But I guess in our standpoint, we were able to watch the Astros the previous two years just kind of come in and whoop our ass. And we learned how they played right, and we tried to make those adjustments.”
Of course, sometimes being the springboard for everyone else’s success doesn’t feel like getting a tutorial on how to improve so much as it teaches you what you don’t want.
“I’ve said to players and I've said to numerous people in our organization, I'm just tired of being the doormat of the National League,” said Diamondbacks reliever Kevin Ginkel, who has spent his whole career in the desert. “It's like, look, we've been overlooked our whole careers, this organization has, and now to be in this position that we're in, it's well deserved, and we're so hungry for more.”
Kevin Ginkel, K'ing the Side with Disgusting Sliders...and is Fired up.🔥 pic.twitter.com/dis5efg3tn
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 25, 2023
The impact of losing 100-plus games is apparent in the standings and in how it feels when another disappointing game is done. But it’s more than that — chronic losing also affects how players feel about the entire endeavor, how they come into the clubhouse and how they relate to one another. And since bad baseball presents the unique torture of subjecting its participants to six months of daily exposure to their own situation, it can be hard to not let the negativity spread.
“It can get very selfish in a losing team atmosphere. Guys are trying to protect their careers,” Sborz said. “You know the team's doing poorly, but if you're doing well, you might feel OK with it. Whereas when you're winning, I think most guys would take having a bad game for our team to win. [It’s] a little more selfless, especially in the playoffs.”
Christian Walker, Arizona’s first baseman and elder statesman who has been on the team since 2017, said it was the losing seasons that showed him how much better selfless baseball would be.
“I think you learn that winning is more important than everything else. Personal stuff aside, RBI aside, homer totals aside, career aside, like, showing up and winning games is what matters,” he said. “There was a stretch there — I think we lost maybe 12 or 15 straight one of those seasons — it's tough. I mean, you're praying for wins, you're begging for wins. It's like, I'll gladly strike out six times tonight if we go out and score 10 and win this game.”
Kelly, who said he and Walker in particular grew close during the difficult seasons, talked about how the logistical circumstances make it difficult to develop deep relationships on a bad team. There’s more roster churn as the front office searches for something to click.
“So I feel like in a situation like that, it's kind of hard to get that camaraderie when there's so many guys going in and out,” he said. “You try to get to know somebody, and then the next week he's gone. And then you try to get to know the next person, and the next week he's gone.”
Added Walker: “I think winning presents the opportunity to settle in and let the quirkiness and the fun personalities show up.”
Losing clubhouses are quiet. Not just after the games but quieter beforehand, too — fewer guys playing cards or shooting pool, less joking around, a lot more scrolling silently on phones.
“When we showed up to the field then, it was almost an expectation, like, ‘All right, how are we going to lose today?’” Kelly said. “Rather than this year, it's probably more of, 'How are we going to win?'”
In this World Series, both teams bring that perspective.
“So we're gonna take this, we're gonna enjoy this moment. We're not taking it for granted,” said Rangers catcher Jonah Heim, who was traded from Oakland to Texas just before his rookie season in 2021. “We've had a blast this year, and if we win four more games, we're probably going to have the best time of our lives.”