Monday, July 16, 2007


For anyone growing up watching the Cleveland Indians, the news that the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday became the first professional sports team to reach 10,000 losses had to come as a bit of a surprise. Surely, the Indians of our youth, so bad and underfunded that it makes the movie “Major League” look more like a documentary of the F. Steve O’Neill years, blew past 10,000 losses years ago.

But here’s the real surprise: the Indians aren’t that close to such an ignominious accomplishment, either. It’s difficult, actually, to comprehend just how many losses 10,000 really are. Sure, on the one hand it seems like just since the Browns returned in 1999 they’ve lost at least 10,000 games, but the truth is that a baseball team has to average 100 losses a year for 100 years to reach that dubious milestone. Forget completely about football. Even going 6-10 year and year out, it would take 1000 years to reach that milestone.

The Phillies road to 10,000 is instructive in understanding the enormity of this accomplishment. Mel Antonen’s column in the USA Today on Monday provides plenty of details, but a few are worth repeating here. For perspective, loss number 5,000 came for the Phillies all the way back in 1945, a full 62 years after they first entered the National League in 1883. They reached the next 5,000 in 10 less years.

Perhaps most fascinating aspect of the Phillies achievement is that the Chicago Cubs have actually been around longer, a full seven years longer, and yet they are some 575 losses behind the Phillies and thus won’t reach the 10,000 plateau for several more years. In other words, the Cubs get to enjoy the reputation of the most loveable of losers while the Phillies fans have actually had to endure the actual pain.

Sure, the Cubs are third in losses, trailing both the Phillies and the Braves, but the fact that they still have some serious losing in front of them before they eclipse the 10,000-loss mountain tells you how miserable the Phillies really have been over the years, even if their recent history isn’t nearly as awful.

See, that’s really the problem with sports fans in general. They lack historical perspective. Most can’t seem to remember what they had for dinner last night, let alone remember what happened years ago. If it didn’t happen in their lifetime and, preferably, in the last five years, there’s little chance it will be remembered at all.

If quizzed most Cleveland fans would guess that the Indians, overall, have a much worse winning percentage than Philadelphia, probably significantly worse and that the only reason Philadelphia got to 10,000 losses first is that they’ve been around longer. Good guess. Way off.

The Phillies (also briefly known as the Quakers and the Blue Jays) have a .468 winning percentage as a franchise, which is why they got to 10,000 losses so quickly, relatively speaking. The Indians are significantly better, at .511. (The Cubs, too, are much better. In fact, their franchise winning percentage is even slightly higher than Cleveland’s at .513) Translated to actual games and assuming the Indians continue the same winning percentage, after an equivalent number of games as the Phillies took to get to 10,000 losses, the Indians will only have 9612 losses, meaning the Phillies would have gotten to 10,000 losses at least four years sooner than it will have taken Cleveland. Thus, while Cleveland fans have much to complain about, to paraphrase noted Cleveland booster Sam Wyche, what do you think this is, Philadelphia?

But of course it’s hard to appreciate how much less successful the Phillies have been than the Indians because, again, most fans lack any sort of historical perspective. Consider, for example, that Philadelphia holds the record for the number of 100-loss seasons overall at 13. The Indians have only had five. But Philadelphia’s only had one such season in the last 63 years. Four of Cleveland’s five have come since 1971, three of them since 1985.

Though the Phillies have had losing seasons in 72 of their 124-year existence, the real serious losing was mostly confined to the first half of the 20th century. Contrast that with the Indians. The real bulk of their losing has taken place during a more media intensive time period of 1960-1994. Whereas the Phillies had losing records in half of the seasons during that 35-year stretch, the Indians had losing seasons 28 times in that same period.

Disregarding the strike year of 1994, the best record the Indians could muster throughout the entire time period was in 1965 under Birdie Tibbetts. The Indians went 87-75. Though a decent record, it’s hardly that memorable considering that the Indians finished fifth in the American League that season, behind Minnesota, which was first with a record of 102-60; the White Sox at 95-67, Baltimore at 94-68 and Detroit at 89-73.

Needless to say, but we’ll say it anyway, the Indians didn’t sniff a pennant, let alone a World Series appearance during that stretch. The Phillies, on the other hand, won 87 or more games nine separate times, including 1976 and 1977 when they won 101 games each year. They also had seven division championships and won a World Series title during that same period.

The contrast between the Phillies and the Indians is really, then, a contrast between perception and reality. While the driving force of this may be that 35-year stretch from 1960-1994, the truth is that it is at least as much colored by the fact that the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. It’s the same reason, too, that the Cubs are viewed as such perpetual losers, certainly in comparison with Philadelphia, despite the vastly different historical records.

This illustrates the point, perhaps, that it’s not the sustained losing that wears on the fans so much as it is the fact that it is the lack of ultimate success. In many, many ways, losing is much easier to take when it is at least peppered with major accomplishments. The Indians unfortunately seem to be perpetually stuck in neutral, never the worst, never the best. That’s why this season is so crucial. Winning cures everything. If you don’t think so, consider this: the White Sox have been in the league the same amount of time as the Indians. Whose franchise record is worse? The White Sox, by 75 losses.

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