Thursday, July 03, 2008

Top 5: The Best Teams No One Saw Play

The Tampa Bay Rays having the best record in the American League and the second-worst attendance, that fairly demands brushing off the Top 5, doesn't it?

Yes, it's completely arbitrary; no, there isn't a lick of logic to making up this list. Get over it. The Rays attendance is picking up, with 101,000 fans passing through the turnstiles for their three-game sweep of the Red Sox. There's no time like the present to get this list out of the way.

First off, let's lay down some ground rules. Let's keep this to the past 40 years or so -- the sportscape that existed in the first two-thirds of the 20th century is way too labryinth-like for anyone born after 1975 to understand. (The great Negro Leagues teams might not be remembered the same way as the 1927 New York Yankees, but they did draw a crowd wherever they went.) Anyways, here's the Top 5, after the jump.

NFL: St. Louis Rams, 1999
The way it's remembered is that typical Sunday of football-watching in 1999 would include 30-45 seconds of Kurt Warner -- who? wasn't that the guy who played running back for the Seahawks in the '80s? -- humming four touchdown passes through some befuddled defence. That was about all you got to see of the Rams before the playoffs. Surprisingly, a Midwestern team coming off a 4-12 season didn't not scream "dream Monday Night Football matchup to network executives. The Rams weren't slotted for any national TV appearances and the flex scheduling which had the Patriots playing in prime time almost every week last fall was several years away. Unless you lived in Missouri or went to a game, you didn't see St. Louis' best.

These days, with Football Outsiders and such, you probably would have at least read somewhere the Rams, who were 45-99 for the 1990s, might become the New New Thing. If there was any warning, it was largely missed.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Oklahoma Sooners, 1973-74

Barry Switzer
's turn at the coach at Oklahoma was bookended by the Sooners spending time on NCAA probation. Funny.

The future Dallas Cowboys coach inherited the top job at Oklahoma in 1973 after an academic scandal led to the turfing of Chuck Fairbanks. The Sooners' punishment included a ban on having any games televised or going to a bowl in '73 and '74, but during that time they racked up a record of 21 wins, zero losses and one tie. The 1974 team, led by brothers Lee Roy and Lucious Selmon, has the sole distinction of being the only team to win a share of the national title while on probation, since one poll refused to rank the Sooners altogether.

That snub, justified as it might have been, might have fired up Oklahoma to win the national title outright the following season. (Incidentally about that 1973 season: Seven teams in major-college football finished the regular season unbeaten. Just imagine the outcry if the Bowl Clusterfuck Series had existed then.)

BASKETBALL: Oakland Oaks, 1968-69

The Oaks weren't the most dominant single-season team in the short life of the ABA, but they were the only one which promptly relocated after the winning the championship, which is good enough. Despite having Hall of Famer Rick Barry during that championship season, the Oaks, competing in the same market against the NBA's Warriors, could only average 2,800 fans per game, hastening a move to Washington.

HOCKEY: Winnipeg Jets, 1977-78

A WHA team has to be in here. The league never had a national TV deal and would feature thirty-two different franchises. The Jets, with Bobby Hull skating alongside Swedish superstars Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg on one of the most potent forward lines in hockey history, must have played in some pretty empty arenas. They were the precursor to both the high-octane Oilers of the 1980s, and with as many nine Scandivanians in their lineup, the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, but most of what they did lives on only in anecdote. (Neither Hedberg or Nilsson is in the Hall of Fame.)

The '77-78 team takes the prize. The Jets of two seasons earlier might have been more dominant in the regular season, but the '78 crew beat the Soviet national team in an exhibition game (the Hull-Hedberg-Nilsson line scored all five goals in a 5-3 win). Thing is, only 10,315 were there to see it. That edition of the Jets, with Kent Nilsson on the second line, also had four 100-point scorers. Factor in that the WHA was down to eight teams by that point and was just trying to hang on for a merger with the NHL, and the Jets are a shoo-in.

BASEBALL: Oakland A's, 1972-74

Charlie O. Finley
was kind of the original Mark Cuban -- a self-made man who could be the worst owner in sports and the best owner in sports within the span of a single day. Convincing the American League to add the DH and having a team that won three straight World Series fell under the heading of "best." Coming up with By 1974, though, despite having a dynasty on the field, they were next-to-last in the American League in attendance, since Finley had the same aptitude for marketing as Kirk Van Houten did for managing a cracker factory.

As Rob Neyer related in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, Finley "thought he could sell tickets like he sold insurance, so shortly after taking over the A's, he spent $100,000 on brochures mailed out to 600,000 people ... The result? Twenty thousand dollars in ticket sales."

For a time, a student radio station whose broadcast range petered out about 10 miles from the A's ballpark was the team's flagship station. (Just imagine a student station having the rights for an Ontario Hockey League team, never mind a NHL team.)

The A's were great largely thanks to Charlie Finley, and largely unwatched thanks to Charlie Finley.

That's all for now. Send your thoughts to


Tyler King said...

Come now - Finley never fell into a third-place tie with Table Time and Allied Biscuits.

Though he did have a firesale blocked by the ballsier-than-thou Bowie Kuhn - makes you wonder what the situation would be if the current commish were willing to stop firesales like this year's Marlins.

sager said...

No, but by the end of his stint as owner, the A's had lost 108 games and were on the verge of being moved to Denver.

Kuhn had balls. Not much for brains, though -- if he had taken Finley's suggestions to let small-market teams sell players' contracts, or to make all players free agents every year, baseball would be better off.

Duane Rollins said...

or to make all players free agents every year

Good luck trying to convince people of it, but this would be the best thing to happen to pro sports.