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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Despite two-year fog, light shines at end of losing streak

Two-time losers
At their 2005 pace, the Royals will have the 11th-most losses in modern baseball history by a franchise over two seasons.


KEY: 2YR - two year loss total; Post - the next year that the team reached postseason; * projected total

Hope is a funny thing. It's like a trick candle - elusive yet enduring.

During the Royals' incredible 19-game losing streak, many fans probably felt as if Kansas City baseball had entered an impenetrable abyss, up the river, like Col. Kurtz, the wrong way on a one-way trip. Contraction. Dissolution. Relocation. These all seemed like more plausible outcomes to the Royals' story than terms like winning, pennants and championships.

Other teams have been worse than the Royals have the last two seasons. But not many.

In the long annals of baseball history, only 10 teams have lost as many games as the Royals will have over the last two seasons, if they maintain their pace. At their current winning percentage, the Royals will lose 109 games this season. Add that to the 104 losses by last year's edition, and you have a team of historical ineptitude.

But there is no reason to sadistically point out the obvious. Instead, let's focus on hope.

All during the skid, the one thought Stat Guy kept having was: "Where do we go from here?"

All through the history of this column, helpful little suggestions have peppered the analysis - suggestions about the course of the team, of a player's career, etc. But during the slide, quite honestly, Stat Guy was at a loss for words. Where do we go from here?

For evidence of hope, one needs to look no further than the teams "ahead" of the Royals on the list of two-season losers. Here is what became of some of these motley crews.

The early incarnations of the New York Mets account for three of the five worst two-season teams of all time. The Mets were born in an era in which expansion teams were exposed to a much more hostile environment than the last few newcomers. But as they continued their losing ways, the Mets were stockpiling young pitching talent.

By 1969, much to the chagrin of Cubs fans everywhere, the Mets rode the mound performances of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw and Nolan Ryan to a come-from-behind NL East title and an eventual world championship over the highly favored Baltimore Orioles.

The Phillies of the early 1940s limped through the war years with some of the worst teams ever built. After the war, however, they gradually began producing young talent such as Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis and Robin Roberts. They were winners by 1949 and, in 1950, faced Casey Stengel's Yankees in the World Series.

The Pirates of the early 1950s were a sad-sack bunch, a one-trick pony that featured Ralph Kiner, Buddy Bell's dad, Gus, and nothing else. By 1958, an entirely new cast, led by Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, was in place. In 1960, the Pirates shocked the Yankees and won the World Series.

The other teams on the list aren't nearly as hope-inspiring but, then again, they don't really serve as examples of what the Royals are trying to do.

The Athletics of the late 1910s were a shell of a franchise. After the miracle Braves shocked Philadelphia in the 1914 World Series, A's henchman Connie Mack sold off all his top talent. Winning on the cheap worked about as well then as it does now. Mack didn't sniff the postseason again until 1929.

The most recent team on the list, Detroit, has drawn many comparisons to this year's Royals. There is a difference. The Tigers were a bad team that has bought their way back to mediocrity. Now they are stuck there. They do have some young arms that might help them to take the next step; but if the arms don't pan out, the only way the Tigers will step forward is to jump into the payroll stratosphere.

The model for moving out of the abyss is clearly the one that the Royals have chosen: Go young. Stick with it.

In youth, there is hope. History tells us so.


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