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.

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