Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The World Baseball Classic

The World Baseball Classic is a marketing ploy. It is an attempt to spread MLB influence into worldwide markets, thus making more money for baseball. All discussions of the event must center around this fact.
It probably seems quite negative and cynical to start the discussion here, but there's a fine line between cynicism and realism. How much you care about the WBC depends mainly upon how you react to this essential truth. Major League Baseball is trying to create a huge event with little or no popular support, and it shows.
The MLB has been trying to work out something like this for a while, but the numerous practical issues always held it in check. The MLB basically made the decision to go ahead with it, hoping the momentum would eventually get all the facts to work themselves out. On one hand, I see their point; the WBC never would have happened if they tried to plan out all the details beforehand. It's much too far-flung a project to get everyone to agree on everything months in advance; it's simpler to present a fait accompli and then iron out the practicalities on the way. On the other hand, it's kind of like selling tickets to a movie that hasn't been made yet.
The practical issues are the major ones plaguing the WBC. The major one was: when should it be? There's a very thin window of opportunity between early November and opening day in late March. You've got Spring Training to deal with too, a pretty big obstacle. It can't really take place in November, or else it will overshadow (or be overshadowed by) the World Series. If it takes place in January, it will be facing off with the NFL playoffs, and if it takes place in March, it will be up against March Madness, two events the WBC couldn't even begin to put a promotional dent in. It was ultimately decided that the WBC would take place in March (specifically March 3-20), during Spring Training. The counterintuitiveness of this move, taking players from Spring Training, is bizarre, and an example of how badly the MLB wants this to happen.
Speaking of the players, that brings me to the second big problem: who will play, how much, and how hard? Gary Sheffield stated early that he wouldn't play for free; it's the kind of uncomfortably sensible thing Sheffield often says. The MLB will be making a mint from the WBC; can they really ask the players to play for nothing but patriotism? And will star players, especially pitchers, really want to risk injury in games that don't really count? Will they play hard, or will it be like a preseason All-Star Game? Pitch count limits have been imposed upon pitchers as a concession to the Players' Union and the individual teams. This means that if the US starts a big rally against Canadian closer Eric Gagne in the 9th inning of a big game, Gagne comes out after x number of pitches, even if he's got a 3-2 count on Jim Thome with the bases loaded. The pitch count limit, a practical necessity, will make for more than one decidedly undramatic pitching changes that the fans will not be happy about.
While most players have expressed their desire to play, many seem to be hesitant. Each day there's new word on who will or won't be playing. After flip-flopping, Alex Rodriguez has agreed to play for the US. But it came after what was essentially a PR campaign to weigh public reaction to his various options. Getting the players involved has been a much thornier issue, and while there are many stars confirmed to participate, it won't be the ultimate All-Star competition many are anticipating.
The third big issue involves the countries invited to participate. The essential problem here is that no one, read, no one outside of the native Dutch wants to see the Netherlands play. Other weak-sisters such as China, Chinese Taipei (don't ask me), South Africa, Australia, and Italy will make the first few rounds either boring games between unknowns or embarassing blowouts (US .vs. South Africa, anyone?).
But then the Bush Administration threw a big wrench in the plans by declining to allow Cuba to participate. While the politics of that move are dubious enough (Cuba is the bad communists, as opposed to those jolly Chinese communists and their freedom of speech and religion), it's a short-sighted political ploy that will only hurt the games more. There has been a good deal of public posturing, with the IBAF (International Baseball Federation, baseball's governing body) threatening that it won't sanction the WBC if Cuba can't play. Whether this would actually stop the WBC is unclear, but I haven't gotten any further word on the Cuba situation.

So basically, there are many ways that the WBC could become an embarassing disaster. Compounding all of this is the decidedly tepid response from American baseball fans, a group not nearly as passionate as their football and basketball counterparts. I don't really know how the WBC is going over in the other participating countries, but it's hard for me to see the WBC succeeding without America embracing it. This article has focused on the negative, yes, but it just seems reasonable to me that the problems far outweighy the potential for success. It would be different if all this were a noble cause worth fighting for, but I'm not anxious to help Bud Selig & Co. get even richer than they are, and that's really all the WBC would do.

Having said that, here's a preview of what the actual event will be (I'll probably watch some of it):

There are 4 pools of 4 countries each. The first round is a round-robin competition, with the top two teams from each pool advancing to the second round. The second round is also round-robin, with the two top teams from both pools advancing to the semifinals. The first-place teams from the two groups will face the second-place teams, with the winners advancing to the finals, March 20 at Petco Park in San Diego.

Here are the 4 1st-round pools, with a list of notable major leaguers scheduled to participate. There is not an official list of who has accepted and who hasn't, so it's still unclear who is actually going to play. Information on the participants is still a bit spotty on the internet:

China: (no one of note)
Chinese Taipei: (no one of note)
Japan: It's still unclear whether or not Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, or other Japanese stars in the MLB will participate. I believe that Matsui has declined, although I'm not sure. A Japanese team without Ichiro would be difficult to fathom, and would lose the attention of most Americans. The Japanese are considered to be favorites in this pool, with their stronger tradition and more advanced league play.
Korea: Hee Seop Choi, Chan Ho Park, Jae Seo, Sun-Woo Kim

Canada: Jason Bay (PIT), Erik Bedard (BAL), Justin Morneau (MIN), Corey Koskie (MIL), Jeff Francis (COL), Chris Reitsma (ATL)
Mexico: Nomar Garciaparra (LA), Esteban Loaiza (OAK), Oliver Perez (PIT), Vinny Castilla (SD), Elmer Dessens (KC)
South Africa: (no one of note)
United States: among others, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay (TOR), Tim Hudson (ATL), Dontrelle Willis (FLA), Andy Pettite (HOU), Brad Lidge (HOU), Billy Wagner (NYM), Derek Jeter (NYY), Chipper Jones (ATL), Derrek Lee (CHC), Alex Rodriguez (NYY), Mark Teixeira (TEX), Lance Berkman (HOU), Barry Bonds (SF), Johnny Damon (NYY), Ken Griffey, Jr. (CIN)
In my opinion, the USA has to be considered favorites. Teams like the Dominican can match their stars, but no one can match the depth. Of course, since each round is 4 games, depth is less important, so there's plenty of room for an upset.

Cuba: None of the Cuban major leaguers will play for them, as they have defected. If Cuba is gone, I can only guess that they will be replaced by someone else, although the cupboard is already a little bare, so to speak.
Netherlands: Andruw Jones, a native of Dutch Curacao, is the 0nly notable player here.
Panama: Carlos Lee (MIL), Bruce Chen (BAL)
Puerto Rico: Carlos Beltran (NYM), Carlos Delgado (NYM), Mike Lowell (BOS), Ivan Rodriguez (DET), Javier Vazquez (CWS), Bernie Williams (NYY) P.R. has to be considered favorites in this pool, as they also have a good many second-line players.

Australia: (no one of note)
Dominican Republic: Ronnie Belliard (CLE), Adrian Beltre (SEA), Bartolo Colon (LAA), Vladimir Guerrero (LAA), Pedro Martinez (NYM), David Ortiz (BOS), Albert Pujols (STL), Manny Ramirez (BOS), Alfonso Soriano (WSH), Miguel Tejada (BAL).
A team very capable of upsetting the US, with a fearsome middle of the order: Tejada-Vladimir-David Ortiz-Albert-Manny.
Italy: Most of the notable Italian players are Italian-Americans who, under international rules, are able to participate. These include David Dellucci (TEX) and Mike Piazza.
Venezuela: Bobby Abreu (PHI), Edgardo Alfonzo (LAA), Freddy Garcia (CWS), Carlos Guillen (DET), Melvin Mora (BAL), Francisco Rodriguez (LAA), Johan Santana (MIN), Carlos Silva (MIN), Omar Vizquel (SF), Carlos Zambrano (CHC)
A real sleeper team.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat interested in the WBC. And I certainly don't intend by this article to dismiss the growing international influence in baseball; I think it's truly fabulous and worth celebrating. But this is no such celebration; I only hope it isn't an abysmal flop.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bruce Sutter

The Hall of Fame called Bruce Sutter on Tuesday. The former ace reliever had been waiting quite a while, but finally got the call this year, his 13th of eligibility. While Sutter was one hell of a closer, I don't think he belongs in the Hall. I think our standard for closers is not quite what it should be if Sutter gets in, and especially if they induct Lee Smith anytime soon. The easiest way to look at this question is to determine whether or not Sutter is the best relief pitcher not in the Hall. I'm here to propose that he is not; that honor goes to Goose Gossage, and it's not really close. You can see Rob Neyer's comments here, much along the same lines. But I'm going to take a look at Sutter and Gossage and see just who really was better. Perhaps there's something I'm missing here.
Sutter was one of the pioneers of the split-finger fastball, and that is (in my mind) the main reason he was inducted ahead of Gossage. Sutter did not invent the pitch, and neither was he the first to throw it. He was simply the one who made it famous, hardly the kind of thing someone can be given credit for. But this is what makes Sutter stand out to the voters.
Sutter also had the reputation of being more of a big-game pitcher, as opposed to Gossage. I'm not sure this reputation is at all accurate; I think it stems from the way the two were used. Sutter (300) compiled fewer saves than Gossage (310), but he actually compiled a lot more per season; Sutter only played 12 years against 22 for Gossage. So Sutter was getting more saves per year, although using saves in any sort of argument says more about the way a pitcher was used, rather than how good said pitcher actually was.
The best argument for Sutter (in my opinion) is that he had bigger seasons. Sutter's best seasons were better than Gossage's. Sutter's 1977 with the Cubs (1.34 ERA, 31 saves and 129 K in 107.1 IP) is better than anything Gossage ever did. Gossage's best season was, believe it or not, 1977 with the Pirates. He posted a 1.84 ERA with 26 saves and 151 K in 133 IP. It's a tough call, but Sutter's was the better season, in my opinion. Sutter won a Cy Young Award and Gossage did not, which would seem to confirm this theory, although Cy Young voting is spotty at best. By my own accounts, Sutter was the best pitcher in the NL twice: 1977 and gain in 1984 with St. Louis. Gossage was never the best pitcher in the league; I think he was the 2nd-best pitcher in 1977, behind Sutter himself. This is an important point; Sutter was, at his best, probably a better pitcher than Gossage, if not by a whole lot.

Gossage may not have the edge in quality; but he has the edge in quantity. In fact, Gossage pitched so very much more than Sutter that it overwhelms the small edge in quality. Here's a mini-chart to illustrate the differences between the two (RSAA stands for Runs Saved Above Average; WARP1 for Wins Above Replacement Player):
Sutter: 3 great seasons, 3 good seasons, 2 average seasons, 12 seasons total
Gossage: 3 great seasons, 5 good seasons, 3 average seasons, 22 seasons total
Sutter: 1042.1 career IP, 2.83 career ERA, 134 career ERA+
Gossage: 1809.1 IP, 3.01 career ERA, 124 career ERA+
Sutter: 168 career Win Shares, 123 career RSAA, 54.5 WARP1
Gossage: 223 career Win Shares, 160 career RSAA, 83.8 WARP1

Pay special attention to the last two. Win Shares represent how much a player contributed to his team's wins over his career. WS give Gossage a huge edge, despite the fact that (as the career ERA shows), Sutter was slightly more effective per inning. WS show Gossage as a whopping 33% more effective than Sutter. The RSAA adjusts for amount of playing time; a great player in a short career can outperform a good player over a long career just by being more above-average; it's a more accurate measure of a pitcher's overall career effectiveness. It has Gossage 30% more effective. WARP1 is an absurdly complex measure developed by Baseball Prospectus that attempts to take everything into account. It has Gossage an amazing 54% more effective.
What about intangibles? Is there anything we're not taking into account here? Neither man had a reputation as either a great leader or great troublemaker; it's hard to argue leadership in anyone's favor. As far as postseason performance, Sutter pitched in one postseason: the 1982 playoffs. He threw 4.1 IP in St. Louis' NLCS win over Atlanta, but posted a 4.70 ERA against Milwaukee in the World Series (which St. Louis won anyway). So Sutter has a 3.00 ERA in 12 postseason innings. I don't see that he deserves any special credit for that, as it's right in line with his regular season performance, and there's nothing to suggest that he was inordinately instrumental in the Cardinals' 1982 World Series win.
Gossage appeared in 4 postseasons: 3 with the Yankees (1978, 1980, 1981) and one with San Diego (1984). Gossage allowed only 2 runs in the 1978 postseason (throwing 6 shutout innings in the World Series). He got hammered in the 1980 ALCS, albeit in just 1/3 of an inning (3 H, 2 ER). Gossage threw 14.1 IP of shutout baseball in the 1981 playoffs, blanking the Brewers (ALDS), A's (ALCS) and Dodgers (WS). That's a pretty amazing performance. 1984 was more forgettable, however, as he allowed 6 runs in 6.2 IP. All told, Gossage possesses a 2.87 postseason ERA, with 8 saves and 29 K in 31.1 IP. He didn't have the reputation, but he was a better overall postseason performer than Sutter, although it must be said that Sutter played for generally worse teams.
This broad sampling of the stats we have at our disposal (from a variety of sources) shows that Gossage isn't just better than Sutter -- he's obscenely better. If it were much closer, we might be able to make an argument for Sutter based on intangibles. As it is, there's just no reason to believe that Sutter deserves to go into the Hall ahead of Gossage.
The voters think of Sutter and they think of the fearsome split-finger. So they vote for him. They don't think of Gossage as being as fearsome, so he stays out. This is mainly because of chance; injuries ended Sutter's career at the age of 35, meaning he didn't stick around long after he was effective (although he did spend 3 very disappointing years in Atlanta). Gossage played until he was 43; it's one of the reasons he's so much more valuable than Sutter. But Gossage had his last good year in 1985 and didn't retire until after the 1994 season. So the voters' most recent memory of Gossage is of the has-been sticking around long after he was effective; whereas Sutter still retains that magic place in their memories.
The psychology of making poor decisions is better explained by psychologists; but suffice to say that making snap judgments and actively ignoring evidence aren't the ticket to respectability. All of this evidence took me less than an hour to unearth, an hour that I guarantee less than 20% of the voters took out of their day. The voters trust their memories more than they trust the objective evidence, which is a sure ticket to folly. But try telling them that. There's nothing else the sabermetricians can say, scream though we might.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

1969 Expansion

The two leagues probably would have expanded again at some point in the future no matter what; with the allure of new markets and the challenges faced from football and basketball, baseball business dictated a move to more markets. But the 1969 expansion was the primary result of one thing: the Athletics' departure from Kansas City.
With the Kansas City Athletics posting forgettable seasons to an ever-dwindling fanbase, A's owner Charlie Finley, ever stirring the pot, threatened to move his team. Finley's sworn enemies (the other owners) weren't too keen on letting him move about at his behest, but Finley held the owners to vague promises made in the past with the threat of a lawsuit. After a 62-99 1967 season, the AL approved the transfer of the A's to Oakland.
The move incurred the wrath of several influential Missourians, most notably Senator Stuart Symington. With renewed threats to look into baseball's antitrust exemption, AL president Joe Cronin gave the city vague assurances that they would receive an expansion team by the 1971 season. The promise did nothing to stem the tide of discontent, so Cronin scrambled together a measure to move up the expansion date to 1969, just 2 years (and the 1968 season) away.
The proposal was for a new franchise in Kansas City along with a new one in Seattle. To avoid the inconvenience of a 12-team league with 6 or 7 hopeless non-contenders, the decision was made to split the league into two divisions, East and West. The new AL alignment would look like this:
AL East:
Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
New York Yankees
Washington Senators

AL West:
California Angels
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
Milwaukee Brewers
Minnesota Twins
Seattle Pilots

The new plan would add a new round of playoffs: The League Championship Series. The two division winners would face each other in a best-of-5 playoff series to determine who would play in the World Series (the LCS wasn't expanded to a best-of-7 format until 1985). The divisional format and second round of playoffs annoyed many purists, but it was mostly looked upon as a welcome way to bring attention back to baseball. It must be noted that these changes were in conjunction with the measures taken after the 1968 season (the Year of the Pitcher) to shift the balance back to the hitters. It was all a plan to make baseball more interesting.
The plan was not taken in concert with the National League, this being the days before the two league offices were unified. The NL was concerned that the AL was creating two mini-leagues all its own. The NL's response was to follow the AL's lead and add two new expansion teams, adopting the two-division format as well.
There had been rumblings in the past about possibly locating a major league team in Montreal, the site of the Dodgers' successful minor league team. The Dodgers had always wanted the city for its own, but the super-powerful Walter O'Malley volunteered the city for a new NL team in 1969 (for a small consideration). San Diego was chosen as the other city, the NL looking to snatch up its large market before the AL did.
The National League in 1969 would therefore look like this:
NL East:
Chicago Cubs
Montreal Expos
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

NL West:
Atlanta Braves
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants

Many remarked on the odd geography expressed in the divisional alignment, placing the Braves in the western division while the Cubs were in the East. It was basically done at the behest of league powers Chicago and Atlanta, looking to continue lucrative rivalries and retain optimal television coverage. Such were the priorities of the National League that it stuck Chicago in the East basically so WGN could air more games from the east at earlier times, rather than showing games from the west that started after Chicagoans were already in bed.
Thus the 1969 season opened, a watershed year in many regards. The two new divisions altered the texture of pennant races, making it easier for teams to contend and erasing the old idea of a "second division" team. The new playoff round also made it tougher for teams to dominate the postseason, creating more drama and more opportunity for the underdog to succeed.
We'll begin with the team that indirectly started all the mess. It's also the team that is, without question, the best of the four (recent years notwithstanding).

Kansas City Royals
The Royals really were the team that legitimized expansion. While the Mets and even the Astros experienced long, fallow periods before becoming legitimate contenders, the Royals took less than a decade to formulate what could arguably be called a dynasty; had a few postseasons gone a bit differently, the Royals could have been a team for the ages. As it is, they were pretty amazing anyway. Too bad that the past 10 years have turned the once-noble franchise into a laughingstock.
The 1969 Royals posted a disappointing 69-93 record, but it was good enough for 4th place in the newly-created AL West, ahead of the White Sox and the hapless Seattle Pilots. The team hadn't yet begun the process of forming a contender, but it set a good precedent early in the season when the team traded for Lou Pineilla; the talented outfielder had been given up on by no less than 4 teams (and twice by the Indians) before ending up in Kansas City. But he made the trade (for Steve Whitaker and John Gelnar) look like a steal when he nabbed the AL Rookie of the Year Award, on his way to a successful career. It established very early on the relative status of the expansion-mates the Royals and the Pilots.
While the Pilots fell apart, the Royals set off on the road to being competitive. The team managed to finish 4th again in 1970 and shot up to 2nd in 1971. In fact, the team wouldn't finish in last place until 1996. The 2nd-place 1971 team showed the beginnings of a great team; the Royals succeeded in producing stars from their farm system and in acquiring (as with Pineilla) underappreciated talents from other organizations. A good example would be young center fielder Amos Otis, one of the 1971 team's top stars. Otis came up with the Mets around the time they became good; but the Mets thought so little of them that they traded him (along with Bob Johnson) to Kansas City for The Immortal Joe Foy. Foy's career was basically done, whereas Otis would become a stable anchor of a winning franchise for years to come. Other future stars on the 1971 team were the middle-infield combo of Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek and young lefthander Paul Splittorff, who spent his entire career in Kansas City, winning 166 games in 15 seasons.
After a disappointing 1972, the Royals made it back to 2nd in 1973, but then sank to 5th in 1974. It looked like a good team, but they were in the same division as the dynastic Oakland A's and had a long way to go if they wanted to make the postseason.
The seeds were sown in 1975; the most obvious change was the firing of manager Jack McKeon, who was replaced by Whitey Herzog. The team skyrocketed to a 91-71 record, just 7 games behind the now-mortal Athletics. To put that in perspective, the Seattle Pilots had already gone out of business, moved to Milwaukee, and finished 1975 in 5th place at 68-94. Neither the Expos nor the Padres won more than 75 games that year.
The team that took the field in 1975 was the nucleus of what would be a powerhouse. Joining Otis in the outfield were Hal McRae, a fine hitter and team leader, and capable Al Cowens. Rojas and Patek in the infield were complemented by slugging first baseman John Mayberry and third base phenom George Brett. Brett arrived in the majors in 1973, returned the next year and hit .282, and in 1975 became a star. A capable defender at third, Brett was one of the best hitters in baseball during the 1980's and one of the two or three best third basemen ever. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, having spent his entire 21-year career with the Royals.

But it was the pitching staff that anchored the team; a deep collection of quality arms that would keep getting replenished through the early 80's. Already on the staff were capable if unspectacular hurlers like Splittorff, Dennis Leonard and Steve Busby. The team would be further strengthened in the 70's with the emergence of second baseman Frank White, outfield speedster Willie Wilson, as well as starting pitcher Larry Gura and ace closer Dan Quisenberry.
The year after their surprising second-place finish, the Royals went to the next level in 1976; their 90-72 record may have been a bit disappointing, but it was good enough for 1st place with the ragged A's on the way down. They faced Billy Martin's Yankees in the ALCS, and the two teams fought a very close series. They split the first four games, and the decisive Game 5 came down to the 9th inning, where Yankee Chris Chambliss broke a 6-6 tie with a walk-off, pennant-winning home run.
The Royals went from a marginal 1st-place team to a truly dominant one in 1977, when they went 102-60, the best record in baseball. Again it was a close ALCS against the Yankees, going the full 5 games, and again it was decided in the final at bat. The Royals led 3-2 going into the 9th at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, whereupon the Yankees scored 3 to take the lead and, eventually, the game.
1978 was -- frustratingly -- more of the same. The Royals won the division with relative ease and again lost to an arguably weaker Yankee team in the ALCS, this time in 4 games. The Royals were turning into one of the league's powerhouses, but no one really seemed to care, because they always failed in October.
The Royals fell further in 1979, eventually losing out a close race in the AL West to the Angels, finishing 3 games back in 2nd place. But on the strength of George Brett's .390 batting average, the 1980 team won 97 games and ran away with the AL West. They faced their old foes the Yankees once again, but this time was sweet revenge as the Royals swept the Bronx team out of the playoffs in the ALCS. The World Series was another story. Kansas City faced off against the eternally hapless Philadelphia Phillies, another team with some October curses to break. The Royals won 3 division titles in 3 years, but never won a pennant. The Phillies had them beat, though -- the Phillies had won 3 pennants in 97 years, and were the only team (of the original 16 MLB franchises) with no world title. The Royals would have to wait to exorcise their demons, as the Phillies won their only World Championship in 6 games.
1981 showed more October woes; the Royals won the second half of the split-season AL West and faced the first-half winners, the Oakland A's, in an extra round of playoffs. The A's swept them, and that was that. Under new manager Dick Howser, the Royals went on to two straight second-place finishes. It looked like their time might be up as, with the exception of Brett and the brilliant Quisenberry, the players were either getting older (McRae, Otis) or just leaving town (Mayberry, Cowens). Their lackluster 84-78 record in 1984 was good enough for the AL West crown (the AL West not being the toughest of divisions at the time), and the Royals were predictably dispatched from the playoffs in a mismatched ALCS sweep at the hands of the Tigers.
But 1985 was the Royals' year. With veterans such as Brett and White and trade acquisitions Lonnie Smith and Charlie Leibrandt, the Royals put together a pitching extravaganza. Not only was Quisenberry at the top of his game, along with farmhands Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson, the Royals saw the emergence of Cy Young Award-winner Bret Saberhagen. "Sabes" went 20-6, posting a 2.87 ERA and 158 strikeouts against just 38 walks.
The postseason was a memorable one of amazing comebacks. The ALCS against Bobby Cox's Toronto team looked lost when the Royals fell to a 3-games-to-1 deficit. But the Royals bore down, allowing only 7 runs over the last 3 games, to complete an amazing ALCS comeback win. (As a note, 1985 was the first year the ALCS expanded to 7 games. If it had been played under the previous 5-game format, the Blue Jays would have won, 3 games to 1).
The World Series was a remarkable repeat of the ALCS. The "I-95 Series," so called because of the highway connecting Kansas City and St. Louis, saw the Cardinals jump out to a big 3-games-to-1 lead. It was a poignant accomplishment for St. Louis manager Herzog, fired from the Royals for his postseason futility. But Howser's Royals staged yet another comeback. Danny Jackson picked up a complete-game victory, allowing just 1 run in Game 5. Game 6 was a pitcher's duel, with the Cardinals leading 1-0 going into the bottom of the 9th. But first-base umpire Don Denkinger made a terrible call on a force play at first involving Jorge Orta. It would live in St. Louis infamy, as first baseman Jack Clark followed it up by dropping an easy foul pop-up. The Royals came back to win, 2-1, forcing a Game 7. Their ace, Saberhagen, shut out the Cardinals on 5 hits, but it was academic, as the Royals scored 11 runs. Some wondered if the Cardinals had actually showed up after the tough Game 6 loss. The tough call saw Herzog ejected from the game, a World Series rarity ( I think, but cannot confirm, that Bobby Cox is the only other manager to be ejected from a World Series game, although John McGraw is a good possibility).
For players like White, Brett, and Wilson, it was the thrilling end to a tough journey which saw the Royals win lots of games with no respect, at least until 1985. Other tough spots the Royals survived: the sale of the club by original owner Ewing Kauffman to Memphis real estate developer Avron Fogelman and the saga of Charlie Lau, a hitting coach so popular with his players that he got fired for allegedly usurping the authority of the manager. But the toughest moment in Kansas City sports was the implication of Wilson, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, and Jerry Martin in a state cocaine investigation. The players plea-bargained down to 3 months in prison, and the team severed ties with all but Wilson (who left the club after the 1990 season as a free agent).
Unfortunately, the glory years of the franchise were over. Despite the presence of Saberhagen and the still-potent Brett, the club was unsuccessful at developing young players, and their small payroll inhibited their ability to chase free agents. There were some hopes along the way, with the emergence of Kevin Seitzer (who never replicated his early years of excellence) and Bob Hamelin, the 1994 AL Rookie of the Year who proved to be a textbook one-year wonder.
Despite switching managers, the team couldn't avoid the spiral into consecutive 6th-place finishes in 1990 and 1991. The latter club hired former team leader McRae as manager, hoping he could return the club to respectability. It looked like he was off to a good start; he eventually led the team to the admittedly relative victory of consecutive 3rd-place finishes in 1993 and 1994. McRae's outbursts, along with the belief that the team could do better, led to his dismissal after the '94 season. While the franchise was able to come up with some good young players, such as Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon, and Brian McRae, their success on the free agent market was mixed (with good players such as Wally Joyner along with busts like Vince Coleman). There was also the fact that the team drafted David Cone (1981), traded him away (1987), got him back (1992), and then traded him away again (1995), as if the presence of a very good pitcher wasn't a good idea.
In 1995, new manager Bob Boone got the Royals to second place in the brand new AL Central. The bad news was that the team was 70-74, 30 games behind the 1st-place Indians (no 1st-place team had ever finished 30 games above the 2nd-place team).
It was all downhill from there. Whereas the Royals of the early 90's had the presence of a few good players to at least make them respectable, the descent into awfuldom happened pretty quickly after 1995. New manager Tony Muser took over in 1997 and guided the team 3rd place, 4th, 4th, and 5th before getting fired (why it took them so long, no one knows). The team's tightwad ownership, barren farm system, and dimwitted free agent signees all contributed to the franchise's first-ever 100-loss season, a 62-100 2002. The Royals were overmatched not just on the field, but in the front office, where they got fleeced out of budding stars such as Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon by A's GM Billy Beane for precious little in return.
But the Royals had a franchise player in good-hitting first baseman Mike Sweeney and signed him to a long-term contract in order to give fans some reason to attend games. Sweeney was a fine hitter, but injury troubles made him little more than a blight on the team's payroll by 2003. That, along with organization's insistence on free agents such as Jose Offerman, Juan Gonzalez, and Jose Lima helped make the Royals one of the poorest franchises in all of baseball by 2005, when they posted a franchise-worst 56-106 record. It looked like they had things turned around in 2003, when the team went 83-79 under energetic manager Tony Pena, but the performance turned out to be a mirage. Its worst effect was making management think the team was much better than it was, meaning trading away the wrong people, etc. with the result being the aforementioned 2005 disaster.
The Royals' activity this off-season mirrors the approach in recent years; they spend their free agent money on about 4 or 5 bottom-of-the barrel free agents, with the net effect being almost nothing to the team. Instead of investing in the farm system or signing a good, young player, the Royals obtain a couple dozen Mark Redmans, Doug Mientkiewiczs and Joe Mayses for very little money. They do have some good young talent, but the Royals have always had somebody good and young around. What happens is that the good young players stick around until they become free agents and leave, or they get traded away because management can't afford them. Until GM Allard Baird takes a hike or at least gets a brain transplant, the Royals are doomed to last-place in an increasingly competitive AL Central.

Next from 1969 will be the Seattle Pilots. Then a look at the Expos and Padres.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

Friday, January 06, 2006

1962: Houston Astros

Considering that the Astros are one of the best expansion franchises in baseball, they have had remarkably little luck in the postseason, and are therefore rarely thought of as one of the NL's stronger franchises. However, since their inception in 1962, the Astros have posted a .500 winning percentage (they're actually 3497-3503, just barely under .500). The only expansion franchise in all of baseball with a better record is the Arizona Diamondbacks (.503 Win. %), who've only existed for 8 seasons. But the Astros didn't win a postseason series until 2004, and they didn't win an NL pennant until 2005. They still haven't won a World Series, making them the oldest NL franchise still without a world title (the AL Senators/Rangers are a year older and still trophy-less).
But the Astros have been one of the more stable winners in the National League for most of their existence. They've never matched their expansion-mates the Mets for drama or sheer number of characters, but a lot of good baseball (and baseball players) have passed through the Lone Star State since 1962.
As one of the more active teams in the Continental League lobbying, the city of Houston was able to secure a National League franchise in the 1962 NL expansion. With many of the original supporters unable to fully bankroll the operation, it was left to Robert E. Smith, "the richest man in Texas," to step in and foot the bill. Smith brought along his associate, Judge Roy Hofheinz. Hofheinz's personality was such that Gabe Paul, hired away from the Reds to run Houston's baseball operations, resigned the team rather than work with him, the ink not yet dry on his 3-year contract.
Public relations man George Kirksey, a major player in the Houston Sports Association that lobbied for the team, stayed on under Hofheinz and had a hand in setting up the franchise. Kirksey handled negotiations to bring in Paul Richards, the force behind the rejuvenation of the Orioles in the late 50's, to replace Paul as GM. Kirksey also made a deal with the Colt Firearms Company to call the new team the Colt .45s. Smith and Hofheinz preferred to let the fans decide in a poll, but with Kirksey running the vote, the name chosen by the fans was, amazingly enough, the Colt .45s. Seeking to portray a Wild West/Texas image, Kirksey didn't see anything wrong with naming the team after a handgun, even when that meant that the uniforms would look like this.
In the expansion draft, Richards decided to leave the more familiar names to the Mets and concentrated on young players. This meant that while Houston fans may not have been enthusiastic about the presence of "legends" like Bob Aspromonte and Ken Johnson, the Astros had a much better foundation for building their franchise. So while the Mets were reaching new levels of awfuldom, the Astros were doing an admirable job of locating young players. What they weren't so good at was keeping them. More on that later.
A 64-96 finish may not sound very encouraging, but it was good enough for 8th place in the 1962 NL, ahead of the Cubs and the woeful Mets. The Astros had a pretty low-level offense, but did have some solid pitching. They didn't have any aces, but starting pitcher Turk Farrell (10-20, but a 3.02 ERA) and closer Don McMahon (1.53 ERA) had decent careers.

The lack of offense was magnified by the Colts' home park, Colt Stadium. While the AstroDome was already being planned, the Colts needed someplace to play and ended up in the most temporary of temporary stadiums. The biggest problem wasn't the Texas heat (which was oppressive), but the presence of giant mosquitoes. The grounds crew had to spray mosquito repellant during half-innings, and the ballpark was forever after known as Mosquito Heaven.
For the rest of the 1960's, the team scraped across, never finishing higher than 8th place. They were considered a relative success compared to the Mets, but weren't able to get off the ground. When a new manager failed to produce a winning season in the team's first season in the AstroDome (1965), GM Richards was out, fired by now-majority owner Hofheinz. Total Ballclubs tells a story about Richards being interviewed about Hofheinz, 20 years after his dismissal. The reporter asked if Hofheinz was his own worst enemy, and Richards replied, "Not while I'm alive he isn't."
The move into the AstroDome coincided with the team's redubbing as the Houston Astros. With the high-tech facility and Houston's growing reputation as the headquarters of NASA, the team replaced the smoking gun with the idea of the space-age turbo jet. It was better than the gun, but it resulted in these infamous uniforms.
Houston's second-division finishes disguised a team that was building up a strong nucleus of young talent. Among the star hitters developed by the Astro system during the late 60's were Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, and Jerry Grote. The pitching prospects included Larry Dierker, Mike Cuellar and Don Wilson. With the exception of Wynn, Dierker, and Wilson, all these players would spend their best years away from Houston, sent off in ill-advised trades.
But these young talents stayed around long enough to turn the Astros into a first-division team. Under new General Manager Spec Richardson and manager Harry "The Hat" Walker, the Astros jumped to a 5th-place finish in 1969. This was largely due to their move to the 6-team NL West, but it was also their first non-losing season (81-81). After competitive years in 1970 and 1971, the Astros made a run of it in 1972, finishing ( a distant) 2nd to the Reds. That was their peak; for while the Astros were usually competitive and never as bad as the Mets, they were never able to keep together their core group of talent long enough to make a run at the Reds and Dodgers.
Part of the problem was the Astros' difficult relationship with their players. One of the reasons the Astros traded Morgan is that they considered him a "troublemaker." This image was dispelled when Morgan went on to become a team leader (and 2-time MVP) with the Big Red Machine, causing some to wonder whether Morgan's race may have influenced his being so depicted. The Morgan trade came about because Richardson felt that the team needed a power hitter to be competitive; the cavernous, airless AstroDome was a pitcher's paradise; one of the best pitcher's parks in the post-war era. It made good pitchers look great and kept more than one hitter (Jose Cruz and Jimmy Wynn, to start) from being recognized as true superstars.
So the Astros traded Morgan, along with infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister and pitcher Jack Billingham, to Cincinnati for slugger Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart. The trade helped turn the Reds into a dynasty and embarassed the Astros. May was a good slugger, but his poor OBP made him a bad investment, and once inside the AstroDome a lot of his home runs turned into long outs.
The 1975 season was the end of the beginning; it marked the last time an Astro team posted a winning percentage below .400 (.398, or 64-97). It saw former Pirate Bill Virdon take over as manager, a move that would eventually get the Astros into the postseason. After revelations of mounting debt, Hofheinz was out in the front office, and Tal Smith eventually stepped in to run baseball 0perations.
The season got off to a terrible start when pitcher Don Wilson was found dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The team insisted that the death was accidental, and only afterwards did stories of Wilson's depression emerge, leaving suicide as the most likely explanation.
The team was building a new core of young talent in their run towards the 1980s. Along with the aforementioned Cruz was center field sensation Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno emerged in 1972 as one of the best all-around players in the league, drawing comparisons to Willie Mays. He hit for average, hit for good power, drew walks, played good defense, and stole bases. Tragically, injury would stop what looked to be a Hall-of-Fame career, along with the specter of a manslaughter charge involving the death of his girlfriend.
The lineup, supplemented by ace hitter Bob Watson, right fielder Terry Puhl and a free agent Joe Morgan (now past his prime) helped support a very strong pitching staff. Along with relievers Joe Sambito and Dave Smith, the Astros sported one of the league's best rotations. Stars such as Joe Niekro and Ken Forsch were supplemented in 1980 by the free agent acquisition of native Texan Nolan Ryan. Ryan left his best years in Anaheim, but was still a major force not just on the mound, but in legitimizing this young team in the eyes of baseball fans everywhere.
The most electrifying member of the mound staff, however, was probably J.R. Richard. The 6'8" right-hander burst onto the scene in 1975, striking out 176 batters in 20 innings (along with 138 walks). The fireballer looked like another Ryan, dominating hitters with record numbers of strikeouts (and walks). Richard had struck out more than 300 batters for 2 straight years in 1978-1979, a feat matched by only 5 other pitchers in history. He looked on his way to more success in 1980, but was shockingly felled by a stroke that ended his playing career at the age of 30. The Astros came under criticism for ignoring early signs of Richard's condition, with stories in the papers claiming the Astros felt he was "too lazy."
Even with all the turmoil, the Astros succeeded in 1980, taking over the NL West. They went into Dodger Stadium for the final 3 games of the season, needing just 1 win to eliminate Los Angeles and clinch the division. Amazingly, the Astros lost all 3, but did win a playoff game to secure their first-ever postseason birth. What followed was an amazingly tense NLCS against the Phillies, with the series going the full 5 games, the last 4 all being extra-inning affairs. But the Astros came up short, falling to the Phillies 3-2.
The Astros added free agent Don Sutton in 1981 and returned to the postseason, winning the NL West in the second half of the season, a further playoff round added due to the midseason players' strike. Houston faced the Dodgers and won Game 1, but then lost three straight to drop out of the postseason.
With the team composed of older free agents such as Sutton and Ryan, they failed to develop new stars in the mid-80s, and the team returned to also-ran status. A new batch of hitters such as Kevin Bass, Bill Doran and Glenn Davis helped the team take a surprising NL West title in 1986. But the biggest surprise was the emergence of ace Mike Scott. After learning the split-finger fastball from Roger Craig, Scott became (if only for a short while), one of the NL's best pitchers. Scott took home the 1986 NL Cy Young Award by leading the league with a 2.22 ERA and 306 strikeouts. In the NLCS, Scott was the biggest hero the Astros had. Facing the 108-win Mets, the Astros fought hard in perhaps the best NLCS ever. It went only 6 games, but the 16-inning decisive 6th game was one for the ages. Scott made two starts and threw two complete games, allowing just 1 run overall, but the Astros still lost the series. Scott was named the NLCS MVP regardless. Now the Astros were beginning to look like more than an unlucky team; they were beginning to look like chokers.
The team went back to its also-ran status for the remainder of the 1980's, even finishing last in 1991 for the first time in 16 years. What eventually led the team back to respectability were 4 things: Drayton McLane's purchase of the team in 1992, Gerry Hunsicker getting the job of the GM in 1995, and the emergence of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.
The very definition of franchise players, Bagwell and Biggio came to the Astros in roundabout ways; Biggio came to the club as a catcher in 1988, but was such a good hitter and runner that the team moved him to second base to prolong his career. Bagwell came out of the Boston organization, but showed little of his characteristic power in the minors; he came to Houston in a trade for relief pitcher Larry Andersen, a truly lopsided swap. Bagwell came to the majors in 1991, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and never looked back. Both men are first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, and Biggio is one of the 6 or 7 best second basemen of all time.
The Astros climbed back to respectability, claiming three straight 2nd-place finishes in the newly-formed NL Central from 1994 to 1996. The Astros won the NL Central in 1997 thanks to what were now known as the "Killer Bs" of Bagwell, Biggio, and Derrek Bell. Equally important was a mound staff anchored by Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile, and the rise to fame of ace closer Billy Wagner. But all that earned them was an NLDS sweep at the hands of the Braves.
This would be the story of the Astros. They had fine teams; some of the NL's best in the late 90's and early 00's. But they were woeful in the playoffs, losing early usually to the Braves, as shown here:
1997: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Braves 3-0
1998: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Padres 3-1
1999: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Braves 3-1
2001: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Braves 3-0
It was starting to look like a blight on HOFers Biggio and Bagwell that they never performed well in the postseason. The run of frustration cost former Astro Dierker his job as manager, despite having won 4 division titles in 5 years as manager. The team hired Jimy Williams, and has finished in 2nd place every year since.
But nowadays, 2nd place does not preclude a postseason berth. The Astros amazed everyone in 2004 by zooming past the fading Cubs and Giants to snatch the NL Wild Card on the last day of the season. This was despite the fact that many considered them out of the race by mid-summer. The team had traded disappointing closer Octavio Dotel to Oakland as part of a 3-team deal that netted them Kansas City slugger Carlos Beltran. Beltran had a career year in 2004, and saved his best stuff for the Astros, but it looked like he was nearly alone. The Astros had an excellent hitter in Lance Berkman (a new Killer B developed from the farm system), but the team as a whole was sluggish. Injuries plagued the starting rotation, shorn up by the presence of Roger Clemens and young phenom Roy Oswalt. The starting lineup was boosted by free agent second baseman Jeff Kent, but it was a decidedly old team. It was thus to everyone's surprise when they streaked to the Wild Card.
The Astros drew the Braves again in the NLDS, and it looked like it would be the same story all over again. But the Astros rode strong pitching past the Braves in 5 games, marking their first-ever postseason series win. They would go on to the NLCS against the Cardinals. Despite facing what was realistically a much better team, the Astros challenged the Cardinals in a dramatic 7-game series that eventually saw St. Louis victorious.
2005 was an oddly similar tale; the loss of Beltran and Kent to free agency, combined with injuries to Bagwell, made the Astros seem doomed. The Houston Chronicle even published a picture of a tombstone, pronouncing the Astros' season dead. But in yet another miracle charge under manager Phil Garner, the team zipped to another close Wild Card, beating the Phillies with a win on the last day of the season.
It was the Braves again in the NLDS, and the Astros were victorious in 4 games this time, although it took an 18-inning barnburner to decide it in Game 4. The 'Stros exorcised some more old demons when they rode Oswalt's arm to victory over the Cardinals in the NLCS, winning their first-ever NL pennant. With Andy Pettitte healthy and Clemens as dominant as ever, it looked like it might be the Astros' year. But luck was not on their side in the World Series, as they fell victim to a Chicago White Sox sweep. It was, along with the 1950 Series, the closest sweep in Series history in terms of being outscored, but that was small consolation.
The Astros look to 2006 with mixed feelings. The offensive cupboard is bare; Biggio has little left and Bagwell is all but finished. Apart from Berkman and third base phenom Morgan Ensberg, the Astros (as evidenced in the postseason) aren't going to score many runs. Their pitching staff, anchored by Oswalt, Pettite and ace closer Brad Lidge, is excellent, but the (possible) loss of Roger Clemens is big. A lot will depend on the farm system. While it may take a while to see the effects, we must remember that the Astros have developed one of the most fruitful farm systems of any expansion team, and have always managed to return to glory in the past.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

Monday, January 02, 2006

NL Expansion: 1962

The National League in 1962 had every reason to expand. Not only had the AL just expanded for the 1961 season, but every factor weighing upon the AL weighed upon the NL to some extent. But if there was one single factor behind the NL's 1962 expansion, it was a man not unused to changing the face of baseball: Branch Rickey.
The vacuum created in New York when the Giants and Dodgers left led to the formation of a group seeking to bring more baseball to the Big Apple. According to David Nevard, baseball rules were set up in such a way as to make the establishment of a new league more feasible than the addition of one or two teams. With this in mind, a committtee was formed to establish a new major league, the Continental League. It was headed by New York lawyer William Shea. The public face chosen to lead the new league? None other than Branch Rickey, the former Dodger executive responsible for modern integration.
The realities were that the league never stood a realistic chance. Not only were the AL and NL very cool towards the idea of a challenge in power, but the fact of the matter was that most good players in North America were controlled by the 16 existing teams. The Continental League folded in August of 1960.
But the challenge put forth by the league was significant. It exploited a huge opening in the New York market for a second baseball team as well as the opportunities created in "new" cities such as Houston, Toronto, Denver, and Atlanta. It's unclear how much Rickey and Shea were sincerely trying to make a new league or whether they were simply forcing the slow-footed owners to expand. Whatever their motives, the tactic worked. With every other factor taken into account, the NL chose to expand for the 1962 season, matching the AL with 10 teams. The New York franchise, awarded to Shea, was to be called the Mets (after the old AA Metropolitans) in the hands of principal owner Joan Payson. The other franchise would be the Houston Colt .45s, awarded to "the richest man in Texas," Robert E. Smith. The residue of the Continental League was evident in Shea's control of the Mets (who in 1964 moved into Shea Stadium) and in the presence of virtually the same Houston franchise that would have been in the Continental League. Oh, and Rickey would run baseball operations for the Mets.
So began the 1962 baseball season, with the National League sporting two new teams. What followed would be the stuff of great legend, myth, and folly . . .

New York Mets
It wasn't just the presence of former Dodger executive Rickey that made the Mets a National League throwback. Met executives went out of their way to associate themselves with New York baseball history in any way possible. This came from their selection of Rickey as GM and Casey Stengel as manager right down to the choice of uniform colors: Giant orange and Dodger blue.
Rickey's time as GM was quite short. Owner Payson and club chairman M. Donald Grant were not willing to give Rickey full control nor were they ready to spend what he saw as neccesary to field a contender. So Rickey was out in favor of former Yankee executive and future Hall-of-Famer George Weiss. As a man who played an instrumental role in building the Yankee dynasty under Casey Stengel, Weiss came with impeccable credentials.
It wasn't just Stengel's presence that made the team seem like a Frankenstein's monster of past NL teams: also taking the field were former Yankees Johnny Murphy and Whitey Herzog along with former Dodgers Gil Hodges, Charlie Neal, Don Zimmer, Roger Craig, and Clem Labine. The franchise's early rosters were truly infested with way-over-the-hill stars such as Duke Snider, Warren Spahn, Richie Ashburn and Yogi Berra in an attempt to find established names, often at the cost 0f on-field quality.
Speaking of on-field quality, how about those 1962 Mets? Truly good players on the team were hard to come by, prompting Stengel to question "Can't anybody play this here game?" The short answer was no. Other than still-potent hitters Ashburn and Frank Thomas, the team was a vast collection of, according to Don Zimmer, "humpties," or marginal major-leaguers. New York fans, taking cynical delight in the team, christened first-baseman Marv Throneberry "Marvelous Marv" despite the fact that he was very rarely marvelous.
The team won 40 and lost 120 (a big-league record), finishing in last place, 60.5 games behind the Giants. The Mets were the only team in the league to commit over 200 errors and finished dead last in fielding percentage. Their 5.04 runs allowed/game was half a run worse than the 9th-worst Chicago Cubs (4.54). Only the Astros scored fewer runs, and they were playing in a much tougher ballpark.
The ballpark in question was the old, semi-abandoned Polo Grounds, vacant since the Giants left for San Francisco in 1958. The Yankees denied a request to share Yankee Stadium until such time as Shea Stadium could be built, the Bronx team angry at Weiss' leaving his (enforced) retirement to head the cross-town competition.
Despite their awfulness, which has been romanticized, the Mets drew fairly well. The return of National League baseball to the Big Apple energized thousands of former Dodger and Giant fans, who now took pride in the lovable losers of Stengel. Despite their 120 losses, the Mets drew 922,530 fans in 1962, 7th-best in the NL. By the time they moved into Shea Stadium in 1964, their attendance had nearly doubled, to 1.7 million (2nd-best in the NL). Never has such a bad team been so popular or made so much money.
But behind the veneer of disrespectability there were signs that the team was becoming less awful. One was the emergence of second baseman Ron Hunt, a surprisingly competent player, and first baseman Ed Kranepool. Kranepool was never great and was rarely good, but his stability was such that he was well-liked. Owner Payson made it clear that he was never to be traded, and so this weak-hitting first baseman spent his 18-year career entirely with the Mets.
After signs that Stengel was barely conscious, let alone competent to still be running a baseball team, coach Wes Westrum took over the 1966 team, bringing them the tremendous accomplishment of a 9th-place finish (ahead of the Cubs), and less than 100 losses (95) for the first time in franchise history. Very gradually, almost in spite of themselves, the Mets began gaining players who were quite good, or at least good for a year or two. After losing 101 games and falling back into the cellar in 1967, the 1968 team went an amazing 73-89 and finished 9th. A deceptively competent lineup included players such as catcher Jerry Grote, shortstop Bud Harrelson, and outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. But the real engine behind the Mets in 1968 (and for years to come) were the mound aces Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Seaver, known as Tom Terrific, was the best pitcher of his era, a man whose good looks and inner strength made him a New York hero, if not a national one. Koosman was never as brilliant as Seaver, but was one of the more underappreciated hurlers of his era, winning 15 or more games 6 times and posting a 3.36 career ERA (110 ERA+).
In 1969, the leagues expanded again and shifted into two divisions. With their move into the 6-team NL East, the Mets made their move. Inspired by beloved manager Gil Hodges, the Mets, led by Seaver and Koosman, posted a 2.99 team ERA, second only to St. Louis (2.94). The offense was good-but-not-great, with no-name outfielders Jones and Agee leading the charge. The Mets were just as lucky as they were good, and their amazing season electrified New York. They won 100 games and found themselves as the first-ever NL East Champions, playing the first-ever NLCS against Hank Aaron and the Braves.
Aaron hit well, but was unable to prevent a sweep at the hands of Agee, Jones, and a young fireballer named Nolan Ryan. The Mets went on to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Mets were serious underdogs, up against the Orioles of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, and that great Baltimore pitching. What happened was about as significant as the Duke basketball team losing to North Dakota Tech. The Orioles held the Mets to just 3 runs per game, but that was nothing compared to the 1.80 ERA posted by the Mets pitchers. New York took the Series in 5 games. They supplanted the 1914 Braves as the most miraculous team in baseball history, forever to be known as the Miracle Mets.
Unfortunately, the limitations of the roster quickly became clear. The '69 Mets seemed like a team of nobodies that won more games than they should have, and the years 1970-1972 proved that theory true. The team won just 83 games each year, finishing 3rd in the NL East. The 1973 team, though, may have been a bigger surprise than the '69 team. Led by the semi-ironic rallying cry "Ya Gotta Believe," the '73 Mets won the NL East with a record of 82-79, absolutely the worst record ever by a postseason team until the 2005 Padres went 82-80 and won the NL West.
The '73 Mets may not have been very good, but like their '69 brethren, they were adept at beating much better teams in the postseason. With Seaver and Koosman, joined by Jon Matlack and closer Tug McGraw to anchor the pitching staff, the Mets returned the same basic disappointing offense, with Rusty Staub the only significant addition. But this underwhelming team went into the NLCS against the heavily favored Big Red Machine and won in 5. The World Series against the defending champion Oakland A's was amazingly close, but the A's eventually won in 7.
The rest of the 1970's saw the gradual disintegration of the core of the 69-73 team. It was not helped by a front office that seemed inept in the face of controversy. The tragic death of manager Hodges in 1972 saw the team criticize the New York Daily News for reporting the story before Hodges' family was told -- and then the team turned around and gave the same paper "exclusive last photos" of Hodges a few days later. Losing patience with the talented but wild Nolan Ryan, the team traded him and three other players to the Angels for Jim Fregosi. Not only did Ryan blossom into a future Hall-of-Famer, but it became clear that Fregosi was basically done as a player.
The team had an often prickly relationship with star players, especially Seaver. After trading Staub, one of the few good hitters they had, to Detroit when he sought a long-term deal, word got out of a trade that would send Seaver to the Dodgers. Public backlash forced the team to relent and sign Seaver to a deal, but it severely damaged the image of the Mets. It was especially poor timing in that the Yankees were surging back to dominance by signing big-name stars as free agents, whereas the Mets were content to confine their signings to journeymen such as Elliott Maddox and Tom Hausman.
Sportswriter Dick Young of the Daily News served to inflame crises by taking a very public pro-management stance that infuriated players. Young was especially infuriated by a victory banquet in Florida held for the '69 World Champions. In the midst of the victory banquet, Florida governor Claude Kirk took the opportunity to enter into a lengthy defense of the war in Vietnam. Seaver and McGraw, vocal opponents of the war, simply got up and left along with several other teammates. Young, a pro-management conservative, was livid, especially when manager Gil Hodges said nothing more than to question whether the speech was appropriate for a World Series celebration.
The breaking point came when Young published a story claiming that Seaver's wife was behind his dissatisfaction with the club, claiming (among other things) that Seaver was jealous of other stars getting bigger contracts. Seaver demanded a trade, a deal which was already being contemplated. The future Hall-of-Famer went to Cincinnati for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, and some humpties.
With Seaver perhaps the most popular ballplayer in the city, the New York press (Young excepted) went crazy. The trade was dubbed the Midnight Massacre, along with the trade of slugger (and strike-outer) Dave Kingman to San Diego. It could be considered the breaking point for the franchise, which lost the support of New York fans almost immediately. Club attendance had reached as high as 1.7 million in the mid-70's, but fell below 800,000 during their 99-loss 1979 campaign. It wouldn't be until a new breed of homegrown talent emerged in the mid-80's that the team would again draw more than 1.5 million, eventually topping the 3 million mark in 1987.
But the late 70's and early 80's saw that strange, utterly entertaining phenomenon known as a Bad Team in New York City. With nothing but washed-up players, ex-prospects, and mid-level performers, the Mets reacted strongly to the emergence of Lee Mazzilli in 1977. Not only was Mazzilli a good player, but he was a tall, dark and handsome young man in New York. The Met publicity department went into overdrive, but Mazzilli had his last good year in 1980 and was eventually traded to Texas.
The biggest casualty was longtime club chairman Grant, who had been with the team since its inception. He was canned by acting owner Lorinda de Roulet, Payson's daughter. Not only did de Roulet suggest that minimum-wage players were better than free agents, she suggested that old balls be washed and reused. She also stubbornly pursued the use of a mascot, a mule named Mettle driven around the field by her daughter, Bebe.
The team was sold in 1980 to publisher Nelson Doubledar and realtor Fred Wilpon. Former Orioles GM Frank Cashen took over as General Manager. Cashen warned that it would take 5 years for the Mets to be competitive again, and set about developing the farm system. Cashen eventually proved true to his word; although the early 80's weren't any more successful on the field, they showed the signs of improvement as good rookies emerged from the farm system and the team started completing useful trades.
The 1984 team proved the biggest surprise, as the Mets crawled out of the cellar to win 90 games, finishing 2nd, just 6.5 games back of the Cubs. The offense was driven by Keith Hernandez, the great-fielding first baseman stolen from the Cardinals in a trade, as well as George Foster, taken from the Reds in a less-fruitful deal. (Foster would later claim that he was denied playing time because he was black. When it was pointed out that his replacements, Mookie Wilson and Kevin Mitchell, were both black, Foster retracted his statement). But the key to the offense was a rookie named Daryl Strawberry. Strawberry emerged in 1983, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. His 1984 campaign, 26 HR, 75 BB, 27 sB, was even better. Other home-grown talents making a contribution were Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks, and Wally Backman.
The Met pitching staff was equally capable. The club got 31 saves from closer Jesse Orosco (2.59 ERA), as well as quality work from starters Ron Darling, Walt Terrell, and Sid Fernandez. None of the three were home-grown, but all were obtained in very clever trades by Cashen. The home-grown star of the 1984 Mets was a young pitcher named Dwight Gooden.
It's hard to imagine that a young pitcher has ever really been as good or as famous as Dwight Gooden. This would be a whole separate article, but Gooden was simply beyond good when he reached the majors at age 19. He posted a 2.60 ERA in 218 IP, striking out an ungodly 276 batters against just 7 HR and 73 walks. Gooden went on to have an even better year in 1985, and looked like a superstar before he got into drugs. The drugs played a part, but the reason for Gooden's downfall (as pointed out in Rob Neyer's Book of Baseball Lineups) was arm injuries.
With the Yankees of Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly disappointing, the Mets were once again the talk of New York. Manager Davey Johnson, having taken over the team in 1984, was a level-headed intellectual, at least by baseball standards, of the Earl Weaver school of managing. Despite being accused of a certain laziness, he was able to consolidate a great group of talent. The Mets in 1985 did even better, winning 98 games, but had to settle for a close 2nd, 3 games behind the Cardinals.
But the 1986 team finished second to no one. They won 108 games, finishing a healthy 21.5 games ahead of the Phillies. The last NL team to win more than 108 games was the 1906 Cubs. The Mets tied a post-war record of 108 wins by an NL team, tying the 1975 Big Red Machine.
Like any other great team, the '86 Mets had some superstars, some minor stars, and some guys just having a good year. They had in Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry 3 MVP candidates. They also had, in Gooden, Darling, Fernandez, Bob Ojeda, and Rick Aguilera, one of the best starting rotations of the 80's. They got 45 saves from their dual relief aces Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco. Minor stars such as Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra, and Ray Knight gave them great depth in the lineup. Despite their status as a juggernaut, the '86 Mets had a tough time in the postseason, winning closely-fought victories over Houston in the NLCS and Boston in the World Series.
Many have wondered at the fact that the '86 Mets, an apparent juggernaut, did not become a dynasty. The 1987 team finished second with just 92 wins. The '88 team rebounded for 100 wins and a division title, but were upset by the Dodgers in the NLCS. Many theories have been put forth as to why the team didn't become a dynasty, with drugs and high living listed among the prime causes. This is, again, perhaps another article in itself, but it's central to the understanding of the 1980's and 1990's to see why the '86 Mets did not become a dynasty.
The first point I'd like to make is that the '86 Mets just weren't as good, in the qualitative sense, as other dynasties. They were great in terms of what they did on the field, but in terms of the players therein, they are not so historic. I'd say that more than one Hall-of-Famer is basically a prerequisite for dynastic status. But the '86 Mets have only one: Gary Carter. They also don't have anyone who is likely to make the Hall in the future, with Keith Hernandez the only real possibility at this point. I would argue that while the team had an inordinate number of very good players; solid guys like Gooden, Strawberry or Ray Knight who had very fine careers, they did not have superstars. This is not just in the qualitative sense; their surrounding career numbers would serve to reinforce this argument.
You've also got guys who were just lucky. Lenny Dykstra had about 6 or 7 good years, with the possible help of steroids, but wasn't really a super-star. The same could be said for Ron Darling, whose good looks masked the fact that he also allowed a lot of walks and home runs. Players like Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman, and Sid Fernandez were good, yes, but never great. George Foster was essentially done by 1986. So you have a team with some talented veterans and some good young players, yes, but . . . the veterans were nearly done (although we didn't know that at the time), there was no one ready to take their places, a lot of the guys (Backman, Dykstra, Darling) weren't quite as good as their rep, and the rookies wouldn't be quite so resilient as hoped.
Are drugs the culprit? If Hernandez, Gooden, and Strawberry hadn't gotten hooked on the hard stuff, and if Darling hadn't been such a playboy, would the Met dynasty have been a success? It's possible, but I think the influence of drugs is horrifically overstated as the single cause of the team's decline. As I said before, Gooden's overuse was a much bigger cause for concern, and drugs or not, Keith Hernandez was 32 years old in 1986, and his steep drop in quality after 1987 is entirely reasonable for a player not on drugs. Strawberry is the only one whose decline can be convincingly tied to drugs, although even then we just don't know how much of it was due to drugs and how much of it was just the vicissitudes of baseball.
But back to the story . . . the Mets, facing an increasingly demanding New York public, tried to put the club back into contention by signing big-name free agents. It didn't work, by and large. The Mets made Bobby Bonilla the richest man in baseball in 1992, whereupon Bonilla suddenly went from being a great player to being just pretty good. Then there was Vince Coleman, who was never really great at anything in the first place except stealing bases, but that didn't stop the Mets from bumping him up a couple tax brackets in 1991. Not only was Coleman simply dreadful in New York, he was a surly interview given to throwing firecrackers at fans.
The 1993 team is a good illustration; the Mets had a whole array of players who had been or would be stars, but were between their good years. Coleman and Bonilla were joined by old hands: the largely ineffective Joe Orsulak and Howard Johnson, as well as Gooden and Fernandez (who were admittedly pretty good), Frank Tanana and John Franco (who weren't). Promising young starter Anthony Young suffered the indignity of breaking the record for most consecutive losses, this despite the fact that his 3.77 ERA was above-average. The only young players of any note were Jeromy Burnitz and Jeff Kent (who would have their best years elsewhere), and Todd Hundley, the only one on the whole team with a good year to give the Mets. Most disturbing was the development of Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen, and Bill Pulsipher from the farm system. The Met publicity department went into overdrive, dubbing them "Generation K" and claiming they were the future aces of the franchise. That went about as well as could be expected, with injuries and general sucktitude sidelining the three. Wilson and Isringhausen would go on to have some good years . . . with other teams.
The seeds for the future were sown with the hiring of Steve Phillips as GM and Bobby Valentine as manager for the 1997 season. Phillips was the organization man who never met a big contract he didn't like, and Valentine was the resident pain in the ass looking to spur the team to better years. Whatever effect the combination had on office parties, they were instrumental in rebuilding the team into a contender almost immediately. The Mets had homegrown talents Edgardo Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez patrolling the left side of the infield with solid defense and Hundley returning as catcher. To add a big pat to a largely punch-less lineup, the Mets traded for Toronto first baseman John Olerud. Olerud became a fixture at first base on what would become (with the addition of Robin Ventura) arguably the greatest infield of the 90's. Closer John Franco was the only familiar face on a journeyman pitching staff where the immortal Dave Mlicki led the team with 32 starts. But the Mets won 88 games for 3rd place, finishing above .500 for the first time since 1990. The 1998 team again won 88 and moved up to 2nd place, falling just one game short of the Wild Card on the last day of the season.
The 1999 team finally broke through. Its 97 wins were just good for 2nd place behind the Braves, but the team entered the postseason as the Wild Card after defeating Cincinnati in a 1-game playoff. Instrumental were Mike Piazza, obtained in a 1998 trade with Florida, veterans such as Rickey Henderson and Orel Hershiser, and a solid core of pitchers anchored by Al Leiter and fireballing closer Armando Benitez, both acquired by Phillips via trades. The team upset the Diamondbacks in the NLDS 3-1, but then fell in a nail-biter NLCS to the Braves 3-2.
The Mets bypassed the Braves entirely in 2000. They again won the Wild Card at 94-68, with new faces such as Todd Zeile and Mike Hampton. They went on to beat the Giants in the NLDS 3-1, eased past St. Louis 4-1 in the NLCS, but were stopped by the Yankees in the World Series in 5.
The 2001 team won just 82 games and fell into 3rd place. The jeers got louder in 2002, when the Mets lost 86 games and finished last. Culprits were Mo Vaughn and his Contract from Hell (obtained by Phillips in a trade with Anaheim) and an outfield of Roger Cedeno, Timo Perez, and Jeromy Burnitz that was comically inadequate. Valentine's enthusiasm seemed more obnoxious when the team was losing, with stunts such as appearing in the dugout in a fake beard after being ejected from a game not endearing himself to anyone. He was dumped in favor of Art Howe. Howe lasted only two seasons (5th place and 4th place) before he was fired.
The Mets are currently under GM Omar Minaya and manager Willie Randolph, both of them entering their second season heading the club. Although the team continues to throw big money at big free agents (Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner), they have returned to respectability thanks to the front office's efforts to sign players that are actually good, as well as the emergence of young players such as superstar third baseman David Wright. The Mets appear to be contenders in the NL East, but after all the money they've spent, it will all be considered a failure unless they return to October.

Sources include:
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Zim: My Life in Baseball by Don Zimmer
Rob Neyer's Book of Baseball Lineups by Rob Neyer