The Bronx is burning. Again.

Yankee Stadium

Nothing frustrated Yankee fans more than the pennant-winning Astros sweeping them out of the ALCS and celebrating in Yankee Stadium itself. Except maybe seventeen out of eighteen 21st century postseason push-outs and only one now fourteen-year-old World Series title.

Well. No wonder Yankee fans are somewhere between restless and roiled. Codify, a group whose specialty is “personalised game planning for greater pitching success” (their words, not mine), doesn’t restrict their observations to the mound alone. Two days ago, they noticed and shared something rather significant.

They noticed that, between 2010 and this year, the major league team that spends the most has gone to the World Series the least. That would be the team just flushed from the postseason by the ogres of the American League West in four straight American League Championship Series games.

Three out of six of, shall we say, the Show’s “thriftiest” teams (read: cheapest) have actually gone to the Series twice in that span. One was the team formerly known as the Indians, who fell to the Cubs (of all people) in seven in 2016. A second was the Rays, hosannaed perenially for the greatest ratio of competitiveness to roster payroll.

The third was the Royals, who went to the Series back to back and more or less had the second of them handed to them on a platter. (One more time: the Mets lost a 2015 Series that they could have won but for a defense that could have been tried by court martial for desertion.)

The Yankees, who spend almost habitually as though they’re the only baseball team authorised to operate their own mint presses, haven’t reached the World Series once in the same thirteen-year time frame. Only one other team within reach of their spending levels hasn’t, either, and that would be the fourth-highest spenders in Show over that span.

The Angels are a mess thanks to an owner who thought (erroneously) that baseball was marketing alone. (Said owner now plans to sell the team, which has Angel fans uncertain whether that’s a gift from the Elysian Fields gods or a reboot of My Mother, the Car in waiting.) The Yankees are a mess only in the terms by which their history and their fan base demands: if the Yankees aren’t in the Series, never mind winning it, the season is an abject failure and the Series is illegitimate.

Their 20th century success spoiled both the organisation and Yankee fans rotten. Their 21st century . . . well, you can’t really say a team that’s won ten AL East titles and gone to eighteen postseasons in 22 years is an abject failure. You can’t, I can’t, but Yankee fans can. And, do. Vociferously.

Across town, the Mets who haven’t enjoyed a quarter of the Yankees’ success have a fan base that gives cynicism a name rotten enough. The only thing needed to send too many Met fans into a spell of depression is a single bad inning in a game they might even win. In April.

They’re downright cheerful compared to the Yankee fan who thinks a single postseason game loss (never mind a postseason series loss) equals a mandate for summary executions. Preferably yesterday. (Remember: To err is human, to forgive is not necessarily Yankee fan’s policy.) Dodger fans are catching up to that rather rapidly.

Too many fan bases, what remains of them, would love to have those problems. Too many fan bases have been abused by tanking. Too many fan bases have been battered not by tanking but by brains gone to bed in the front offices of teams refusing to tank. A few make mythologies about of their teams’ signs of promise followed by surrealistic on-field calamties.

With or without blindfolding and spinning me, I could not find for you even one Yankee fan who would have believed, in his or her worst nightmares, that their historic rivals from New England would open a century with three more World Series rings than the Yankees have in the same century’s first 22 years.

That was then: The Red Sox opened the 20th century with four more Series rings than the Yankees in the century’s first 22 years, they now have their struggles and mishaps, but Red Sox Nation has graduated to a state of what you might call inverted bliss. They know the Red Sox will win again. They strain to avoid obnoxiousness when the Red Sox don’t.

This is now: 40 pennants, 27 World Series championships, and 58 postseason appearances can’t comfort the Yankee fan who believes to his or her soul that life was sweetness and light when it was only yesterday that the Yankees were never less than baseball’s practically annual masters of all they surveyed.

Yester-century’s Red Soxs fan believed extraterrestrial disaster was their birthright. This century’s Yankee fan believes postseason arrest is a miscarriage of justice—for which every other Yankee in uniform or in administration must pay with his life. The Yankees have had seventeen postseason arrests in eighteen tries since the turn of this century. There are teams who’d have loved to have half of eighteen tries over the entire 54-year history of divisional play.

A retired New Jersey school principal and blog editor of my acquaintance, who is also a Yankee fan of impeccable stubbornness, writes (in the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, to which I also have the honour of contributing) that Philadelphia’s man of the year (so far), Bryce Harper, is the one the Yankees let get away—having failed to even think of making him an offer when he hit the free agency market for what he swore would be the only time in his life.

You might think that a professional educator would know without being reminded that the one who got away gets away only if you bait the hook and cast it in the first place. In Harper’s first Philadelphia season the Yankees had an AL East winner that swept the Twins in the division series but fell in six ALCS games to (sound familiar?) the Astros.

Those Phillies had only begun to hit their reset button. They play for a fan base that’s inspired people to imagine a Philadelphia wedding ceremony concluding with the clergyman instructing the gathering, “You may now boo the bride.” Show me a New York wedding featuring a hapless bridegroom who misses when stomping the napkin-wrapped goblet for good fortune, and I’ll show you a Yankee fan among the gathering demanding an immediate marital annulment.

It wasn’t a lack of Harper that took the Yankees out, then or now; it was lack of figuring out how to figure out the Astros’ solid starting pitchers and redoubtable relief corps. A lack of Harper didn’t send the Yankees home in an ALCS sweep this time; an inability to compel the Astros changing their diet from near-constant breaking balls on which they couldn’t even feed intravenously to just enough fastballs on which to gorge, did.

Aside from which, the Yankees had a Harper of their own in-house already, then and now. This time, they broke Aaron Judge under the weight of compelling him to carry them in the second half, while he made history as they went from ruthless conquerors to skin-of-their-teeth division-title survivors.

They had little enough to pick it up when Judge was finally unable to carry that weight any longer. Now, they risk losing him to another team willing to break their bank to sign him as a free agent, after he bet the house, the yacht, and half of the Bronx on his future at the season’s opening tables and ended up throwing 62 passes for openers.

Not even the most unapologetic but objective Yankee hater wishes real ill to fall upon them. Without Goliaths, baseball’s Davids have no targets. (It’s difficult to conceive the Yankees as David. This ALCS was Goliath vs. Goliath. The Phillies will be the World Series’s Davids.) Baseball’s health depends upon its Davids making honest efforts to win, top down. But too many baseball Davids surrender before the season’s first shots are slung.

Enough are baseball’s Goliaths who meet their Davids deep and often enough in the postseason. Their fans become frustrated, understandably. Fan noise sometimes makes it difficult to determine which is worse. Is it teams that invest unapologetically only to come up too short, too often? Is it teams that could invest but elect premedidated failure, on behalf of building for futures that depend on wiser minds than their incumbents?

You get the latters’ fans more than you get the formers’. And among the formers’ fans, none seem half as disgusted as Yankee fans. Or—to fans of the Davids, whether those Davids become so honestly or by premeditated, decadent design—half as disgusting.

Tanks for nothing

Do you really need a solid argument against tanking? We all know that two teams thought it would get them to the World Series. In their outlying cases, they were right.

We all know one has a long-tainted Series win, the year after the other won its first Series since fourteen days after the Model T Ford was launched officially.

We all know a number of other teams have gone in the tanks and come up with nothing remotely close to those two. The ones with that tainted Series win is still in the thick of the races with a decent chance to win a clean Series. The ones who ended their 108-year rebuilding effort with a Series win had a fire sale at this year’s trade deadline.

And we also know that there’s no greater argument against tanking teams, not to mention the baseball regime that lets them get away with it, than the team that once set the American League losing streak record while falling two short of the Show record.

What’s the difference between the 1988 Orioles and this year’s model? Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic asked and answered a few days ago: The ’88 Orioles were at least trying. They had two future Hall of Famers, a few former All-Stars, and a Hall of Fame outfielder who’d been ornery as a player but developed an amazing sense of the absurd as a skipper.

Told that a local disc jockey would stay on the air until his Orioles finally won a game, Frank Robinson deadpanned, “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.” Late in the streak, Robinson pulled his office desk drawer open and pulled out a button he’d been handed by a sympathetic fan for luck: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Those Orioles themselves developed considerable gallows humour as the streak continued apace. Spotting a writer new on the Oriole beat, Cal Ripken, Jr. beckoned him over: “Join the hostages.”

They finally broke the streak on 29 April 1988. It took a guy with a 4.00+ ERA starting to hold the White Sox scoreless while the most they could muster through six was a two-run homer (Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in the first) and a run home on a wild pitch (to Hall of Famer Ripken).

Look at the line score and it looks like the Orioles rose from the dead in the seventh. Look at the actual inning and it was an RBI double, another run home on a throwing error, another run home on a busted, bases-loaded fielder’s choice, and a third run home on a sacrifice fly. Except for the RBI double all four runs were unearned.

In the ninth, Ripken led off with a home run off the White Sox’s then-remarkable closer Bobby Thigpen, and Terry Kennedy sent Fred Lynn home with a single off Thigpen.

The inspiring words on the outside of Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, on what was called Memorial Wall, read, “Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds.” They finished the tribute to Baltimore’s wartime fallen. They took on a perverse new meaning when the Orioles ended that losing streak. Then the Orioles blew up again the day after, losing to the White Sox, 4-1. It must have been awful tempting to add a p.s. to the Memorial Wall: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”

This year’s model should only be that lucky.

This year’s Orioles have committed few good deeds and inflicted excess punishment—on their fans. Oriole jokes run rampant. (The Orioles can’t use the Internet—they can’t put three Ws together!)

This year’s model has a couple of former All-Stars turned reclamation projects that look one day like stickers and the next like the Orioles can’t wait for someone else to re-claim them. Though even they might be hard pressed to figure out why.

Even the in-season retirement of Chris Davis, bombardier turned walking deadman for too long, too sadly, too lacking for knowledge as to what really happened and why, didn’t leave room for a change in fortune.

Now these Orioles have lost nineteen straight. Number nineteen really hits where it hurts. The good news Monday was the Orioles scoring eight runs. The bad news was that they were destroyed by the Angels—a team one game under .500 but still going nowhere much, despite the presence of Two-Way Ohtani while still missing Mike (Mr. Everything) Trout on the injured list—before they got their second run of the game.

The Angels bludgeoned the Orioles, 14-8, with thirteen runs in three innings straight (five in the second and fourth, three in the third) before tacking another on in the eighth. All that was after the Orioles opened with a 1-0 lead thanks to Ryan Mountcastle’s one-out homer off former Oriole Dylan Bundy. No lead goes unpunished anymore, either.

The Orioles have been in the tank since the 2016 wild card game. “I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it,” then-manager Buck Showalter still insisted four years later. “I’m at peace with that.”

Oriole fans (yes, there remain Oriole fans) may never be at peace with Showalter absolutely refusing to bring in the best relief pitcher of 2016 with two on, one out, and Edwin Encarnacion due to check in at the plate in the bottom of the eleventh—because Zack Britton doesn’t come in unless, you know, the Orioles have a lead to protect. The Gospel According to Blind Managers Needing a Stopper Five Seconds Ago.

So Showalter left Ubaldo Jimenez in. And Encarnacion left the Orioles behind when his three-run homer sailed into Rogers Centre’s second deck. Showalter’s still at peace with that? He’s lucky Earl Weaver didn’t throw lightning bolts down on his head from the Elysian Fields.

The Orioles decided the only way to get back to greatness from there was to go in the tank. They finished dead last in the American League East in three of the four seasons to follow, a fourth-place finish breaking the monotony. They’re 201-345 over the span. They also fired Showalter after their 47-115, fire-sale accented 2018. As if it was Showalter’s idea to go tanking the night away.

“The sport is cyclical,” Rosenthal wrote. “Teams, especially those with lower revenues, occasionally must rebuild. From 2012 to ’16, the Orioles won more regular-season games than any team in the American League. They were bound to regress. But even Major League Baseball is now implicitly acknowledging that some teams go too far in what Tony Clark, the head of the Players Association, once called “the race to the bottom.”

It won’t do to point to two more low-revenue teams and notice six trips to the postseason in the past nine years (a tip of the beak, Athletics) or six in the past thirteen including a pair of World Series appearances. (Greetings, Rays.) Those two teams have established front office brains. Orioles general manager Mike Elias came in in 2018—when Dan Duquette was executed after the season—with the Orioles tying one hand behind his back to open.

His own career having begun covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Evening Sun during that ’88 losing streak (was he the one Ripken invited to join the hostages?), Rosenthal points to Elias’s predecessor Dan Duquette stripping the major league roster with trades that haven’t proven successful yet, if they ever will.

The Orioles’ ten-thumbed ownership left Elias to spend his first few seasons on baseball’s version of poverty row. The team’s international and analytics departments need either a booster or an overhaul. These Orioles may also have the number two farm system at this writing, but they have the pitching depth of a match book up and down the organisation.

What a long, strange trip it’s been for an organisation that boasts seven men (Murray, Ripken, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mike Mussina, and longtime manager Earl Weaver) wearing Orioles hats on their Hall of Fame plaques.

These Orioles, as Rosenthal says, should be hoisted as Exhibit A in the Tanking Hall of Shame. They’re the number one argument that tanking needs to be stopped, once and for all, that those who own major league franchises have an obligation to make their best efforts to put a competitive product on the field. Even modestly-endowed franchises can and have been known in the past to retool/remake/rebuild on the fly while continuing to keep competing.

It’s unhealthy for baseball when one of its formerly model franchises stands as the lead argument against what Rosenthal calls “owners perpetuat[ing] their rebuilding myths, getting away with lower payrolls and the losing that comes with them, knowing many fans will raise nary a whimper, wanting to see only the best in their favorite teams.”

“This is incredibly challenging and a huge gut check,” said manager Brandon Hyde after the Angels scorched the Camden Yards earth Monday. “We’re trying to keep our spirits high.” They may be tempted to drinking more than their fair share of spirits before this debacle ends.

If and when these Orioles finally figure out a way to keep from joining their 1988 forebears or the major league losing-streak record holders (the 1961 Phillies), I’m pretty sure they won’t resurrect the inspiring words posted on the outside of the late Memorial Stadium.

But they might hang a banner across the warehouse behind Camden Yards with a line from former Beatle George Harrison, of blessed memory: “All Things Must Pass.” The cynic will be ready to hang a next-day p.s.: “Including One-Game Winning Streaks.”

No tank you very much

2017-07-27 HoustonAstrosWS

So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.