Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hope and Faith

I'm glad to have Peter Gammons back. In an article (Insider password required; e-mail me for a summary), Gammons points out that since the White Sox were eliminated, this means that there will be seven different World Champions in the last seven years. All of the teams still involved have gone through a World Championship drought (Tigers - 22 yrs; A's - 17 yrs; Mets - 20 yrs; Cards - 24 yrs), which means that no matter who wins the Fall Classic among the four remaining contestants, some fanbase will be rejuvenated after a long, long wait. And for the Tigers (and to a certain degree, the Mets), that wait has been even longer than it seems.
Gammons argues that this is parity, the parity that Bud Selig has made his buzzword while in office. I agree 100%. While reaching the playoffs is still connected to payroll (but not nearly so much as Selig suggests), success once in the playoffs is not. The huge luck factor in the playoffs (especially in a 5-game series) is meant to give the underdog (read: worse team) the chance to win. The process has turned George Steinbrenner into knots, but has made the game better. That's what I mean when I say that I tolerate the Wild Card; I don't like it aesthetically, but I recognize its necessity. And while Gammons speaks of increased revenue sharing and the luxury tax (which are factors), the Wild Card itself and the random nature of the postseason have as much to with this as anything.
Recent years have seen several franchises who had been either frustrated eternally for a World Championship, or just frustrated waiting for a winning season, who have turned their ship around. The former refers to the White Sox and Red Sox. In the past three seasons, baseball has rid itself of 174 years worth of curses. It leaves the Cubs (and that will have to wait for a new GM) as the long-time losers, but who else?
After the Cubs, the team that's been waiting the longest for a World Championship is the Cleveland Indians. They haven't won it all since 1948, when the newly-integrated team of Lou Boudreau, Larry Doby, and Satchel Paige beat the Spahn-and-Sain Boston Braves. They lost in 1954 thanks to Willie Mays and the Giants despite winning 111 regular-season games. They then entered a long, long fallow period culminating in the utter futility of the 70's and 80's. They even had a movie made about their struggles. The Indians had to be the ultimate symbol of a team that had lost -- according to Selig -- "hope and faith."
Then came the 1990's, and the Indians were one of the best franchises in all of baseball. They still don't have that World Series (and that's big), but they've been competitive for most of the past 12 seasons and have won two pennants. They have a fine young team that's very much capable of winning it all in the future, so that counts as "hope."
The Giants have waited since 1954. It also seems odd to think that the San Francisco Giants have never won a World Series, but that's very true. They came very, very close in 1962 and 2002. But they still haven't done it. But, with a lot of money in the bay area, a beautiful ballpark, and a still-potent megastar on the roster, the Giants do have some "hope."
Who's next? The Senators/Rangers have been waiting for 45 years and have never even won a playoff series. They're the oldest such team in all of baseball. They've made the postseason three times, winning the division in 1996, 1998, and 1999. All three times they faced the Yankees. They won only one game -- in all three years combined. In one ALDS, they only scored one run. Their 1-9 postseason record is by far the worst for any team who's actually made it that far.
Could Selig be talking about the Rangers when he refers to "hope and faith?" I very much doubt it. The Rangers' history does not indicate a team afflicted with "small market-itis," it rather reflects a team that has been very, very mismanaged. They opened a new ballpark that made them a ton of money, then spent all that money in several dubious ways; the beat goes on this past year (Kevin Millwood, or Chan Ho Park Part 2: The Reckoning). The Rangers have good money to spend, play in a nice new ballpark, and have a very large, passionate state to split up with the Astros. They may not be in good shape, but their problems aren't going to be solved by revenue sharing. A luxury cap might be a good idea, if only to prevent more Millwood contracts.
Speaking of the Astros, they're also waiting for their first Championship, 44 years after the birth of the Colt .45s. The Astros have had much better teams than the Rangers; they've also had more teams make the postseason. But the luck that will sweep the occasional Marlins team to a fluke World Series swings both ways; the Astros never could get anything done in October, despite some fine teams.
Are they a team that has lost hope and faith? Not hardly. In the past 10 years, the Astros have made the postseason 6 times. Of those other four times, three were second-place finishes. Only a 72-90 2000 sticks out as a hopeless season. The Astros have actually been one of the more consistent contenders in the league for over ten years now. Hope and faith is not their problem. They also have money, as do the Rangers, and considering the state of the NL Central, they've got as much chance as anybody. Shed no tears for the Astros, last year's NL Champions.

Three teams from the 1969 expansion have yet to taste World Champion victory. The Padres and Expos, the NL entries, are both Series-less since their creation. Are these the hopeless teams Selig is referring to?
Not hardly. The Padres have won two pennants, and unfortunately had the misfortune of being horribly outmatched both times (in 1984 against the 104-win Tigers, and in 1998 against the 114-win Yankees). However, the Padres have suffered a great deal, especially in their early years. Their fanbase was getting dangerously burned out, and many people thought San Diego wasn't a good baseball town anyway because -- get this -- the weather was too nice. People were at the beach, not the baseball game. That gets an A+ in the Creative Excuses class.

This is all hogwash, anyhow. In 2005, the Padres' NL West Champion team drew 2.8 million fans, good enough for 6th in the NL, despite their dreadful record. Attendance fell slightly in 2006 as the Padres repeated, but their 2.6 million was still good -- 7th of 16 NL teams. They have a nice, new ballpark. They've made the postseason two straight years for the first time ever. Sounds to me like plenty of reason to hope.
The Expos are a tougher case. They were essentially Exhibit A in Selig's "hope and faith" case. But that's like Al Capone expressing sorrow over the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The Expos were alive and vibrant until their owners -- lastly the MLB itself -- killed them.
In 1981, when the Expos won their division and came within a game of the pennant, they were second in the NL in attendance. I'm sorrow, I'll say that again -- SECOND IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE. Yes, they were playing in la Stade Olympique, an ugly stadium. But they were a damn good team -- Carter, Dawson, Raines, Rogers -- and people were interested.
But did all of that die off? Not quite. Things looked bad in 1993; despite a close 2nd-place finish in the NL East, the Expos were the second-worst team in the NL in attendance. The famed 1994 team was 9th of 12 in attendance -- and they had the best record in baseball! Surely, this was a sign that Montreal wouldn't support a team. And, according to received baseball wisdom, it was the 1994 strike that killed the Expos.
Perhaps, but don't most dead people stay dead? In 1996, the Expos drew 1.6 million fans -- only about 25,000 fans less than their 1993 team. So if the 1994 strike really did kill Montreal attendance, it started really slowly.

The Expos were never really contenders again. You could argue the cause/effect until you're blue in the face: did bad teams kill the Expos, or was it the bad ownership that put together the bad teams? As early as 1996, when baseball in Montreal was still hanging on, ownership began to tear down the team to its bare bones. We all know the story after that, people didn't want to see a 90-loss team (shocking), leaving the Expos near the bottom of the league in attendance. The difference grew even more pronounced as the rest of the league saw attendance booms from building new ballparks while the Expos were still bringing up the rear.
But this isn't meant to be a history lesson; it's a lesson of "hope and faith." Right or wrong, the Expos were moved to Washington, where their attendance nearly quadrupled. Despite an inordinate amount of haggling and name-calling, the Nationals are in line for a new stadium, which will be great news for the team, especially since they basically suck, and the initial honeymoon period seems to be wearing off quickly.
Would more revenue sharing or a salary cap help? Perhaps. But remember, even Dr. Frankenstein took a lot of time before he could resurrect the dead -- and I'm not convinced that Jim Bowden is his baseball counterpart in the intelligence department. And if you want to know who killed the Expos, don't look at the fans of Montreal (who supported the Dodgers' minor league teams for ages), player salaries, or the system of sharing revenues. The smoking gun is in the hands of the Expo owners and Major League Baseball itself.

Speaking of Bud Selig (hey, it's a segue), how about his Brewers? They started as the Pilots in 1969 and went bankrupt, which is generally considered to be a bad thing. The Brewers struggled under Selig for years, and while the constraints of their market are very real, I also have to question why the Brewers have produced a grand total of 2 really good pitchers in over 35 years. And of those two, Teddy Higuera lost his career to injuries, and Ben Sheets isn't too far behind him. Revenue sharing would help the Brewers, but a change in the player personnel department would do far better. And wouldn't you know it, at almost precisely the same time as the Selig family sold the Brewers, they turned in their first non-losing seasons in years, going 81-81 last year. They're a great example of a team, like the Tigers, that is starting to turn around a decade-plus of losing.
We're running out of candidates for this "hope and faith" title that Selig has bestowed on teams. What about the Mariners? You mean the team that in 2001 won more games than any other team in history? The team that has seen its formerly small market blossom due to the combination of a winning team and a superstar Japanese player? They're just fine.
The only teams left are the recent expansion teams, the Rockies and Devil Rays. You could make arguments about their fans' "hope and faith," but 1) they're expansion teams, so give them a break and 2) if it's only two teams in baseball that have no hope and faith, isn't that a pretty good ratio? 28/30 baseball teams have a rough hope of contending, at least within a year or two. And you can count the Rockies among them, as they not only improved this year, but appear to be on the right track for the future.
So the only team in baseball without hope and faith is the Devil Rays?
Do you know how this era compares to past eras in terms of competitive balance? Selig's moans about degenerating comparitive balance are literally laughable.
Bud, do you remember that in the old days teams would go 40+ years without a pennant? That teams like the A's, Phillies, Braves, and Browns would go two decades or more without even making it into the first division? And you expect us to get bent out of shape about the Pirates' 14-year losing streak (boo f'ing hoo, says Chuck Klein, longtime Phillie), or the fact that an expansion franchise hasn't had a winning season in its 9-year history? Cry me a handful, Bud.

Is it possible that, while the current scene looks bad, things are getting worse? It's possible. More than ever, a baseball team's revenue comes from local broadcast rights. The difference between the best and worst local broadcast deals in the 1960's was significant, but not enough to cause alarm. That's changed; while the Devil Rays probably have to beg for local TV time, teams like the Yankees and Red Sox own their own local TV networks, thereby removing the middle-man and producing a stream of revenue to rival even their gate receipts. This imbalance is not likely to get better in the future; more likely, it will be worse. And the dwindling nature of baseball's national TV deal (which is shared equally among the 30 teams) means that local broadcast revenue is becoming a larger slice of the pie and a legitimate problem for small-market teams.
Is there any evidence of this over the past 20 years or so? Somewhat. The 1980's were possibly baseball's most competitively-balanced decade, at least in terms of postseason appearances. Only one team won more than one World Series (Dodgers), whereas the 70's were dominated by the A's ('72, '73, '74), the Reds ('75, '76) and the Pirates ('71, '79). That doesn't reflect the dominance at the divisional level. In the 1970's, the Pirates and Phillies won the NL East every year but one ('73; the Mets). The NL West was equally domainted by the Reds and Dodgers, who took home 9 titles ('71; Giants). Four NL teams accounted for 18 of 20 postseason appearances in the 70's. The other two teams were the aforementioned flukes. In the AL, it was only slightly better: 4 teams accounted for 16 of 20 postseason slots.
Did things change in the 1980's? You bet! No team made more than 4 postseason appearances in the 1980s. In the NL, all but two teams made the postseason (70's powerhouses Pittsburgh and Cincinnati missed), and 7 of those 12 teams made it more than once. In the AL, it was the same story. 11 of 14 teams made the postseason, 7 getting there at least twice. I mentioned before that only the Dodgers won more than on World Series in the 80's; in the 70's, four teams did it, with A's winning it three straight years. Hope and faith, indeed.
How did things change in the 1990's? The 90's were a less competitive decade, with the re-emergence of dynasties in New York and Atlanta. But a lot of this can be attributed to expansion teams, four of which were added during the decade, who of course were not normally competing for the postseason themselves and only serving as fodder to make the good teams better. But it was not all gloom and doom. 10 of 14 AL teams made it as the playoffs expanded to three rounds, only slightly worse than the previous decade (this doesn't include the Brewers, who were in the league from 1990-1997 and didn't make it). The Yankees did dominate by winning 3 World Series, and the Blue Jays did win a pair themselves. But 5 different AL teams won the pennant in the decade; not half bad, and not the way we remember the years so-called "Yankee dominance."
Things were even better in the NL, who had no Yankees. They did have the Braves, but the Braves' dominance did not extend into the postseason. The NL won the World Series three times during the decade; 3 separate teams took home the honor. 10 of 15 teams made the postseason (again, that doesn't include the three seasons of the Brewers), and 5 different teams won pennants.

Compare any of these numbers to the great Yankee dynasties, especially during the 1950's, and you'll find a sea change toward greater competitive balance. And if Selig wants to talk about "hope and faith," why doesn't he talk about everyone living outside of New York from 1947-1956. The three New York teams were doing great; but all those other cities were dropping attendance fast due to hopelessness (among other reasons).
And so we come to our present decade (or the first seven seasons of it). Good news, fans: competitive balance continues unabated. 10 of 16 NL teams have reached the postseason, and we've got three more postseasons yet for them to go for it. 9 of 14 AL teams have made it.
I'll sum up thus: if we can keep this 60-70% of teams in the postseason at least every ten years, we're in good shape, much more so than in past years. If it were the same 60-70%, then that would be a problem; but as we've seen in recent years, now is the time to turn your team around. Free agency, which many thought would ruin competitive balance, has had the opposite effect. While I'm sure Selig will pat himself on the back for revenue sharing and the luxury tax (and to some extent, rightfully so), it's really the third round of playoffs that we have to thank. It makes it much easier for an underdog or an unlucky team to still make the playoffs, where everything is possible. Think about what we've seen over the past ten years (or so):
  • In 1995, the impossible happened: the Indians made it to the World Series. One hopeless franchise rescued, half a dozen to go. We must also note that the Atlanta Braves, dominant but hopeless in the postseason, finally reached the goal. There was a lot more frustration to come, but that 1995 victory was good enough to last for a while. After all, 1957 was a long time ago. Especially if you were around for Claudell Washington, Bruce Sutter, and Len Barker.
    The postseason also saw the appearance of the Colorado Rockies, who made a great argument for competitive balance by making it into the postseason in their second chance at it -- as an expansion team.
    And the Mariners made the postseason. Yes, the team with the worst record in the 1980's somehow managed to turn itself around. The banner-bearers of Hopeless, Inc. made the postseason and actually BEAT THE YANKEES. Goliath is dead! Long live David!
  • The next season saw the Cardinals, who had fallen into disrepair since the days of Whiteyball, come back to life. They'd been waiting since 1982. They'd have to wait a while longer, though, as the Braves toasted them in the NLCS. 1996 also saw the return of the Yankees. Granted, there was not dancing in the streets of America over this, but the Yankees had themselves become a joke (and doesn't that seem like a long time ago). As it that weren't enough, 1996 saw the return of the Orioles, the dynasty gone horribly wrong under the likes of Frank Robinson and Cal Ripken, Sr.
    Not only that -- but the Rangers made their first postseason! Yes, they got their collective asses handed to them -- and again in 1998 and 1999 -- but as I said before: baby steps.
  • In 1997, the Marlins did everybody one better. They won the World Series in their 5th season of existence, breaking the Blue Jays' record of 16 seasons before a title.
  • In 1998, it was the Padres, one of the worst franchises ever, winning their second pennant and putting together a good team as well. Bad luck, though: the Damn Yankees strike again. Another thing happened in '98 . . . oh yeah -- THE CUBS DID IT! They made it to the postseason for the second time since Mr. Roosevelt died. Yes, they lost in the first round, but hey -- baby steps.
  • After spending what seemed like a billion dollars only to lose every year, the Mets finally crept back into the postseason in 1999 and 2000, actually winning the pennant in the latter year. They would take a 5-year hiatus afterwards, but are right back on track today, putting those memories of Bobby Bonilla further into the past.
  • Something else happened in 1999. The 1998 expansion team Arizona Diamondbacks made the postseason. Was baseball being turned on its head? We'll wait, of course, because the better story comes two years later.
  • That would be 2001, when the Diamondbacks memorably beat the Yankees in the World Series. If ever there were a balance in the hands of Lady Justice, it was creeping back toward equality with this very moment: the most storied franchise in sports brought down by a team younger than some of my socks.
  • And now we go into the CurseBreaking section of history. The Angels had a curse, but then they didn't have the whiny New England press to campaign for them, so no one knew about it. But the Angels had been around for 41 years and were perhaps the most famous "chokers" in baseball history. Like the Red Sox, they had come oh, so close on several occasions, only to see fate intervene. The Gods smiled upon them in 2002, however, as they won the World Series and put the past to rest. Plenty of hope and faith in Anaheim for a generation to come.
  • There weren't any big breakthroughs in 2003. The Marlins and Cubs both improbably made it back into October. The Marlins won another unlikely World Series, proving competitive balance by defeating the superior Yankees. Unfortunately, they had to topple the Cubs on the way there. Maybe Selig should just grant the Cubs a World Series title under his "best interests" powers.
  • We all know what happened next, but I'll sum up. Red Sox: 86 years erased. White Sox: 88 years erased.
  • As for 2006? Will it be the Mets finally putting the Bonilla years to rest? Will the Cardinals, who have made the postseason 9 times since 1982 but still not won it all, finally make it to the end? Will the Tigers resurrect the deadest franchise in baseball and plant an improbably crown atop it? Or will the A's disprove the Moneyball myth and take home their first title since 1989? Whatever happens, it will be a strike towards competitive balance.

I've gone on long enough now, but I think I've made my point. While we must continue revenue sharing and determine more effective ways to level the playing field, any ideas of "gloom and doom" are spurious. We've been killing curses and resurrecting the dead all over baseball in recent years.

Who, outside of George Steinbrenner, could be unhappy about that?

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