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End of Days
2003-09-30 01:37
by Mike Carminati

The 2003 regular season is now in the books. I just wanted to review some of the stories in the final weekend before girding my loins (and we all know how painful that can be) for the playoffs:

Detroit!?! No, Not Detroit!

With no one compelling story in baseball Today ESPN's coverage was a panorama of games reflecting the short attention span of a truly great sporting event like, say, the Olympics. Alas, they could not fit synchronized swimming or curling into the schedule.

They did however rest for some time on the Phillies last game at the Vet—of course, a loss. The also showed passing interest in Barry Bonds attempt to reach Willie Mays home run total, and therefore third place all-time, on the last day of the season. Did you know Mays is Bonds godfather? Why that's revelatory! They should mention it every time that Bonds comes to bat.

ESPN also saw fit to bring America the last half inning in the 2003 Detroit Tigers' season. God bless them. You see, the mighty Tigers were beating a Twins team that featured Lew Ford leading off and had just one starter play the whole game. The replacement Twins went down meekly in the ninth and the Tigers ended the season one loss shy of the Mets' all-time loss total of 120.

The win went to Mike Maroth, his ninth against 21 losses. Jeremy Bonderman, who was just one loss short of twenty for the year, did his best to reach that promised land, but even he could not overcome a 9-2 though he did his best giving up three hits and two unearned runs in his one inning of work.

The Tigers celebrated as if they had taken a game from the Yankees in the postseason. Manager Alan Trammell was especially jubilant, jogging out to congratulate his puissant pussycats. In the broadcast booth, the commentators were so excited they jettisoned the 1962 Mets footage that they had on ice had the Tigers lost.

So, the Tigers were able to lay their collective demons to rest: they certainly are not the worst team of all time. Right? The Tigers finished 43-119 for a .265 winning percentage. There are 47 teams in baseball history with worse records. True, a number of them are short-lived teams that didn't survive the season in professional baseball's nascent days. However, even if we just look at teams that played 100 or more games in a season, Detroit is still just 17 worst:

1899Cleveland SpidersNL20134.130
1890Pittsburgh AlleghenysNL23113.167
1889Louisville ColonelsAA27111.193
1897St. Louis BrownsNL29102.220
1886Washington NationalsNL2892.224
1916Philadelphia AthleticsAL36117.234
1886Kansas City CowboysNL3091.238
1904Washington SenatorsAL38113.242
1884Detroit WolverinesNL2884.246
1935Boston BravesNL38115.248
1962New York MetsNL40120.248
1898St. Louis BrownsNL39111.253
1919Philadelphia AthleticsAL36104.257
1890Brooklyn GladiatorsAA2673.260
1895Louisville ColonelsNL3596.263
1884Indianapolis HoosiersAA2978.264
2003Detroit TigersAL43119.265

Besides their expected winning percentage was .305. That's still very bad (in the top 50 worst all-time), but it does say that the team did underachieve even with its modest talent pool.

The 2003 Tigers were an awful team, but surely not the worst ever. Right?

Well, I disagree. For one thing, the 1962 Mets, the team that the Tigers were chasing or rather were chased by, were a horrible team, but they were a first-year expansion team. The other teams on the list have plenty of good excuses for avoiding worst team ever status.

The worst team ever, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, were a victim of circumstance or rather owner Frank Robison. Robison had purchased the bankrupt St. Louis Browns, renamed them Perfectos (now the Cardinal), and stocked them with many of the Spiders stars including Hall-of-Famers Cy Young and Jesse Burkett. The Spiders went from a team in 1898 that had a .544 winning percentage and hadn't had a losing season in seven years to the team with the worst record in baseball. Robison also profited at the season's end as the NL lopped off four flagging teams to get down to its classic eight-team structure. Surely if this club had been run by an owner who had their best interests at heart, they would not have had such a poor record.

The 1890 Pittsburg(h) Alleghenies lost a number of players to the Pittsburgh club from a one-year rival league started by the players union (then called brotherhood) called the Players' National League. When the PL was dissolved by a deal between the league owners and the established major league, the players returned to their original teams. The 1891 Pirates were still a poor team (in last place, 25 games under .500), but they were nowhere near the worst of all time. By the way, the Pittsburgh club was dubbed the Pirates that year for signing former Philadelphia A Lou Bierbauer as he returned from Players' League, and the name stuck.

The 1916 and 1919 A's were the result of Connie Mack purposely dismantled a team that went to four straight World Series 1910-14 and is often mentioned among the best ever. The 1935 Boston Braves and 1897-98 St. Louis Browns were just about to go bankrupt. The 1886 Washington Nationals, 1962 New York Mets, 1884 Indianapolis Hooisers, and 1886 Kansas City Cowboys were first-year clubs. The 1890 Brooklyn Gladiators and Pittsburghs and the 1884 Detroit Wolverines and Indianapolis Hoosiers had the bad luck of playing in a year in which an independent major league competed with the organized leagues. And the 1904 Senators could at least say they had been a major-league team for only three years before the debacle of a season, in which the Senators started 0-13 but barely improved thereafter.

The Detroit Tigers have been a going concern since 1901. Actually, the Detroit franchise dates back to 1894, when the American League was just a nascent minor league known as the Western League. That's over one hundred years of history no matter how you look at it. The Tigers were 8035-7750 for a .509 winning percentage all-time when the season started, and this was a team that hadn't had a winning season in the last nine. This is a team that is trying to win but has been so poorly mismanaged it ranks with the worst teams of all time.

Consider that the majority of the teams competing with the Tigers for the worst team title played in the 19th century when shorter schedules and haphazard ownership resulted in wild swings in a leagues winning percentage. Take a look at the average winning percentage of first-place teams by decade:

DecadeW PCT

It wasn't until the 1910s that leagues had stabilized enough to say that they were comparable to today's multi-billion-dollar entertainment giants. The dropoff in the Sixties is attributable to some degree to expansion, of the schedule and the leagues. As the first-place teams flourished, the tailenders floundered. Today that is much less the case.

As a matter of fact if you look at the teams that are the furthest away from the norm based on the league average variance (i.e., winning percentage standard deviation), the 2003 Tigers are right near the top:

Detroit Tigers1996AL53109.3272.496
Cleveland Spiders1899NL20134.1302.472
Detroit Tigers2003AL43119.2652.445
Cleveland Indians1991AL57105.3522.442
Philadelphia Athletics1916AL36117.2342.310
Baltimore Terrapins1915FL47107.3052.255
Texas Rangers1973AL57105.3522.208
Texas Rangers1972AL54100.3512.200
Baltimore Orioles1988AL54107.3352.167
New York Mets1963NL51111.3152.151
New York Mets1964NL53109.3252.137
Atlanta Braves1988NL54106.3382.135
Philadelphia Phillies1938NL45105.2982.132
Philadelphia Quakers1883NL1781.1722.121
New York Mets1965NL50112.3052.115
Detroit Tigers1989AL59103.3642.088
Philadelphia Athletics1945AL5298.3402.083
Worcester Ruby Legs1882NL1866.2142.057
Washington Senators1962AL60101.3702.054
Buffalo Bisons1890PL3696.2692.044
San Diego Padres1973NL60102.3702.041
St. Louis Browns1897NL29102.2202.039
Boston Red Sox1926AL46107.2992.010
New York Mets1962NL40120.2482.000

(I know that standard deviations are affected by the sample size. As more teams are added the standard deviation shrinks and the extremes look more extreme. However, if Rob Neyer can write his dynasties book based solely on this type of analysis, I can at least use it as a nail in the Tigers' coffin.)

The Tigers may have avoided displacing the '62 Mets in the record books, but in my book they are the worst team of all time.

Vet Exeunt

It was nice to see Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas remove the last number in the Phils' countdown to a new stadium. Of course, it was a nod to Harry's old boothmate, Hall-of-Fame player Richie Ashburn, whose number for the Phils was one.

It was also great to watch ESPN's coverage of a guy trying to remove the seat number from his chair. They must have covered it for an inning and a half. The guy never got the plaque off nor was he arrested. I just feel bad for the poor sap that pays $280—that's the Phils' asking price—for that pair of seats.

The last game as the Vet is now in the books—"Hard to believe, Harry." So what is the Vet's legacy? Veterans Stadium witnessed the Phillies' only golden period (1976-83), during which the Phils made the postseason six times, reached the World Series twice (two of the five times in their history), and won their sole World Series championship. It also witnessed the abuse of the last two decades in which the Phils made the postseason just once in the excitingly fluky year of 1993.

Here are the Phils all-time records by home stadium:

Recreation Park183251.422418831886
Philadelphia Baseball Grounds583476.551818871894
Baker Bowl28953490.4534318951937
Baker Bowl/Shibe Park45105.300119381938
Shibe Park22282761.4473219391970
Veterans Stadium25712646.4933319712003

The Phils ended up below .500 during the Vet years even with their great success in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

As for me, I misspent my youth in the 700 level of the Vet. I didn't see a losing Phillies team until I was in college. But after living in Boston and New York and seeing what a ballgame is like at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, I can't say that I'll miss the old tin can much (though Shea Stadium made me appreciate the Vet).

Perhaps when the Vet is imploded and filled in and they pave that paradise and put up a parking lot, I'll start to get nostalgic. I think my eulogy would be, to paraphrase Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins, "Here lies Veteran's Stadium, and why not?"

[By the way, after using an Arnold Schwarzenegger title in the headline, I have to publish 134 other articles with references to each of the other California gubernatorial candidates to give them equal time. Get ready for lots of "What you talkin' about, Willis?" during the Marlins playoff run.]

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