Sunday, January 6, 2013

Top 10 Baseball "Fiscal Cliffs"

Last week, the federal government resolved its "fiscal cliff."

Losers: The Republican Party, because they were, essentially, finally forced to admit to the world that tax cuts for the rich were more important to them than reducing the federal budget deficit and national debt.

Winners: Everybody else, including the rich, who will still be rich.  They can afford the tax hike.

Of course, not everyone gets so lucky.  Baseball teams often go over "fiscal cliffs."

And Yankee Fans upset at the new parsimony of the Sons of Steinbrenner should be glad that their team's owners are Hank & Hal Steinbrenner, and not Fred & Jeff Wilpon.  Where the Mets' recent financial meltdown (and that of the Miami Marlins) ranks is hard to quantify yet, since the process is still in "progress." But, Yankee Fans...

"Well, tonight, thank God it's them, instead of you!"

Top 10 Baseball "Fiscal Cliffs"

10. 1977-78 Chicago White Sox.  Bill Veeck, in his second go-round as owner of the Pale Hose, tried to build a Pennant winner as he had in 1959, and a World Champion as he had in 1948 as owner of the Cleveland Indians.  He splurged on guys he didn't think he'd be able to re-sign in the off-season.  He took a gamble.

Specifically, he took outfielder Oscar Gamble, getting him and pitcher LaMarr Hoyt from the Yankees for shortstop Bucky Dent and a minor leaguer.  He got outfielder Richie Zisk from the Pittsburgh Pirates for relievers Goose Gossage and Terry Forster.  From the St. Louis Cardinals, for 2 players you don't need to know about, he got Clay Carroll, who'd been the closer for the Cincinnati Reds' 1970, '72 and '75 Pennant winners.  He had already, for the '76 season, gotten 1974 National League batting champion Ralph Garr from the Atlanta Braves, for outfielder Ken Henderson, pitcher Dick Ruthven and a pitcher named Danny "Ozzie" Osborn.  (No, not Ozzy Osbourne.) He signed free agent 3rd baseman Eric Soderholm, a good hitter for the Minnesota Twins who'd missed the entire '76 season due to injury.  Also by '76, he'd gotten 1st baseman Jim Spencer from the California Angels for Bill Melton, who in '71 had become the first White Sox player to ever lead the AL in home runs.  This team looked powerful, and, with Chicago's reputation as a city wracked by crime, became known as the South Side Hit Men.

Did Veeck's roll of the dice pay off? At first, it seemed to: As late as July 31, upon taking 3 out of 4 with the defending AL West Champion Kansas City Royals at Comiskey Park, the South Siders were in first place by 5 1/2 games.  Then they dropped 3 straight to the Texas Rangers before salvaging the series finale, and then they went to Kansas City and the Royals swept them 3 straight.  As late as August 19, they were still tied with the Royals for first, but lost 35 of their last 63 games to end up 12 games behind the Royals, in 3rd place.

The problem was, the White Sox just didn't have the pitching: The rotation consisted of Wilbur Wood, Steve Stone, Ken Kravec, Francisco Barrios and Chris Knapp.  When your 2 most notable starters are remembered as a workhorse knuckleballer (Wood) and a broadcaster for the other team in town (Stoney), that's not good.  The best pitcher out of the bullpen was former Detroit Tiger pitcher and ankle-hunter Lerrin LaGrow, with Steve Renko going 5-0.  And Carroll turned out to be washed up.  Had Veeck demanded Dock Ellis, a man the Yankees ended up trading away anyway (to the Oakland Athletics, for Mike Torrez), in the Gamble/Dent trade, it might have made a difference.

The Gamble/Dent trade did lead to 3 Pennants and 2 World Championships... for the Yankees.  By the time Hoyt helped the ChiSox win the AL West with a Cy Young Award season, it was 1983 and Veeck had already sold the team to "The Reinhorn Twins," Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, who still own the team today.  The Zisk/Gossage-and-Forster trade led to 4 Pennants... 2 each for the Yankees (Goose) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (Forster), as the Pirates didn't keep them after '77, either; the Yankees winning the World Series in '78 and the Dodgers in '81. Forester also helped the California Angels win the AL West in '86.  The Garr/Ruthven trade let to a World Championship... for the Phillies.

After the '77 season, Gamble signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres; having helped the Yankees win the Pennant in '76, he returned in '79 and helped win the AL East in '80 and the Pennant in '81, before returning to the White Sox for one last season in '85.  Zisk signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers, and hit a few home runs for them and for the Seattle Mariners.  Veeck traded Spencer to the Yankees, and was a key reserve as they won the '78 Series; nobody else involved in that trade needs to be remembered at this time.  He hung onto Soderholm until '79 before trading him to the Texas Rangers.  He kept Garr until '79, when he declined precipitously, and traded him to the Angels.

Veeck sold the White Sox in 1980, claiming he could no longer afford to own them.  He remarked, "It's not the high price of talent, it's the high price of mediocrity." He died in 1986, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 -- but for things he did long before owning the White Sox for a second time.  That team did not win another Pennant until 2005.  The '77 ChiSox went down as the most audacious but failed one-season gamble in baseball history -- for 20 years.  (More on that in a moment.)

9. 1992-93 San Diego Padres.  In order to cut costs, in the off-season they traded All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez to the Mets for reliever Wally Whitehurst (only thing notable about him was the alliterative initials), outfielder D.J. Dozier (who was a pretty good football running back but not much of a baseball player and never appeared in another game) and catcher Raul Casanova (who didn't even reach the majors until 1996, with the Tigers). Just before the '93 season started, they traded decent-hitting outfielder Darrin Jackson to the Toronto Blue Jays for Derek Bell, a great outfield prospect but didn't really blossom until reaching the Houston Astros a few years later.

In June, they traded 1st base prospect Derrek Lee for a draft pick that didn't pan out.  In July, they traded Fred McGriff, their best power hitter since Dave Winfield left in 1980, to the Atlanta Braves for 3 guys who ended up not mattering for the Padres.  But McGriff sure mattered for the Braves, making the difference between making the Playoffs, and not.  The Padres went from 84 wins to 101 losses in just one season.

However, by 1996, they were back in the Playoffs.  Just 2 years after that, they had won the Pennant, and their push for that Pennant had led to San Diego County voters approving a new ballpark, which has secured the Padres' long-term future in the city of their birth.  So as bad as their fire sale looked, it wasn't especially damaging.

8. 1997-98 Florida Marlins.  Wayne Huizenga, the first owner of the Marlins, decided on a rent-a-player scheme for 1997, knowing he would break up the team in the off-season, and reduce the club to a bargain-basement outfit that would not contend for a while.  Dave Rosenbaum, who had come off Miami Ice, his book about the Florida Panthers' run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, titled his book about the '97 Marlins If They Don't Win It's a Shame: The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series.  In other words: If it worked, then, as bad as things would be for the Marlin fans for years, they'd still have that 1997 World Championship to think about; but if it didn't, then it was all for nothing.

Well, it "worked": And then Huizenga broke them up, and the Marlins became the stinkiest fish baseball had ever seen.  Out went "Mr. Marlin" Jeff Conine to Kansas City, Moises Alou to Houston, Devon White to expansion Arizona, Al Leiter to the Mets, Robb Nen to San Francisco, and Kevin Brown and Ed Vosberg to San Diego.  Darren Daulton was not offered a new contract, and retired.  Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla and Jim Eisenreich were traded to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile, so they got something good back there... and then after just 5 games, Piazza was traded to the Mets for 3 players, the best of whom was Preston Wilson (Mookie's adopted son).  Zeile lasted until the trading deadline before being dumped off for 2 minor-leaguers who never made it.  Not helping matters was an injury to Alex Fernandez that cost him the '97 postseason, all of '98, some of '99 and most of 2000 before he had to retire at age 31.

In just one season, they went from 92 wins to 108 losses -- which remains not only the biggest one-season drop in National League history (the biggest in AL history will be mentioned in this post as well), but the most losses of any NL team (save for the expansion 1962-65 Mets and the '69 Expos and Padres) since the 1952 Pirates lost 112.  The Marlins didn't get back over .500 until 2003... when, under new owner Jeffrey Loria... well, we'll discuss that in another of these entries.

7. 1974-76 Oakland Athletics.  Charles Oscar Finley built a team that won 5 straight AL West titles, 1971 to '75.  And 3 straight World Series, 1972 to '74.  But their attendance was never all that high.  In only 2 of the 21 seasons that he owned the team in Kansas City and Oakland, 1960 to '80, did the A's get over 1 million in official attendance, '73 and '75.  And the '73 figure of 1,000,763 is in dispute because some people think Charlie O tinkered with it.  He discovered what Connie Mack, known for building up winners and then breaking them up with the earlier A's in Philadelphia, discovered: It brings in more fans if you have a good team that stays in the race most of the way and doesn't win, than if you have one that runs away with the Pennant.  And then, when the players don't win, you don't have to give them big raises.

Pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter had it written into his contract that Finley had to pay toward an annuity -- and when Finley didn't, Hunter took Finley to an arbitrator, and Catfish was declared a free agent.  Finley didn't lift a finger to re-sign him, and lots of other teams did.  Of course, the fingers that George Steinbrenner of the Yankees lifted were clutching a lot of money.

Without Catfish, the A's still won the West in 1975, but got swept by the Red Sox in the ALCS.  At the dawn of the '76 season, Reggie Jackson (who liked to say of Finley that Finley gave him his chance in baseball, "Lord, but the man was cheap, though") and Ken Holtzman were traded to Baltimore for Don Baylor and Mike Torrez; within a year, none of them was on either of the teams involved in this trade.

On June 15, then the trading deadline, Finley sold Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million, and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million each.  Finley had players and the lust for money.  Steinbrenner of the Yankees and Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox had money and the desire for a championship.  They sounded like good deals for all 3 owners.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn't think so.  He usually bent over backwards to help the owners and screw the players, and, certainly, Blue could make more money with the Yanks, and Rudi and Fingers with the Sox, than anyone was making with the A's.  But Kuhn hated Finley (and the feeling was mutual), and  ordered the Yanks and Sox not to play their new acquisitions until he could straighten everything out.  Kuhn canceled the deals after 3 days, citing "the best interest of baseball." He said he didn't want Pennants to be bought outright.  Well, what the hell did he think the Yankees were doing all through the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s? What did he think Steinbrenner had been doing the last 3 years? What did he think Yawkey, who was then dying of leukemia, had been trying to do for over 40 years? Clearly, Kuhn put the kibosh on the deals for one reason, and one reason only: He hated Finley.  Whether this was the best thing for baseball is a debate for another time; whether the Yankees, or the Red Sox, or both, would have been better off if the deals had gone through, is still another debate.

So after the '76 season, in which the weakened A's won 87 and finished 2nd behind the Kansas City Royals, came the first off-season in which free agency came into play in more than the infrequent example, such as Hunter in '74 and Ken Harrelson in '67 -- both let go by Finley, interestingly enough).  Fingers and Gene Tenace signed with the San Diego Padres, Rudi with the California Angels, team captain Sal Bando with the Milwaukee Brewers, and Bert Campaneris with the Texas Rangers.  In 1977, with only Blue and Bill North left from the '74 World Champs, the A's lost 98 games, and finished dead last, half a game behind the expansion Seattle Mariners.  In '78, having finally dumped off Blue and North, it was 93 losses.  In '79, 108 losses -- most by an AL team since the 1939 St. Louis Browns lost 111.  Attendance at the Oakland Coliseum, 306,763.  That's not for a weeklong homestand, that's for an entire season, 81 home games.  That's 3,787 per game.  I've been to a high school basketball game with a better attendance than that.  The place became known as the Mausoleum.

In the 1977-78 off-season, fed up with baseball, Finley came very close to selling the A's to Marvin Davis, who wanted to move the team to Denver and Mile High Stadium, but it fell through.  A year, he tried to sell them to a group that would have moved them to the Superdome in New Orleans.  In 1979-80, again, he tried to sell the team to Davis, but it didn't happen.  Finally, in 1980, having hired Billy Martin as manager, the A's fortunes turned around, and Charlie O found a buyer, Walter Haas, who kept the team in Oakland, saving the team for the East Bay for the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

How long they stay, with the Coliseum having become one of the worst stadiums in the majors, is yet to be decided.  The fire sale of Billy Beane, that dumped off the players from the Playoff teams of 2000 to '06, may yet prove to be even more destructive, leading to the move of the team, in spite of the A's miracle run to the 2012 AL West title.

6. 1992-93 Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates had won 3 straight NL East titles in 1990, '91 and '92.  They won 95, 98 and 96 games.  They lost the NLCS each time, but at least they were close to a Pennant, something they hadn't won since taking the 1979 World Series.

And then they got broken up.  Steve Buchele had already been traded to the Cubs.  Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek were allowed to leave via free agency.  Jose Lind was traded to Kansas City for a pair of nobodies.  Alex Cole was left unprotected in the expansion draft and went to Colorado.  Danny Jackson was also left unprotected and went to Florida, who immediately traded him to Philadelphia.  Relievers Roger Mason and Bob Patterson were released.  Mike LaValliere was released after playing just 1 game of the 1993 season.  Andy Van Slyke, Randy Tomlin and Zane Smith were kept, but got hurt, making the Pirates even worse.  And Bob Walk got old in a hurry, and '93 was his last season.

Since winning 96 and coming within 1 out of a Pennant in 1992, the Pirates have not had a winning season since, let alone a Playoff berth.  The 79 games they won in 2012 was the closest they've come.  They've had seasons of 105, 100, 99, and (3 times) 95 losses.

This, in an NL Central that was won with the following win totals: 83 ('06 Cards), 84 ('97 Astros), 85 ('07 Cubs), 88 ('96 Cards and '03 Cubs), and 91 ('09 Cards and '10 Reds).  The Division has often been there for the taking, but the Bucs' cheapskate management hasn't taken it.  And considering that the only Pennant winners to come out of the Central since its formation, outside of the Cards, have been the '05 Astros, the question has to be asked: What is Pirate management waiting for? Build a winner, already! Since 1992, the Steelers have been to 4 Super Bowls, the Penguins to 2 Stanley Cup Finals, and both have been contenders more often than not.  The Pirates? Always not.

Hard to believe there could be 5 worse than these.  But there are:

5. 1959-60 Cleveland Indians.  In 1959, the Indians won 89 games to finish 2nd in the AL, 5 games behind the Pennant-winning White Sox.  From 1929 to 1959, they had been in contention more often than not; from 1948 to 1959, they had won at least 88 games all but 2 years.

But, having already traded away a future star in Roger Maris, general manager Frank Lane traded away Rocky Colavito, the AL's home run champion and 2nd in the MVP voting, to the Detroit Tigers for batting champion Harvey Kuenn.  Apparently, Lane was jealous of the attention the Rock was getting.  You wouldn't think one trade would mess up a franchise long-term.  But Lane had already traded away Early Wynn, Norm Cash and Roger Maris.  From 1960 to 1993, the Indians never finished closer to first place than 11 games (except for the strike-shortened, split-season 1981).

Terry Pluto, author of several books about Cleveland sports, titled his book The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 33-Year Slump.  While Colavito never actually put a curse on the Indians, and it should rather be called the Curse of Frank Lane, it left Cleveland baseball a shambles for 2 generations.  At least, through most of that time, the Browns were a contender -- but they haven't won a title since 1964, the Indians not since 1948, and the Cavaliers not even once since they were established in 1970.  Oy.

4. 1919-22 Boston Red Sox.  The following members of the 1923 World Champion Yankees had previously played on Red Sox teams that had won a World Series: Babe Ruth, Herb Pennock, Carl Mays, Bullet Joe Bush, Sad Sam Jones, Wally Schang, Everett Scott and Mike McNally.  (Hall-of-Famer Waite Hoyt had also come from the Red Sox to the Yankees, but only pitched for the Sox in 1919, not in their World Series seasons of 1912, '15, '16 or '18.)

Right fielder Harry Hooper, who was not one of the Sox players who went to The Bronx, told Larry Ritter (for his book The Glory of Their Times) that the 1920s Yankees Dynasty was pretty much the 1910s Red Sox dynasty.  Not quite, because the Yankees didn't pick up the man who was then the Sox' best player, Tris Speaker, or the man who had once been their best pitcher, Smoky Joe Wood -- but it gets worse, because both of them were traded to the Cleveland Indians (albeit before the 1919 cutoff date I've given), and both were key to the Indians' 1920 World Series win.

It would be 1934 before Tom Yawkey began to rebuild the Sox, by 1938 putting together a team that finished 2nd and remained in contention almost continuously until 1951.  Of course, while he could have (and did) pick up good players from other teams, he pretty much did what the 1919-23 Yankees did to the Sox, taking advantage of the "fiscal cliff" at Number 2 on this list.

3. 1995-2004 Montreal Expos.  On August 12, 1994, the Expos had a record of 74-40, a winning percentage of .649, a pace for 105 wins.  They had the best record in baseball, and many people were sure they would win the World Series for the first time in franchise history.  Then came the Strike of '94.  No postseason.

And no next season in Montreal for 5 key cogs.  Larry Walker and Lenny Webster were granted free agency.  Walker signed with the Colorado Rockies; Lenny Webster with the Philadelphia Phillies.  As the strike was resolved, 3 trades were made.  John Wetteland was traded to the Yankees for Fernando Seguignol (who'd played only 5 major league games in the previous 3 seasons and never played another) and an undisclosed amount of cash.  Marquis Grissom was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Roberto Kelly (the former Yankee was now injured and not the same player), Tony Tarasco (as stated in my piece on why Jeffrey Maier can't be blamed, he wasn't any good anyway) and Esteban Yan (a pitcher then yet to debut in the majors and ended up mediocre, and done at age 31).  And Ken Hill was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for 3 who's-hes.

The Expos went 66-78 in the shortened 1995 season, but bounced back to 88 wins and 2nd place in '96.  But further demolition awaited.  Moises Alou (son of manager Felipe Alou).  Wil Cordero.  Cliff Floyd.  Mike Lansing.  Lenny Webster.  Rondell White.  Kirk Reuter.  And Pedro Martinez, probably the most talented pitcher the franchise had ever had, or would until, possibly, Stephen Strasburg.  One by one, the players who seemed October-bound in 1994 were pushed through Customs.  Owner Claude Brochu claimed he had to save money because of Canadian taxes and the exchange rate, which seriously favored the U.S. at the time.

In 2000, Brochu sold the Expos were to Jeffrey Loria, who announced he was committed to keeping the club in Montreal long-term and building a downtown ballpark.  He lied.  He gutted the team further, and in 2002 swung his way into a big deal.  Loria sold the Expos to Major League Baseball, so he could buy the Florida Marlins from owner John W. Henry, who then bought the Boston Red Sox.  In 2004, in a move that surprised no one, Selig announced that the Expos had been sold to a group that would move them to Washington, D.C.  The Expos had effectively been a lame-duck franchise for 4 years, but the deal was announced on the day of the club's last home game of the season, meaning a proper farewell was not really possible.

It would not be until 2012 that the franchise, now renamed the Washington Nationals, would return to the postseason.  Meanwhile, Loria won the World Series with the Marlins in 2003 and kept his promise to the fans of South Florida that he would build a new ballpark -- for all the good it does them now.  Meanwhile, except for Playoff games of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, a few concerts, and the occasional game by MLS' Montreal Impact, the Olympic Stadium sits quiet.

2. 1914-15 Philadelphia Athletics.  A's owner Connie Mack had built a team that won 4 of the last 5 AL Pennants, and the 1910, '11 and '13 World Series.  But in 1914, the Federal League raided major league rosters, pulling several big stars away.  Some of Mack's players left, others said they would stay if he could match the offers they were getting from the FL.  Rather than do that, Mack let them go.

From 1909 to '14, the A's won 95, 102, 101, 90, 96 and 99 games.  But in 1915, they dropped from 99-53 to 43-109, a drop of 56 games, the biggest in major league history.  In 1916, they went 36-117, and while their record for most losses in an AL season would be broken by the 119-loss 2003 Detroit Tigers, the '16 A's .235 "winning" percentage remains the lowest in the majors since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.  (I haven't included that one because the turn of the 20th Century was the age of "syndicate baseball," and there were a lot of these.) People who grew up thinking the 1962 Mets were "the worst baseball team ever" apparently never heard of either the 1916 A's or the 1899 Spiders.  (The 1890 Pirates and 1935 Boston Braves also had lower winning percentages than the '62 Mets.)

Supposedly, it was in that awful 1916 season that Mack became the first person to utter that now-classic phrase, "Well, you can't win them all." Still, after several bad seasons, he entered into an early form of a farm system agreement with the International League's Baltimore Orioles, and bought several of their stars, including Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx.  By 1927, the A's were again the 2nd-best team in the AL, behind the Yankees' "Murderers' Row." In 1929, they were the best, winning 3 straight Pennants and back-to-back World Series.  But...

1. 1932-34 Philadelphia Athletics.  Mack lost all his non-baseball assets in the 1929 stock market crash.  After the '31 A's won 107 games and came within 1 game of making it 3 straight titles, he couldn't afford to pay his players big bucks anymore.

1932-33: Al Simmons, Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas and George Earnshaw to the Chicago White Sox for $120,000.  1933-34: Mickey Cochrane to the Detroit Tigers for $100,000 and a nobody; and Lefty Grove, Max Bishop and Rube Walberg to the Red Sox for $125,000 and 2 nobodies.  1935-36: Foxx to the Red Sox for $150,000 and 2 nobodies.

The A's went from 107 wins in '31 to 94 in '32 to 79 in '33, and never contended again until the 1970s, by which time Mack's frugality and senility had caused his family to take them away from him, and sell them, and they were moved to Kansas City, and then to Oakland.  Sad story.

Now, aren't you glad you're a Yankee Fan?

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