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March 11, 2003

Surveying the Authors

Part Two

by Doug Pappas

In the first part of this survey, BP authors were asked to comment about the game off the field--labor, economics and the Expos. The final survey question asked our respondents to take the Bud Selig Prediction Test.

  1. Testifying before Congress in November 2000, Commissioner Selig asserted, "At the start of spring training there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half of our 30 clubs." At the start of spring training 2003:

    a. Name the sixteen clubs LEAST likely to make the playoffs in 2003.

    Twenty-two of the 30 teams were named by at least one respondent Twelve of the Sour 16 were unanimous choices, with two others receiving seven or eight votes. At the other end of the spectrum, 12 clubs received zero or one vote.

    0 votes: Boston, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota, Oakland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco
    1 vote: Anaheim (Jazayerli), Houston (Carroll), St. Louis (Sheehan), Arizona (Jazayerli)
    3 votes: Seattle (Huckabay, Keri, Sheehan)
    4 votes: Chicago Cubs (Bower, Carroll, Pappas, Silver)
    5 votes: Cincinnati (Bower, Jazayerli, Pappas, Silver, Zumsteg), Los Angeles (Carroll, Huckabay, Keri, Pappas, Zumsteg)
    7 votes: New York Mets (all but Carroll, Pappas)
    8 votes: Toronto (all but Jazayerli)
    9 votes: Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Texas, Florida, Montreal, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Colorado, San Diego

    b. Of these clubs, identify the ones whose fans really should have "no hope and faith" of making the playoffs in 2003.

    Twelve clubs received votes. Five of us named six clubs, three named eight and one named nine, for an average of seven clubs per respondent.

    9 votes: Baltimore, Tampa, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee
    7 votes: Pittsburgh (all but Carroll and Keri)
    4 votes: Cleveland (Carroll, Huckabay, Keri, Zumsteg)
    2 votes: Texas (Carroll and Huckabay) and Colorado (Bower, Huckabay)
    1 vote: San Diego (Bower), Montreal (Carroll), Florida (Zumsteg).

The real point of this two-part question was, of course, to illustrate the wrongheadedness of Selig's statement. By any reasonable estimate, only about a quarter of the teams have no realistic hope of making the playoffs in 2003. Their problems aren't the fault of "old stadiums" or "small markets," either: Of the seven teams receiving four or more votes in our survey, all but the Royals play in modern, luxury box-laden stadia, and all but the Devil Rays paid their players significantly more in 2002 than did the division-winning Athletics and Twins.

Moreover, it's easy to say that "more than half our teams have no chance to win" when you avoid specifics. The Commissioner had a very good reason for not naming names, of course. When looking for hopeless clubs, the principal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers doesn't need a telescope to find one. But his ticket sales department, not to mention the banks holding the debt of the heavily leveraged Brewers, would rather he keep these conclusions to himself.

So would the bankers and sales departments of the other teams listed above. It's hard to imagine a strategy more harmful to the small-market clubs Selig was trying to help than to have the Commissioner proclaim, frequently and publicly, that their fans are fools to believe their favorite club can ever hope to compete.

Not to mention that Selig's lament is regularly proven wrong. Last year, high on the list of teams whose fans should have had "no hope and faith" would have been a club that finished the 2001 season further from the playoffs than Bud's Brewers. Whereas the 2001 Brewers lost both the division and the wild card by 25 games, this hapless club finished 41 games behind its division winner and 27 games out of the wild card. Only four teams finished further out of the money. Say Hello to the 2002 world champion Anaheim Angels.

This is just one example, of course, and hindsight is often 20/20. For much of modern baseball history, though, there is a verifiable, objective way to identify teams that won despite being widely dismissed as hopeless before the season began. Until 1993, The Sporting News asked hundreds of baseball writers each spring to forecast the final standings in each league or division. The results were published around Opening Day, in a table that neatly summarized the Conventional Wisdom about each team's chances for the upcoming season.

Between 1961 and 1991, four pennants and two World Series were won by teams which did not receive a single first-place vote in the preseason TSN survey. The 1961 Cincinnati Reds were tabbed for sixth place, with only five of 232 writers picking them to finish higher than fifth. The 1967 "Impossible Dream" Red Sox were forecast for ninth; no writer picked them as high as third, and only five of 254 thought they would finish above seventh. Complete totals for the 1969 season aren't available, but no one picked the Amazing Mets to win the NL East. Finally in 1991, 13 of the 14 AL clubs received at least one first-place vote. The 14th, the Minnesota Twins, won the World Series despite being projected to finish last in the AL West.

These four are extreme examples, to be sure, but many other divisions have been won by clubs given little chance before the season. TSN forecasts are available for 14 years since the dawn of free agency: 1977 through 1984, 1986, and 1988 through 1992. During those seasons, 12 of 56 division titles, or 21%, were won by clubs predicted to finish fourth or lower. Many other clubs written off before the season, such as the 1992 Brewers and 1989 Orioles, gave their fans plenty of "hope and faith" before falling just short--in all, 29 more clubs picked no higher than fourth finished within seven games of first.

So take those forecasts at the top of the screen with a grain of salt. We're very likely to miss a few.

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