Admittedly, this article is a mishmash, a musing more than anything else. If there’s a grain of sandy truth in it somewhere, then great. If not, well, it was just a musing.*
With the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels making the playoffs as they always seem to do, the field of potential champions seems boring this year. Mind you, the field’s not all the haves of the world: The Twins followed their yearly plan (succeed with homegrown talent or play 163 games, your pick); the Rockies haven’t been big-market for a while; the Cardinals thrive on Pujols and reclamations; and the Phillies are in a particularly volatile market that doesn’t always act its size. The 2009 October entries were built more on brains than resources, as even the free spenders have major homegrown components that proved vital through the season.
No, 2009 is a decent year to support the argument that a team can compete with moderate resources spent wisely and invested in youth. What it also shows, frustratingly, is what may be the true competitive divide: original versus expansion teams.
By and large, expansion teams are the weaker participants of the majors. Myriad factors influence this, but one of the largest may be that baseball has not expanded smartly through its history. As the original teams that were stifled by intracity competition moved west (or in the Browns’ case, east) prior to expansion, they got most of the good sites. The Braves, Browns and Senators all changed their fortunes by moving to supportive environments that gave them new starts. The Giants and Dodgers didn’t need a new start, but it certainly didn’t hurt them to move.
So many of the original franchises rejuvenated themselves by relocation. Where baseball has failed its newer franchises is in locating far too many of them in response to hurt feelings of cities—savvy politically but disastrous from a game standpoint. So far as I know my history, the following teams were founded or relocated partly in response to a franchise move: the Senators as compensation for the previous Senators; the Mets as compensation for the Dodgers and Giants; the Royals as compensation for the A’s; the Brewers as compensation for the Braves; and the Mariners as compensation for the Brewers. Even expansion as a whole was a reaction to Branch Rickey’s Continental League.
In other words, you can make a good argument that baseball has hurt itself by expanding reactively and often as damage control. In so doing, the new team is inheriting more than it ought to be given. It’s hard to imagine that being helpful.
In my lifetime, baseball’s expansion has been fairly conservative relative to other sports. Multiple teams blazed the trail in Phoenix, Miami, Denver, and Tampa before baseball dipped a cautious toe into the water. While this may be helpful in that it’s not damage control, many of the baseball franchises entered a saturated market for sports entertainment, and of the four mentioned, only two could be considered successes from the standpoint of franchise stability.
For those of you keeping score, that’s five franchises started in suboptimal circumstances and four started perhaps too late, leaving us with the Angels, Astros, Blue Jays, Expos and Padres as teams founded without the inherent market disadvantages of turmoil and saturation. With the Angels, though, it was a no-brainer; the Los Angeles area having enough resources for two teams just wasn’t hard to imagine. And although the Mets were started as damage control, they too had a huge financial sandbox to play in. But the other franchises took the remaining markets, not the best ones, as the original teams picked the choicest markets prior to expansion.
In just a few years, the initial expansion franchises will turn 50, and even the second wave teams have now existed for 40. As a group, they have little to show for their efforts. Most of their successes are from the egalitarian ‘80s, when free agency equalized talent distribution like nothing else in history; since then, it’s been pretty weak.
Consider that, division distributions aside, each league has about a one-half chance of sending an expansion team to the World Series, so the odds of an all-expansion World Series are roughly one in four. But it hasn’t happened yet and isn’t likely to this year. Only in 1980, 1984, 1986, 2000, 2001 and 2005 have expansion teams from each league made it to the LCS. Only in 1982, 1985-86 and 2007 have expansion teams faced each other in an LCS. And ‘80s aside, only 1999 has seen half the playoff field comprising expansion teams.
Maybe all this is an aberration, a phase baseball is going through before things even out again. But looking back through recent history, I can’t shake the impression that the expansion teams are playthings for the original 16, a group of second-class citizens. Maybe the success of the Angels and the Mets (well, sometimes) proves that it’s more about financial resources, but if it is about resources, the original teams still win, since they grabbed the resources before the expansion teams ever were made.
So why should the Angels face the Rockies this year? Because it would symbolize the new era that baseball, fiercely reverent of its past, has entered, whether or not it wants to admit it. By the end of the next decade the expansion era will be half of modern baseball, and while some teams have had good runs, the game as a whole is still tied to its pre-expansion teams. It’s all fascinating from a historical perspective—given my usual articles, I probably betrayed my interest there—but it’s not healthy for the game to have teams started in bad circumstances who spend most of their time playing catch-up to history. Hopefully, I’m misconstruing the facts, and things are healthier than my perception. But an all-expansion World Series would go a long way toward ridding me of my notion.
References & Resources
* Note the effective use of disclaimers and tone to hide the admission that Brandon may have no idea what he’s talking about.