Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Was the Worst Baseball Team Ever?

I saw a book today that attempted to "settle" certain baseball debates. As noted author Jim Bouton would say, "Yeah, surrrre." Such debates are never settled. We're still debating Joe vs. Ted after 70 years; Mickey vs. Willie after almost 60; Derek vs. Nomar after 10... well, actually, that one was settled long ago, in Jeter's favor.

Anyway, the book is The Seventh Inning Stretch: Baseball’s Most Essential and Inane Debates, by Josh Pahigian. I didn't buy it -- and probably won't, at least not anytime soon, as my priority is to restore that part of my "library" that got soaked in last Saturday's storm/power outage/basement flood. (It's already begun, with Chuck Culpepper's book on an American's -- his own -- introduction to English soccer, Bloody Confused! I had a Borders coupon.) But I won't recommend against buying it, either.

Pahigian made an interesting point: Some of the "worst teams ever" had, in his words, "a darned good excuse for it." Examples:

1899 Cleveland Spiders. It was the last year of "syndicate baseball," in which a man could own more than one team in the league, and the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Spiders decided to boost the former by stripping the latter. The Spiders went 20-134, worst record in major league history: They were trying to win, their owners weren't. And they were contracted out of the league the next season, along with the National League's Washington, Baltimore and Louisville franchises... but that made the American League, including the Cleveland Indians, possible.

1916 Philadelphia Athletics: Percentage-wise, the A's had the worst record in the 20th Century, 36-117 for .235. It was the most losses in AL history until the 2003 Tigers (43-119, 162 games instead of 154 as in 1916). But manager/part-owner (and later manager/full owner) Connie Mack had broken up his team after 1914 due to the rising salaries caused by the Federal League. These A's were Pahigian's choice for "worst team ever," but, by his own definition, they had "a darned good excuse."

1935 Boston Braves: Their 38-115 works out to .248, lower than the '62 Mets' .250 -- in fact, the lowest percentage in the NL since the 1899 Spiders. But it was the Depression: They weren't exactly able to spend as much as the fabulously wealthy Tom Yawkey, a mile away at Fenway Park.

1962 New York Mets: Most losses in the 20th Century, at 40-120. And they couldn't hide from the New York media, so they became legendary, from "Marvelous Marv" Throneberry's inability to hang onto grounders (or touch first and second base on a triple) to center fielder Richie Ashburn needing to learn that "I got it" in Spanish is "Yo la tengo" because shortstop Elio Chacon didn't understand English, and then crashed into left fielder Frank Thomas because the Big Donkey (the earlier, non-Big Hurt's nickname) didn't understand Spanish. But they were an expansion team. So were the 1969 Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres (who both lost 110) and the 1977 Toronto Blue Jays (who lost 107). So while the '62 Mets were absolutely pathetic, and would remain hopeless until 1966 and woeful until 1969, they had an excellent excuse. At least they were excellent at something.

By contrast, there was no excuse for the 2003 Detroit Tigers, 43-119 for .265:

* They were not an expansion team: It was their 103rd year of play.

* They were not cash-poor: Owner Mike Ilitch also owned the Detroit Red Wings, and happily spent enough money on them to win 3 Stanley Cups since 1997. He still owns both, and has since added a 4th, and had 2 other trips to the Finals.

* They didn't have a bad ballpark or a bad lease thereon: They had abandoned Tiger Stadium and moved into the profitable Comerica Park.

* They didn't even have a weak fan base: While the City of Detroit has been suffering for over 40 years, the suburbs have plenty of wealth. Indeed, Ilitch was shamed into spending on the Tigers the way he has on the Wings, and in just 3 years, in 2006, the Tigers won the Pennant, and have since come close to 2 other Playoff berths. They didn't even have a rash of injuries, like the 2007, '08 and '09 Mets.

Nope, there was no viable reason the 2003 Detroit Tigers should have lost 119 games. 95, sure. 100, maybe. Even a historically lousy 109, like they did in 1996, possibly. But 119? That requires a bad team having, on top of that, bad luck. They were the worst, most inexcusable team in baseball history.

But, as I said, they bounced back. Since 2003, the Tigers have posted seasons of 72, 71, 95, 88, 74 and 86 wins -- 3 weak but hardly dreadful seasons, 2 good ones, 1 excellent one (but not great, as they lost the World Series).

Translation: No team is totally hopeless. Not even in Detroit. After all, the Red Wings cast off their "Dead Things" label and broke their 42-year Stanley Cup drought (1955-1997). Are you listening, William Clay Ford? Even your Lions can snap out of it.


Last December 18, the New Jersey Devils were home at the Prudential Center to play the Ottawa Senators, and beat them, 4-2. Nice birthday present for me.

Tonight is my mother's birthday. We had previously planned to be at The Rock for tonight's game against the St. Louis Blues, but we had a few reasons not to go.

It was just as well: The Blues beat the Devils, 1-0. A loss with only one goal? Exactly the kind of game neither Mom nor I could stand. Good thing we didn't go.

Next Saturday is my father's birthday. (That's right, Mom and Dad were born 7 days apart -- albeit 4 years.) And the Devils are playing. But it'll be in Montreal, against the Canadiens. My father hates to travel, and he doesn't much like hockey, either (despite his interest in the recent Olympics). The only ice sport he likes is figure skating.

He's a good man, and he's become a very good Rutgers football fan. But his taste in sports is not universally good. He also likes the Mets. Sometimes, a father and son have to forgive each other for certain things. (Luckily, I've already gotten the 2-year-old nieces to like the Yankees, even though they have only the vaguest idea of what baseball is. Too bad their father is a Philadelphia Flyers fan.)


Days until the Devils play another local rival: 5, next Thursday night, at home against The Scum. (That's the New York Rangers, in case you've forgotten.)

Days until Opening Day of the 2010 baseball season: 15, the Yankees playing the Red Sox at Fenway for the ESPN Sunday-night season-opener. A shade over 2 weeks.

Days until the next North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham: 21. 3 weeks.

Days until the Yankees' 2010 home opener: 24.

Days until the 2010 World Cup begins: 82.

Days until the World Cup Final: 113.

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 168.

Days until the new Meadowlands Stadium (still unnamed) opens: 169.

Days until East Brunswick plays football again: 174.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 250.

Days until Derek Jeter collects his 3,000th career hit: 438.

Days until the Rutgers-Army football game at Yankee Stadium: 602.

Days until the 2012 Olympics begin in London: 870.

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