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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Opening Day Doesn't Bring Same Hope for All Teams

With Opening Day of the 2009 baseball season just around the corner, it is time for the obligatory comments about how the start of the season is so great because every team starts at the same place and has a renewed sense of optimism and hope.

While it is true that every team starts the season with the same record, we all know that teams don’t really start with the same sense of hope. I’m willing to bet that fans of the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies are significantly more confident about the potential for their team to reach the playoffs in 2009 than fans of the Royals, Orioles, Pirates or Reds.

Now I know that every year at least one team surprises the experts and makes an unexpected run at the title. Last year at this time many were ready to sell playoff tickets in Detroit while few predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would finish out of the American League East basement. Of course, the Rays reached the World Series while it was the Tigers who finished last in their division.

It is likely that again in 2009 some team will rise from the ashes to contend for the playoffs while at least one predicted contender will have a disappointing year. Rather than fill this space with a futile attempt to predict which teams will rise and which will fall, I thought it would be interesting to look at four franchises that were once considered among the elite of the game, but in recent years have fallen on difficult times.

Between 1960 and 1997, the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates combined for 10 World Series titles, 17 Pennants and 32 Division titles. All four franchises had extended periods of success and were considered among the top franchises in the sport. However, over the last dozen years all four teams have gone from the penthouse to the outhouse as their performances have been among the worst in the game.

Baltimore Orioles

Then: The most consistent team in baseball for more than two decades, the Orioles registered a winning record in 24 of 26 seasons between 1960 and 1985, including 18 straight winning seasons from 1968-1985. The Orioles registered 17 seasons of 90+ victories and reached 100 wins five times. Baltimore appeared in the World Series six times and won three titles. The opening of Orioles Park at Camden Yards in 1992 ushered in a new period of economic prosperity for baseball as the Orioles regularly sold out every game and the retro-stadium led to similar stadiums popping up around the league.

Now: You could call it the curse of Davey Johnson as since the former Orioles player and manager was fired despite leading the team to the American East title and American League Championship Series in 1997 the Orioles have posted a losing record for 11 straight seasons. They have not won more than 78 games in any season this decade and annually seem to swoon as the season reaches its final months. It used to be almost impossible to get a good seat for an Orioles game without planning months in advance, but now the team plays almost every game in front of thousands of empty seats.

Future: After years of trying to make a quick fix, since Andy MacPhail became team president in 2007 the Orioles seem to finally have a plan for rebuilding. The Orioles of the glory days were built through a solid farm system and a foundation of pitching and defense. MacPhail has reloaded the farm system and the Orioles are believed to have one of the deepest pools of minor league pitching talent in the league. Baltimore will probably not contend in 2009, but it shouldn’t be many more years before they are challenging in the toughest division in baseball.

Cincinnati Reds:

Then: Baseball’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Reds have produced some of the greatest squads in baseball history. Between 1961 and 1995 the Reds produced 26 winning seasons, three World Series champions, six pennant winners and eight division champions. The “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s is still considered one of the greatest collections of talent in baseball history.

Now: Like the Orioles, the downfall of the Reds could perhaps be traced to a curse from former manager Davey Johnson. The Reds have not made the playoffs since Johnson was fired after leading the team to a division title in 1995. Cincinnati did win 96 games in 1999, but lost a one game playoff with the New York Mets for the wild card spot. The team has not had a winning season since 2000. Bad luck is partly responsible for their disappointing performance after the team made a bold move to sign Ken Griffey, Jr. in 2000. Unfortunately, Griffey suffered from a variety of injuries during his tenure with the team and never displayed the ability that made him the best player in the game in the 1990s.

Future: After failing in attempts to rebuild through trades and free agency, the Reds have showed promise for the future due to the development of several homegrown players. The team has also jettisoned several veteran players in exchange for young players who can develop into regulars. The result is a young nucleus of position players and pitchers that could eventually make the Reds contenders. Because the National League Central is a very difficult division to predict, the Reds could find themselves in the playoff hunt either this season or in 2010.

Kansas City Royals:
Then: From the time they joined the league as an expansion team in 1969 until the player’s strike of 1994, the Royals were a regular contender. Excluding their first two expansion seasons, the Royals posted winning campaigns in 17 of 24 years, including eight years of 90 of more victories. They won the American League West seven times in a 10-year period from 1976-1985 and claimed the 1985 World Series Championship.

Now: Since baseball labor peace was restored in 1995, the Royals have registered only one winning season (83-79 in 2003). They have lost 100 or more games in a season four times and reached 90 losses four other times. Along with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Royals have been hit the hardest by the changing financial structure of the sport. Always a “small market” team, the Royals have been unable to build a consistent winner as most of their homegrown stars have ended up leaving for greener pastures with other teams.

Future: The Royals have increased their victory total in each of the last three seasons and last year finished out of the Central Division cellar for the first time since 2003. The team has a young nucleus of talented players and has tried to supplement that by signing a number of veterans. As has been the case over the last decade, the key will be whether the Royals are able to keep their young players long enough for them to mature into a cohesive unit.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Then: Another storied franchise with a history dating back to 1882, the Pirates registered 21 winning seasons between 1960 and 1992 while winning three World Series titles. The team claimed six division titles in the 1970s and then won three straight division crowns from 1990-1992.

Now: Since losing to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 National League Championship Series, the Pirates have not finished a season with a winning record. For nearly a decade they said that building a new stadium was essential if they were to compete in the current economic structure, but since moving into their new publicly funded facility in 2001 the Pirates have averaged 93 losses per year, with at least 94 losses in each of the last four seasons.

Future: Unlike the Orioles, Reds and Royals who all at least seem to be trying to build a winning franchise on the field, the ownership of the Pirates seems to be most interested in increasing the profit margin. That is really a shame for Pirate fans, which have traditionally been among the most loyal in the sport. As a kid my family annually visited our relatives in Northwest Pennsylvania during the summer and it seemed like every television in town was always tuned into the broadcast of the Pirates game. I expect that MLB will do everything they can to keep a franchise in Pittsburgh, but unless the next labor agreement includes a clause that forces all franchises to reach a minimum payroll, don’t expect the Pirates to break out of their current streak of losing seasons.

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