Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Historic Futility

It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another thing entirely to be historically bad.

In all my years as a sports fan I’ve never actively rooted against my team. To do so is taboo. Even in circumstances where losing is more favorable to winning I just can’t do it. I’ve witnessed enough unlucky lottery selections and bad draft picks to know that dumping a season is not reliable means to future success. Rooting against your team is tantamount to tempting the wrath of the sports gods. So I root for my team to win every game, even when they don’t have a shot. It comes with the territory of being a fan. There’s a natural ebb and flow over decades of seasons, periods of greatness followed by periods of mediocrity. And in the modern sports age there’s plenty of mediocrity to go around. Those seasons, the 85-77 and 73-89 summers or the 8-8 winters, are frequent and forgettable. The die-hard rides the wave of mediocrity, toughing it out, waiting for that one special season where the stars align and it all comes together.

Giants baseball has been entrenched in the pit of mediocrity since losing the World Series to the California Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Only the presence of Barry Bonds saved the team from being completely irrelevant in the Baseball universe and his absence threatened make them forgotten altogether. Three weeks ago I’d resigned myself to the reality that this was going to be yet another season filled with blown leads, heartbreaking 1-0 losses with Matt Cain on the mound, with flashes of potential from Eugenio Velez sprinkled throughout the summer. A 72 win season. A Completely and unquestionably forgettable season.

Then came this exchange between my buddy Ed and I as we were pumping ourselves up for the Giants home opener.

Ed: The way things are looking we may have the opportunity to see the first Giants win of the season.

Me: The way things are looking we may have the opportunity to see the ONLY Giants win of the season.

I’d only said it in jest, but it got me thinking. We could not only have one of the worst teams this season, we could have one of the worst teams of ANY season. I pondered the possibility and the more I thought about it, the more intrigued about the prospect I became. We’ve been somewhere between bad and average for 5 years. Could we achieve historical awfulness this season? Was this something I wanted to see? And if so, what does that say about me as a fan?

After thinking it over I capitulated to my inner sports demon. It goes against everything I stand for as a fan but there are a couple of reasons I made to justify the decision.

1. Historical Purposes – It’s easy to have a bad season. Half of all teams finish with more loses than wins. But this is a rare opportunity to make history and that’s something I’d like to witness, even for a dubious cause.

2. Record Breakers – I’m a huge numbers geek and I think this was the tipping point in making the decision. There are 3 records that have stood for decades that the Giants have a shot at breaking this season – Shutout Loses, Fewest Runs Scored per game and Loses - and thinking about the odds of achieving all three fills me with a sense of joy. It’s the math geek equivalent to being a kid in a candy store. And it’s not just the records themselves, it’s the test of time these records have stood.

Of the three records only one comes from after the dead ball era. The 1960 expansion Mets famously lost 120 games finishing with only 40 wins. Since then the 2003 Detroit Tigers have come the closest to the record finishing just 1 game shy of tying the Mets with 119 loses. The Giants are off to a good start at 1-6 but of the 3 records this is the least likely one to break. What they have going against them is decent starting pitching. Tim Lincecum looks poised to have a great season and Cain and Zito should provide the Giants with enough solid starts to keep the anemic offense in most games. Of course, in order to win any games they need to score at least 1 run.

Which brings us to record number two. It’s entirely possible that this team isn’t good enough to score any runs on most days. The record for most times being shutout in a season is 33, set by the St. Louis Cardinals way back in 1908, 100 years ago this year. It’s only a week into the season but the Giants have been shut out twice which puts them on pace for 46 for the season. I hardly expect them keep that rate up for a whole season but 33 is within their range. 25 is almost a stone cold lock.

And not scoring runs game after game adds up, so to speak. Those same 1908 Cardinals hold the record for fewest runs on a per game basis with 2.41 totaling 371 in 154 games. With the evolution of hitting it’s not surprising this record belongs to the dead ball era. In fact, since 1925 only 8 teams have averaged less than 3 runs for a season - the lowest of which is the Phillies of 1942 (2.61 runs/game) - and 6 of those came between 1968 and 1972. To average less than 3 runs in the steroid era would be astonishing and if broken would be a true testament to how awful this team is and the level to which this franchise has fallen.

Does the possibility of breaking these tantalizing records justify my breaking fanhood law? Probably not, but I just can’t sit back and watch this on field carnage unfold without taking some sort of sick pleasure in it. So keep hitting those double plays and rack up those loses one at a time. We’re going to make history boys.

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