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December 30, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Cumulative Commemorations

by Jim Baker

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Last time out we discussed a team (Kansas City) trying to avoid a place among historically bad clubs in the upcoming season. This time out, we'll discuss a couple of teams with a chance to square things historically in 2006, inspired by this letter from reader Scott Simon:

Don Banks on SI.com wrote today, 'With their win Monday night against the Jets, the Patriots reached .500 as a franchise for the first time since mid-Sept. 1969, when they were 60-60-9. The Pats are now 354-354-9, after being as low as 54 games under the break-even mark in 1994 (228-282-9).' 54 games in pro football equals about 4.5 full winless seasons, given the schedule was only 14 games until relatively recently. Which MLB teams are historically putrid, and are there any on the verge of breaking even for all time?

Monday, June 4, 1923; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: A crossroads in history. Those in attendance at the Baker Bowl that day thought they were seeing just another bottom-feeding game between the seventh-place Boston Braves and their last-place locals, the 12-30 Phillies. Nobody had any idea they were about to witness the undoing of a legacy that had lasted nearly a half-century up to that point. It was on that day that the Boston cumulative franchise record fell below .500 for the first time since the very first year of the National League.

The Braves entered the '23 season at 3067-3059. In the early going they had played fairly well for a Boston team of that vintage, staying close to .500 in the first couple weeks of the season. A 3-8 run at the end of May/early June brought them to Philadelphia with a 17-25 record, or 3084-3084 overall.

The Boston franchise had won their very first game in 1876 and then flirted with .500 for the next three months. On July 25 of that year, they beat the New York Mutuals 11-1 to run their record to 20-19. They won their next five games as well and finished the season at 39-31. Pennants followed in the next two seasons, getting their cumulative record off to a spectacular start. Excellent clubs in the 1890s helped build a cushion that peaked at 523 games on April 23, 1903. It was then that the great unraveling began. Five 100-loss seasons in the next decade cut the bulge to under 100. The team abated the tide briefly by winning it all in 1914 and following up with a couple more good seasons, but the slide resumed in 1917 and was gaining speed with a 100-loss season in 1922.

On that fateful June 4, 1923, Dana Fillingim pitched for Boston against Lefty Weinert--two pitchers who would combine to go 5-26 on the season. Neither exceeded expectations and the Phillies won 9-7. For the first time in 47 years, the Braves franchise record was below .500. There was no see-sawing around, either. They immediately got down to the business of submerging themselves further. They lost another nine straight games, running their losing streak to 12. By the time the dust had settled six weeks later, they had finished a 6-37 run and were on their way to another 100-loss season. They duplicated this feat the next year and proceeded to dig themselves a giant hole over the next two decades.

By the middle of 1946, the Braves had bottomed out at 524 games below .500. After that, they turned it around and finished over .500 that year and the next two, winning the pennant in 1948. The Braves left Boston after 1952 and helped the cause every year they were in Milwaukee, finishing over .500 each one of the 13 seasons they were there. By the time they arrived in Atlanta in 1966, they had worked the deficit down to 224 games. Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of trips to the playoffs, the Braves spent their first 25 years in their third city getting themselves back into the hole. On April 20, 1991 John Smoltz lost 2-0 to Tom Browning and the Reds and the deficit was all the way back to 526 games.

The Braves regular season achievements from that point forward are legendary. They've paid off their debt in 30- and 40-game increments and have melted the deficit to the point where they are now within a typical Coxian Braves season of getting back to .500 for the first time in 83 years. If the Braves go 93-69 or better in 2006, they will have reached the break-even point.

While we know the Braves have been marvelous for the past 15 years, nothing quite underscores their achievements than paying down a game debt that was 67 years in the making. The team should hype the approach of the milestone and mark it in some way when it occurs. The problem is that it's a fluid record that could disappear the day after it is set. One promotion the Braves could do is to have a "Guess the Game" contest wherein fans have to name the game in which they hit .500 for the first time since 1923. It's probably a fairly small window, though. Answers probably wouldn't be much more diverse than Game 152 of 2006 to Game 20 of 2007.

Another team that is on the cusp of getting back to .500 is Houston. "Back" is a relative term, really. They won their first three games in their inaugural season of 1962 and were still at .500 two weeks into the season. They fell to 6-7 on April 27 and have never been at .500 since. They enter the 2006 season needing to make up a six-game deficit. This is down from a franchise high of 228 which they hit after dropping a doubleheader to the Giants on September 24, 1978. The Astros have been making steady, if not as spectacular, progress for almost as long as have the Braves. With the exception of the 2000 season (in which their Pythagorean record was essentially that of a .500 team), Houston has paid down the debt or not added to it every season since 1992. The Astros have a decent shot at finishing 2006 in the historical black. Any record better than 84-78 will leave them on the good side of the ledger.

The only other team that could move over or under .500 cumulatively in 2006 is Arizona, currently eight games over overall. Their moves so far this offseason have been pretty savvy, so it appears that they could be doing what they need to in order to protect that slight padding.

The Astros' achievement of a total .500 record will make them the only expansion team other than Arizona to have gotten on the good side of breaking even. The remainder of the classes of '61, '62, '69, '77, '93 and '98 are all under .500. The Blue Jays are just 57 games under, a gap that could be realistically spanned with four or five seasons of decent baseball.

Which brings us back to the Royals. For 15 years, they were the one expansion team that had managed to climb out of the primordial sub-.500 soup. Their plus-.500 reign lasted from July 5, 1977 to July 11, 2002. They got back over again soon thereafter but went under for good on September 6, 2002. The recent unpleasantness has left them 111 games to the bad--far worse than they have ever been.

Is this something that's worth worrying about? I say yes. What the Braves and Astros are on the verge of accomplishing is a testament to good decision-making and long-term planning. Consider that in order for the Royals to make up their relatively small deficit it would take four consecutive seasons of .600 ball, seven of .550 or 14 of .525 from getting back to .500.

When they occur, these milestones should not go by without fanfare in Houston, Atlanta and the rest of the baseball world.

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