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The tank always looms

Even storied dynasties are prone to long, hard falls

Posted: Tuesday October 23, 2007 4:22PM; Updated: Tuesday October 30, 2007 3:09PM
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George Brett seems to be wondering about what became of his once-proud Royals.
George Brett seems to be wondering about what became of his once-proud Royals.
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These are halcyon days indeed if you're a Boston fan. The Patriots are a bona fide dynasty, the Red Sox are fixin' to become one, and even the downtrodden Celtics and Bruins are making some noise. Meanwhile, other cities remain mired in prozac daze -- a death march of futility that has followed a time when it seemed that the winning would never end.

Take Kansas City, fer instance. From 1976 through 1985, the Royals racked up seven division titles, two pennants and a World Series ring. They've had only six winning seasons and no playoff appearances since. The Chiefs haven't won, or even been to, a Super Bowl since 1970 and their postseason performances have been sporadic and maddening.

Or how about Montreal? The storied Canadiens won 16 of their 23 Stanley Cups in a 27-year span from 1953 to 1979. In the 27 years since, they've won two -- the last in '93 -- and failed to even make the playoffs in five of the last eight seasons.

Glance around the map and you'll find plenty of once-perennial contenders -- Dolphins, 49ers, Islanders, Redskins, Vikings, Knicks, Browns, Maple Leafs, Orioles, Pirates, Reds, Blackhawks -- struggling to regain a semblance of former glory. So if your favorite team is at least competitive each year, or if your city is on an outright roll, treasure it while it lasts. As Neil Young noted, rust never sleeps.

In the Royals' case, they were a model franchise of the '70s with their own innovative baseball academy conceived by owner Ewing Kauffman and run by Syd Thrift, who later engineered formidable teams in Pittsburgh. It produced a steady line of talent -- 14 major leaguers, including mainstays Frank White and U.L. Washington, in a three-year span. Certainly, the free agency salary explosion hurt KC's ability to keep their stars, but after GM John Schuerholz left in '90 and Kauffman passed away in '93, nuclear winter set in as tight-fisted owner David Glass steadily took over. If you ain't gonna spend -- wisely, of course -- you damn well better be able to grow your own and keep growin' em.

Once a team is perceived as a backwater of mediocrity, it becomes a bugger of a task to attract and keep good players, not to mention topflight managers, scouts and front-office types. After all, as the immortal Luis Tiant once declared in his ad for Yankees Franks, "It's great to be with a wiener!" And it takes special individuals to relish the challenge of shoveling slag in Mudville until the nine are back on track, and actually get them there.

Like the Yankees, the Canadiens have an exceedingly proud heritage, but the toxic combination of spotty player development, bad trades, high fan expectations, intense media scrutiny and losing have made Montreal a tough sell. The team has tried to keep it in the family by turning to former Cup stalwart Bob Gainey as GM in 2003, but tradition and his past success will only go so far.

No team is immune to down cycles, and while a dynasty can rise from the biggest heap of ashes -- did any Red Sox fan who witnessed the '86 Series meltdown envision this current run? -- it can also crumble with startling ease. The rot usually starts at the top, and that should concern Yankees fans in the wake of Joe Torre's departure.

As George Steinbrenner cedes active control, a three-headed monster of sons Hank and Hal and team president Randy Levine is emerging. Where that leaves GM Brian Cashman remains to be seen, but the murk makes it easy to envision the Yankees becoming the Bronx edition of Madison Square Garden -- a hotbed of corporate intrigue, backstabbing, cross-purposes, conflicting plans and credit-grabbing where marquee names and bloated paychecks fail to cover for the absence of a carefully-constructed roster of hungry young talent, valuable role players and productive character guys (see Boston's David Oritz). I have to imagine that a Red Sox fan's worst nightmare would be celebrating another Series championship only to watch the team's upper management turn the franchise into Evil Empire North, complete with arrogant, self-defeating ego games.

As much as we love to give the bulk of the credit for winning to a manager, coach or quarterback, there's no substitute for committed ownership that knows how to hire good people and stay the hell out of their way (see: New England's Robert Kraft). Unfortunately, with so many teams being a part of wider corporate enterprises, ownership can be less than attuned or attentive to vital matters other than the color of the ink on the bottom line. Having deep pockets helps, but only to a point, and in this age of parity, "small market syndrome" is just a cop-out when you don't have the savvy to put the right mix on the field and keep it focused. After that, the players, no matter how talented and determined, are at the mercy of slumps, injuries, bad bounces, blown calls, midge infestations and other acts of God as well as simply being outperformed on any given day. A little patience and appreciation of the bumps in the road always helps keep the ship stable.

After 13 straight postseason appearances, it seems unimaginable that the Yanks could go into the cold tank for an extended stretch, but they've done it before: from 1964 through 1975 and from 1982 to 1994 (they were in first place when the strike hit). When the fish starts to rot from the noggin, the tank is always near. If you don't believe it, just talk to fans of the floundering teams mentioned above.

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Reader John Mast of Millersburg, Ohio suspects that Indians hurler Fausto Carmona has an MTV gig. So do we -- suspect that Carmona has an MTV gig. We don't have one. Yet, anyway.

One and the same?
Fausto Carmona
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