July 03, 2007

Phillies' 10,000 Losses Is Sooooo 1930s

The Philadelphia Phillies are on track to be the first professional franchise to lose 10,000 games. Of course you knew this because the impending milestone has reached beyond the corners of the sports-pages, and up from the depths of niche sports blogs into the mainstream American media.

On June 12, the New York Times ran a 1400-word story “Climbing Towards 10,000 Defeats” by Jere Longman. Last Saturday, June 23, National Public Radio’s Linda Wertheimer reported on the losses on “Weekend Edition – Saturday” when she interviewed Phillies fan and writer Joe Queenan. The Phillies will have completed the Triple Crown of my non-sports-news sources if the New Yorker also profiles the accomplishment.

The 2007 Phillies are playing .500 this season as injured pitcher after injured pitcher is moved to the Disabled List leaving a potent offense at the mercy of a minor league bullpen.

The frustration of games lost in the seventh and eighth innings this year is compounded by the expectations for this club for which pitching was seen to be a strength and which has come close to playoff-qualification. The Phillies finished five games back of the Wild Card in 2003, six in 2004, one in 2005, and three last year. The Phillies have been close enough for Septembers to be interesting.

On June 18, Philadelphia marked the topping off of the Comcast Center. The new skyscraper will be the tallest in the city. Affixed to the last steel-beam was the traditional mini pine tree. Alongside of the pine was a small statue, a replica of the William Penn statue that stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.

The Penn totem was hailed to assuage the “Curse of Billy Penn”. A long-standing gentleman’s agreement held that no building in Philadelphia was to stand taller than City Hall. Liberty Place exceeded the Penn statue in March 1987.

Since this violation, Philadelphia has now gone the longest of all American cities with professional franchises in the four major sports leagues – Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League - without a championship. The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers were the last in 1983.

Coincidence? Disregard at your own risk, sports-fan!

Philadelphia urban legend has it that the championship drought is result of the 1987 construction. The performance of the city’s teams in the playoffs is a direct result of 1987 urban development.

The problem with this line of reasoning – aside from the physics questions about the statue’s means of influence – is that the Phillies, NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, and 76ers were not exactlty racking in the championships UCLA Basketball or Boston Celtics-style prior to the 1974 to 1983 glory-decade. Which begins to tell the story of the Phillies’ 10,000 loss march.

Both the article in the Times and the story on NPR, as well as Daniel McQuade’s cover-story on the issue in the June 27 issue of the Philadelphia Weekly note the recent championship drought and also the Phillies’ history of losing (not just losses).

McQuade reminds us that the Phillies suffered the most lopsided shutout in Major League Baseball history, losing 28 to 0 to Providence. Anyone remember that game? Of course not. Providence has not had a major league team since prior to 1901.

The Times reminds us of the Phillies-game losing streak, the longest in history. I rooted in 1988 for the Baltimore Orioles to break the Phillies’ streak but the Orioles lost only 21 and then played the White Sox.

And yes, we did boo Mike Schmidt, Dick Allen, and the Easter Bunny, and the Phillies traded away Ryne Sandberg, Ferguson Jenkins, and Julio Franco for the equivalent of 24 dollars in trinkets.

McQuade wants to conclude, “the Phillies are the biggest bunch of losers to ever grace a baseball field. But the Phillies are our losers, our 10,000-loss team.”

They are and they are not. The early history is such distant history that it has not been on the mind of the current field management. Longman quoted current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel as saying “I didn’t know [about the 10,000 losses] until a week ago. It means they’ve had a team here a long time.”

Oh yes, we also boo Charlie Manuel. But the man has a valid point. The Phillies of the past six years have been terribly frustrating and inconsistent, floating around .500. The 1995, 1996, and 2000 squads were pretty lousy. But the worst team? The “biggest bunch of losers”? I respectfully disagree.

The Phillies have been around a long-time, and for three decades, they did stink.

The Phillies’ first season of play was 1883 which makes 2007 the organization’s 125th. The Phillies were especially bad between 1919 and 1949.

How bad were they? The Phillies have lost 100 games or more in 14 of these 125 seasons. 12 of these 14 seasons are between 1921 and 1945.

It is not so unusual for a club to lose 100 games in a season. Teams do have bad seasons in the cycle of winning and rebuilding. So what I did is I looked at the Phillies’ winning percentage every year from 1883 through 2006. Since fans forgive short-runs of losing, I was curious to look at trends – when the losing begins to add up.

To look at legacies, I calculated each season’s ten-year trailing winning percentage. That is, for a fan watching the team in 1935, what was the Phillies’ cumulative winning percentage in the previous ten-seasons? I did this for every year from 1893 – ten years after the first season – through 2006.

Now, let us talk about scale. There is a difference between the team’s number of losses and the winning percentage. The team’s worst winning percentage of all-time is .173 in 1883 when the team played only 98 games and lost 81 of them. The most number of losses came in 1941 when the club lost 111 in a 154 game season for a .279 percentage. The best seasons are 1976 and 1977 when the club went 101 and 61 for a .623 percentage. The Phillies all-time winning percentage is .468.

Here is how these numbers translate into the contemporary 162-game season:

.173 is a 28 and 134 record in 162 games;
.278 is to go 45 and 117;
.300 is to go 49 and 113;
.400 is to go 65 and 97;
.468 is to go 76 and 86;
.500 is to go 81 and 81;
.600 is to go 97 and 65;
.623 is to go 101 and 61.

In every year between 1919 and 1949, a 31-season span, the Phillies have a ten-year trailing winning-percentage less-than .400. This would be like watching the Phillies every season from 1977 until today and the team losing between 95 and 100 games every year. For 30 years. 95 to 100 losses.

Talk about brutal.

We have known they lost a lot of games in this period for, well, since about the 1950 team won the pennant. That the 2007 Phillies will lose game number 10,000 is a reflection of three decades of losing that came between World War I and World War II.

What is the current ten-year trailing? The Phillies are currently holding at .491 which is a record of 80 and 82. A .500 record is neither good enough for the post-season nor bad enough for the second-division. It means the Phillies have been playing average baseball the past ten years. The team is average.

We the fans are dragging around a history of losing, cemented in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and reinforced by the 1961-losing streak and 1964 collapse. It is not that we have seen stretches of bad baseball. It means that my grandmother (she should live and be well until 120 years of age), who skipped school in the 1930s to see the Phillies play in North Philadelphia, saw losing baseball. But she has known that for the past seventy years.

It is nice that the Phillies made it to the Times and onto National Public Radio. But come on people! That the Phillies lost all those games between the two World Wars? Jeez, that is like, sooooo last century.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Rodrigo said...

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