Pittsburgh's certainly not alone in baseball's era of futility
Over the last 17 years, eight other teams have had long stretches of losing
The truth is, there just aren't as many ways for Pittsburgh to turn things around
For those small-revenue teams, the walls are always closing in
The talk, of course, revolves around the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have now clinched their 17th consecutive losing season, a record of beautiful futility.* But there might be something else going on in baseball. Bad teams, it seems are staying bad.
* The Pirates have the record -- but they are not even close to the most consistently bad team in baseball history. That, without a doubt, was the Philadelphia Phillies of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Those Phillies would have had a THIRTY-ONE YEAR streak of losing records except for one fluky season in 1932. That year, the Phillies -- playing in the preposterous Baker Bowl (which had a 60-foot-high right-field wall only 280 feet from home plate) and with pitchers named Snipe Hansen, Flint Rhem, Jumbo Elliott and Ad Liska -- beat the Giants on the last day of the season to go 78-76.
The Phillies had a losing record every other year from 1918 to 1948. And not only that, they lost 100 or more games TWELVE TIMES. These Pirates have only lost 100 once, and they lost 100 on the nose that time. The Pirates might have the record, but they cannot come close to the sheer incompetence of those Phillies teams.
Here's the thing. You already know that the Pirates now have 17 straight losing seasons. But what you might not know -- or at least might not have thought about -- is that over those 17 years, eight other teams have had long stretches of losing baseball.
The Baltimore Orioles have had 11 straight losing seasons, and they are one loss away from extending that streak to 12.
The Cincinnati Reds are likely to clinch their ninth straight losing season soon enough.
The Kansas City Royals have had losing seasons 14 of the last 15 years and -- this is actually quite remarkable -- have more losses over the last 17 years than Pittsburgh.
The Milwaukee Brewers had 12 consecutive losing seasons end in 2004, and after rising up and making the playoffs last year, they are struggling again.
The Detroit Tigers had a stretch of 12 consecutive losing seasons end in 2005.
The Tampa Bay Rays had 10 straight losing seasons before shocking everyone last year.
The Minnesota Twins had a streak of eight consecutive losers end in 2000.
The Philadelphia Phillies had a streak of seven straight losing season end in 2000.
That's pretty interesting. There have only been 20 streaks in baseball history where a team finished below .500 for 10 or more seasons in a row -- and a quarter of those have come in the last decade. And those five long losing streaks streaks don't even include the Royals, whose quirky 2003 season interrupted 14 losing years, or the Reds, who are one year away from a 10-year losing steak of their own.
So what's happening here? Yes, absolutely, all through baseball history there have been bad teams that stayed bad. There were a number of bad teams in the 1970s -- Montreal, San Diego, Milwaukee, California, Cleveland and Philadelphia all had a sizable stretch of losing seasons. The Mets, Kansas City A's and Boston Red Sox were bad for most of the 1960s. The Pirates and Reds were terrible in the '50s, and the St. Louis Browns, White Sox and the two teams in Philadelphia stunk up the '40s.
The difference is that there seem to be more losers now -- maybe because there are more teams. Whatever the reason, it's ironic because baseball czar Bud Selig likes to believe he's the "hope and belief" commissioner. Yes, he will talk often about how it's his truest mission to make sure that every fan in baseball should have hope and belief on Opening Day. He has expanded the playoffs. He brought out the wild card. He pushed for more revenue sharing. He has tried to bully teams into a slotting system in the draft.
And what has happened? If you are a high school junior in Pittsburgh, then you have not been alive for a Pirates winning season. If you are a recent college graduate in Kansas City, you have no earthly way of knowing what it means for the local baseball team to make the playoffs. If you are young in Cincinnati and Baltimore, you will hear from older folk that you live in one of the best baseball towns in America -- but there's no reason why you should believe it. And even though they have not built up those long streaks yet, things are looking pretty hopeless for the moment in Washington, San Diego and even Oakland, where the A's are working on their third consecutive losing season.
Is this just because these teams are poorly run? Or is it harder to turn around a bad team these days? Everyone has an opinion, but it's probably a bit of both. People are so sick of the big revenue/small revenue talk that they have decided simply to ignore it. Talking about revenues and payrolls is so 1999. Moneyball came out, the Marlins won a World Series, teams like Tampa Bay, Colorado and Milwaukee have made nice runs, and it's enough to get people to say, "See, if you are smart and creative you can win with a small payroll."
Maybe so. The problem is: There just aren't that many smart and creative people out there. And many of them might like to work for the Yankees and Red Sox -- after all, they pay better.
The truth is, there just aren't as many ways for a Pittsburgh or Kansas City or Cincinnati to turn things around. They can't compete for the best players in free agency -- and what's worse is that because they can't compete for the Sabathias and Teixeiras and Beltrans, it becomes tempting to overpay for second-tier free agents like Jose Guillen or Danys Baez or Jeff Suppan. Those kinds of mistakes can devastate a small-revenue team. The draft is a pretty expensive spin of the roulette wheel*. The richer teams spend more scouting and signing players all over the world. For those small-revenue teams, the walls are always closing in.
* The Pirates have had 10 top-10 picks in the First-Year Player Draft since this streak began -- six of them in the top five. These top-10 picks have included Bryan Bullington, Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, John Van Benschoten and Brad Lincoln. That, in a nutshell, is how you have losing seasons for 17 straight years. The closest thing to a success story was when then took Kris Benson with the No. 1 overall pick -- he won 43 games, lost 49 and was traded to the Mets.
But, truth is, nobody wants to hear the complaints. The Pirates and others have to find a way to dig out of the pits -- nobody's going to help them. Nobody's going to feel sorry for them. Those awful Phillies that had losing seasons 30 out of 31 years -- well, what happened to them? They signed a couple of young pitchers named Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, that's what happened. They signed a Nebraska farm boy named Richie Ashburn, signed a local kid named Del Ennis and picked up a veteran pitcher named Jim Konstanty. And the Whiz Kids shocked the nation and won the National League pennant in 1950.
True, the Phillies got swept in the World Series. And they did not reach the postseason again for 26 years. But that's not the point, is it?
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