Saturday, October 21, 2006


No less an authority than Thomas Boswell has called the St. Louis Cardinals the "worst team ever to reach the World Series," and while he’s probably right, it needs to be said that they only embody one kind of bad Series team.

Anyone can list the worst World Series teams (I just did, after all), but as Boswell pointed out, an 83-win team such as the Cardinals sneaking into the Series is, in his double entendre, "awfully wonderful," kind of noble even.

At least those teams were upfront with us about their mediocrity -- either that or they made a poor job of concealing it. Every few seasons, there's another kind of World Series team -- the secretly bad team that really wasn't that good, but somehow was good enough. They weren’t wild cards, they weren’t Miracle Teams, or even one-year wonders.

Call them the Secret Suckers. Some even managed to win the World Series, as you’ll see:

2000 NEW YORK YANKEES (87-74 regular season)
Most of us have tried to amnesia-ray ourselves into forgetting that lame latter-day Subway Series against the Mets, to no avail. This is another column, but that week where the Mets and Yankees met in October 2000 was a harbinger of a dark time ahead for our civilization, what with it falling between the debut of Survivor and George W. Bush's "election" to the presidency of the United States. Coincidence? Probably not.

Back to the point, though: the Joe Torre-Derek Jeter Yankees actually posted the second-worst record ever by a World Series winner, although it's a safe bet that you never heard Joe Buck or Tim McCarver mention that during the playoffs. If they did, it was probably just a means to swing into rhapsodizing about Jeter's "intangibles." (Jeter's "intangibles," as you well know, have been credited with putting out forest fires in and producing bumper rice crops, making you wonder why he even bothers with baseball.)

So why were they secretly subpar? Mainly, since they had won the two previous years, few people could see this wasn't a great team. It was good enough that year, though. The Yankees easily held off a disorganized Red Sox team and the undermanned Jays for the AL East, then beat a young Oakland team and the wild-card, pitching-poor Seattle Mariners to advance to the World Series. Then they played the Mets, and you can probably guess how that unfolded.

Would stand as the most anonymous pennant winner of the 1980s, although they did have four future Hall of Famers in Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, plus ex-Reds stars Joe Morgan and Tony Perez (along with a 42-year-old Pete Rose, who that year became the last regular first baseman to go an entire season without hitting a home run. You'd have thought he was hanging on just to break some famous record or something).

The Phils' No. 2 starter, John Denny, a .500 pitcher across the other 11 seasons of his career, went 19-6 and won the Cy Young Award, but Carlton was just 15-16, and the Phillies didn't have another starter with a double-digit win total.

Hitting-wise, it wasn't much better, with not a single regular hitting more than .275. Morgan, though, at age 39, had enough left in the tank to post a .370 on-base percentage and score 72 runs, second-most on the team behind Schmidt, who as per usual, led the league in homers and OBP while winning his eighth consecutive Gold Glove.

Regardless, there was no driving force behind the Phils winning in '83. They had already satisfied the long-suffering Philly fans by winning the club's first and only World Series title three years earlier, and in '83 Philly had already seen another sports drought end -- Julius Erving finally won a NBA title with the 76ers.

Like the city's basketball team, the Phillies downed L.A. in the playoffs, but were beaten in five games by the Orioles in the World Series.

1984 SAN DIEGO PADRES (92-70)
Make the list it first and foremost for those brown uniforms that made them look like Burger King employees (how ironic that team owner Ray Kroc founded McDonald's).

Secondly, they were a one-year wonder, mostly made up of 1970s stars (Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles, Goose Gossage) and guys who never quite lived up to their potential (take a bow, Terry Kennedy, Kevin McReynolds and Eric Show).

They were an interesting bunch, though. One such guy was Alan Wiggins, one of those guys who had no true defensive position and not much of a baseball brain, but was in the lineup since he could run like hell. (Wiggins, sadly, died of AIDS just seven years later.) He stole 70 bases that summer and scored 106 runs, and the guy hitting behind him was a chunky 24-year-old outfielder named Tony Gwynn who hit .351.

The rest of the NL West played sub-.500 ball in '84, so the Padres cruised to their first division flag. (Based on their run differential, they should have been about an 87-win team, not 92.) They played the Cubs for the pennant, which means victory was pretty much foreordained, and they came back from a 2-0 deficit to win thanks largely to Garvey’s ninth-inning home run in Game 4 and a Chicago collapse in the decisive Game 5.

Once in the Series, they were no match for the Tigers, who blew them out in five games. It would be nice to report the Padres bounced back from that trouncing, but in '85 they went from winning the division by 12 games to losing it by 12 games. They wouldn't contend again until 1989, when they finished three games behind a Giants team that got a MVP season out of Kevin Mitchell -- a player San Diego had given up on two seasons earlier. Smooth move, Ex-Lax.

As with the Blue Jays, the team whom the ’85 Royals beat to reach the World Series, the K.C. team that won it all wasn’t necessarily the best one in franchise history. The Royals fans who haven't turned away in disgust from David Glass' small town cheap ownership can surely tell you that the 1976-77 editions that lost in the ALCS to the Yankees and the '80 team that was beaten in the World Series were both probably superior.

Whatever it was, the Royals -- fire up your cliche machines -- refused to lose in the playoffs, overcoming 3-1 series deficits against the Blue Jays and the Cardinals. And Cardinals fans would surely point out that Don Denkinger, with his blown call in the ninth inning of Game 6, helped make that happen. Even before the Denkinger play, there were some real doozies in the AL playoffs.

Aside from George Brett, Kansas City's lineup really didn't scare pitchers, save for pitchers who feared the stiff breeze generated when Steve Balboni (166 strikeouts) swung through a breaking ball. The outfield was a Motley crew -- as in Darryl Motley, Lonnie (Skates) Smith and Willie Wilson, who hit a combined 27 homers, the same total Jesse Barfield had for the Jays.

However, the Royals had pitching, plus they apparently had luck on their side. They haven't had much since, however.

1974 OAKLAND A's (90-72)
Wait, weren't Charlie O. Finley's Swingin' A's a dynasty that won its third consecutive World Series that year, taking out the Dodgers in five games? Didn't Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein dedicate a chapter to them in their book Baseball Dynasties? Didn't they have three future Hall of Famers in Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers and Jim (Catfish) Hunter?

All true. It's also true that the ’74 A’s actually had the poorest regular season of any of the Oakland’s five straight division winners of the early '70s, and like the 2000 Yankees, really didn't have any competition within their division, save for an overachieving Texas Rangers team that Billy Martin whipped to a second-place finish. Plus, if you look at the All-Star Game results from that era, it suggests the A's were playing in what, like the current National League, could be considered a vastly weaker league.

So in hindsight, the A's can be considered a secretly subpar team, although the counter-argument is that they only pale compared to the other Oakland teams of that period. They had the AL's third-lowest batting average, .247, and went the entire year with no reliable first basemen or DHs, but they were second in the league in drawing walks and hitting homers, so that made up for the low batting average.

Meantime, between Finley and Hunter's contract squabble and near-daily fights between players in the clubhouse, the A's were certainly never dull. So they had that goin' for them, which is nice.

That’s all for now. Send your thoughts to

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