Sunday, October 18, 2015

'E' is for 'Expansion'

Three of the four teams competing in this year's League Championship Series are expansion teams. Both the American League entries-- the Kansas City Royals, founded during that crucible of change, 1969, and the Toronto Blue Jays, founded in 1977-- so qualify. And the New York Mets, founded in 1962 and the first expansion team to win a World Series, face the Chicago Cubs, who are anything but an expansion team but have often played like one in the 107 years since they last won the Series. 

This isn't unprecedented. In 1986, the "California" Angels and the Houston Astros joined the Mets to make three of the final four (along with the Boston Red Sox). The Blue Jays and Royals also met in the 1985 ALCS, the first all-expansion postseason series. And in 1969, that year of cataclysmic change in the baseball world, all four LCS teams were  either expansioneers (Mets, again) or teams that had moved away from their original locations (Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves). The Orioles, once the St Louis Browns, and the Twins, once the Washington Senators, had also changed their names, while the Braves, formerly of Boston and then Milwaukee, had already moved the franchise twice. Quite a New World crescendo in the Year of Great Change.

There are fourteen expansion teams out of the thirty major-league franchises today, which leaves sixteen originals who date from the beginning of the Modern Era (generally agreed to be 1903, the year the National League recognized the American as a legitimate major league and the first World Series was scheduled). Of those sixteen venerable ballclubs, six have moved from their original location, which leaves ten teams playing in the same city under (mostly) the same name and the same colors since the beginning. Those would be the Boston Red Sox (Americans, for a time), the New York Yankees (once the Highlanders), the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cleveland Indians (once the Blues), the Cincinnati Reds, the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Cubs (formerly Colts), and the St Louis Cardinals (or Maroons). Of course, many of these teams date back well before 1903.

The Modern Era can be subdivided into the "Original Years" (prior to 1961) and the "Expansion Years" (1961 to present). Enough time has passed since the Los Angeles Angels and the New Washington Senators (now the Texas Rangers) first took the field, that now the expansion period (55 years) has lasted just about as long as the pre-expansion period (58).  

During the past 55 years the 14 expansion teams have won a total of nine World Series. No expansion team has won more than two; the Mets and Blue Jays both have a shot to become the first to win three.  Those 14 Series have been won by just six teams: the Mets, the Jays, the Miami Marlins, the Royals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Angels. Six other expansion teams have reached the Series, and two-- the Seattle Mariners and the Montreal Expos-cum-Washington Nationals-- have yet to play in it.

So given a comparable amount of years to so so, the expansion teams have hardly even dented the domination of the Original Sixteen. We realize this is something of a cheat; it's not as though all 14 were added en masse back in 1961 and have had an equal chance to win all this time, but nonetheless it does give one pause. Can the heritage of a hundred years of baseball as opposed to a few decades really make a difference in a team's performance year after year? It makes no sense, but neither does the inevitable counter-argument, which would hold that expansion teams tend to hire stupid (or at least "baseball-stupid") executives and managers.

Which is the greatest of the expansion teams? Without question, the first great expansion franchise was the Kansas City Royals, who under Whitey Herzog, Jim Frey, and Dick Howser were year-in-year-out contenders for a full decade, 1976-1985, won six division titles, played several memorable ALCS against the Yankees, and finally won it all in 1985. Then there are the Toronto Blue Jays under Cito Gaston, who for five years (1989-1993) were probably the best team in baseball, and were the last team other than the Yankees to win back-to-back World Series (1992-1993). Other expansion clubs have had great, but short, runs of success-- the Mets in 1969 and the early '70s, the Texas Rangers under Ron Washington in 2010 and 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays under Joe Maddon (2008-2013), Milwaukee's "Brew Crew" and the forever-underrated Expos of the early '80s, the Angels under Gene Mauch in the 1980s and under Mike Scioscia in the last decade. The "Killer B" Houston Astros, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were very similar to the '70s-'80s Royals, except without the ring. And Seattle's team under Lou Piniella in 2000-2001, when they tied the record for most wins in a single season, may have been the most impressive of all.  Had they managed to get past the Yankees and win a Series, there'd likely be no argument. For now, we'd go with the back-to-back Blue Jays of the early 1990s as expansion's finest flower.

So roll on, expansioneers, roll on. As a family member said last night, after KC's amazing five-run seventh inning rally and as Matt Harvey was mowing down the Cubs, all four teams in this fight bring a good story. May the best team win. 

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