February 18, 2010
You Could Look It Up
Get Back in Line, Part 1
Facing the world ain't easy when there isn't anything going
Standing at the corner waiting watching time go by
Will I go to work today, or shall I bide my time?
-The Kinks, "Get Back in Line," (1970)
With the New Orleans Saints having won the Super Bowl after a 43-year wait, this time out here in You Could Look It Up Land, I thought it might be fun to take an irreverent peek at those teams that have waited the longest to win the World Series. With some, it has been so long that you're looking at vast swaths of history and culture falling between rings. For each team, we have a little capsule like this:
New York Yankees (2009)
Years since last championship: 1
Reason for gap: The new season hasn't started yet
President the last time they won: Barack Obama.
Talk around the water cooler: The presidential election and the cratering economy.
Top of the Charts When They Won: "Down" by Jay Sean with Lil Wayne.
Closest They've Come Since: Ask me in October.
Chances of Winning This Year: With Randy Winn on the team, how can they go wrong?
Obviously it's a bit silly to start so recently, so we'll skip the teams that have gone less than ten years since drinking from the golden cup-the Yanks, Phillies, Red Sox, Cardinals, White Sox, Marlins, Angels, and Diamondbacks.
Atlanta Braves (1995)
Years since last championship: 15
Reason for gap: With the Braves, as with all teams in this survey, it is difficult to generalize across long periods of time-I'm in trouble when we get to the Cubs-but we'll try. They lost two subsequent World Series among ten other lost postseason series. The Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine Hall of Fame trio got old at about the same time that Ted Turner gave way to Time Warner, who subsequently gave way to Liberty Media. A recurrent theme is these capsules is the damage wrought by ownership changes that reduce the team from the apple of an owner's eye to a line on a corporate spreadsheet. Suddenly, commitment to player salaries starts clashing with executive bonuses and teams start playing it cheap. That said, there was nothing wrong with the Braves through 2005 except the inability to convert the fifth game of a NLDS or three. Since the end of the postseason run, overall depth has been a problem, but 2009 was pure negligence: The pitching staff could have taken the Braves into October, but the preseason decision to select Garret Anderson for left field over other free agents put the subsequent heroic efforts to reshape the offense firmly in the too little/too late category.
President the last time they won: William Jefferson Clinton, bailing out Mexico with $42 Billion.
Talk around the water cooler: The O.J. Simpson trial, the terrorist attack on Oklahoma City, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin.
Top of the Charts When They Won: "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey.
Closest They've Come Since: The following year, when they dropped the World Series to the Yankees 4-2 after winning the first two games, outscoring the Yankees 16-1 in the process.
Chances of Winning This Year: The pitching staff should again be solid, even with the departure of Javier Vazquez, but unless Jason Heyward is going to give the Braves a huge bat in the middle of the order this season, the offense could still be a bit short.
Toronto Blue Jays (1993)
Years since last championship: 17
Reason for gap: At roughly the same time the championship team needed reinforcements, the team was acquired by Interbrew, which meant the club was less interested in paying for stars like Roberto Alomar, David Cone, and Al Leiter, who all left at roughly the same time. The free-agent signing of Roger Clemens for the 1997 season proved to be the club's last move on a major free agent until B.J. Ryan nine years later. The farm system has continued to produce pitchers, but position players have been few and far between. Since the last championship, the Jays' farm can boast Orlando Hudson, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios, although the latter two have had spotty careers. In addition to a few role players, like Gabe Gross and Reed Johnson, and some outright failures like Russ Adams, Michael Young, Craig Wilson, Ryan Freel, Jay Gibbons, Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Roberts got away without contributing much, if anything, to the team. The jury is still out on Travis Snider. It is an indictment of the now-concluded reign of J.P. Ricciardi that the two most promising position players in the system came as a result of the Roy Halladay deal.
President the last time they won: William Jefferson Clinton signing off on "don't ask, don't tell" and naming his wife to head up health care reform. The more things change…
Talk around the water cooler: The bollixed attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the suicide of White House counsel Vincent Foster, the U.S. military mission to Somalia.
Top of the Charts When They Won: "Dreamlover" by Mariah Carey.
Closest They've Come Since: It depends how you look at it. Their highest finish since 1993 was 2006, when they finished second in the AL East with an 87-75 record. Their best record since 1993 was 1998, when they went 88-74 (.543). However, they finished 26 games out. The best compromise candidate would seem to be 2000, when they won only 83 games and finished in third place, but stood just 4.5 games behind a weak Yankees team. That edition of the club had some of the last impact players produced by the system at their best: Carlos Delgado hit .344/.470/.664 with 41 home runs, while Shannon Stewart batted .319/.363/.518. Unfortunately, the offense was handicapped by a lack of patience, the bullpen was weak, and the rotation could not survive a total mechanical breakdown by Roy Halladay and a 6.26 ERA from a 25-year-old, pre-award-winning Chris Carpenter.
Chances of Winning This Year: Snowball, welcome to Hell.
Minnesota Twins (1991)
Years since last championship: 19
Reason for gap: The Twins do a lot of things right, but they're just not geared up to compete with the big boys. It's not solely a question of being a small-market team, but of being a small-offense team. Too many replacement-level players have disgraced the team's lineup. It is perhaps unfair to point out that they were out-homered 6-0 by the Yankees in the 2009 ALDS given that Justin Morneau did not play, but it wasn't the first time-the Angels out-homered them 8-0 in 2002. The last postseason opponent to hit fewer home runs than the Twins was the 1987 Cardinals.
President the last time they won: George Herbert Walker Bush, nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Talk around the water cooler: The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the conclusion of the first Gulf War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, McDonald's introduces the "McLean."
Top of the Charts When They Won: "Emotions" by Mariah Carey. Steven Goldman is not ashamed to admit that he has never listened to a song by Mariah Carey and is somewhat surprised to learn that she apparently dominated the charts in the 1990s.
Closest They've Come Since: In 2002, Ron Gardenhire somehow directed a postseason rotation of Brad Radke, Joe Mays, Rick Reed, and Eric Milton (aggregate SNLVAR of 11.2) to the fifth game of the ALCS against the Angels.
Chances of Winning This Year: The AL Central is seemingly always wide open, but the Twins have demonstrated that their problem is not making the postseason, it's getting through the first round that's the problem. Adding Orlando Hudson makes it easier to have confidence, but a third baseman is still missing.
Cincinnati Reds (1990)
Years since last championship: 20
Reason for gap: First there was the insanity of the later Marge Schott years, when ownership seemed more interested in Hitler than in winning. Then there was the Jim Bowden period, in which the team went years without establishing a starting rotation. In the full seasons for which Bowden was responsible, 1996 to 2003, the Reds had the fewest 30-start seasons-10-of any team in baseball except the Rays (six), who didn't exist until 1998. The Diamondbacks, also late to the party, had 14 such seasons. In the post-Bowden years, the Reds have been the epitome of mediocrity, averaging 76 wins over the last six years, carrying both offenses and pitching staffs that have struggled to achieve average performances.
President the last time they won: George Herbert Walker Bush, going after General Noriega in Panama.
Talk around the water cooler: The anti-flag-burning amendment; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; Washington mayor Marion Barry is caught smoking crack, Milli Vanilli are caught lip-synching; the dying housing and real estate market. Ever feel like you've been treading water for 20 years?
Top of the Charts When They Won: "I Don't Have the Heart" by James Ingram.
Closest They've Come Since: In 1995, they won the NL Central before being swept out of the divisional round by the Braves. The club won 96 games in 1999 before losing a game-163 playoff to the Mets.
Chances of Winning This Year: Playing in a soft division helps, but they lack the firepower on offense, the depth of pitching, and a manager who will make it better, not worse.
Oakland Athletics (1989)
Years since last championship: 21
Reason for gap: The A's have made multiple trips to the postseason but failed to win. We have a whole chapter on this topic in our book Baseball Between the Numbers. We listed the cause of death as lack of attention to pitching and defense, aspects that correlate well to post-season success (this was the basis of our "Secret Sauce"). More recently, the A's saw the roster that helped them overachieve with a 93-69 record in 2006 dispersed across baseball. Of the few players that were retained from that club, two, Justin Duchscherer and Eric Chavez, didn't play last year.
President the last time they won: George Herbert Walker Bush and his thousand points of something or other.
Talk around the water cooler: The Central Park Jogger; Tianamen Square demonstrations; "Rosanne," "The Cosby Show," and "Cheers;" Jesse Helms vs. Robert Mapplethorpe.
Top of the Charts When They Won: "Miss You Much" by Janet Jackson.
Closest They've Come Since: The A's went back to the World Series in 1990 but were swept out by the Reds. Since then, they've been back in the postseason six times. In 2006, the Tigers swept them out of the ALCS.
Chances of Winning This Year: The division has no real favorite, but even if the pitching staff gels, the offense seems like it will be a bit short. Chris Carter, should he make the team, will help a little bit, but not enough.
Los Angeles Dodgers (1988)
Year's since last championship: 22
Reason for gap: It's hard to believe that this great franchise has gone so many years between rings. Tommy Lasorda's short term as general manager didn't help, but that wasn't the whole story. Not having a 30-home season from 2005 to 2008 was a symptom, not a cause. As with several of the organizations here, part of the problem was changes of ownership that transformed the club from the primary concern of the O'Malley family to a minor subsidiary of NewsCorp. The owner's inconsistency in terms of hires and his personal financial issues have compromised the Frank McCourt ownership. In terms of talent acquisition, good luck finding a position player the Dodgers drafted between Mike Piazza and James Loney or Matt Kemp that made a major contribution to the organization. No, Todd Hollandsworth does not count.
President the last time they won: Ronald Wilson Reagan, preaching the USA in the heart of Moscow.
Talk around the water cooler: Lee Atwater's Willie Horton ads vs. Michael Dukakis; "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy;" Michael Milken's junk bonds; Pan Am 103; leveraged buyouts. Yesterday is today… and tomorrow, too.
Top of the Charts When They Won: "Red Red Wine" by UB40.
Closest They've Come Since: The Dodgers have been back to the postseason six times, losing the NLCS 4-1 each of the last two seasons.
Chances of Winning This Year: The two-time defending division champions have more than a fair shot in a division without a dominant squad. They've had a quiet offseason, perhaps due to marital troubles on the part of the owner, but more consistency from the pitching staff could make up for many defects.
In Part II, we'll resume with the Mets, then get into some hardcore losing franchises like the Royals, Orioles, and Pirates.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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