Hope Springs Eternal
In 1732 British poet Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Although baseball was not invented yet, he expressed the wishes of baseball fans everywhere at the start of Spring Training. We believe that instead of ‘waiting until next year,’ next year has arrived. This year our team will win. The young hot rookie prospects will be even better than anticipated. The veterans still have something left in the tank. The closers won't blow any saves. Clutch hits happen aplenty. Our manager will be a genius. Hated rivals will collapse. Anything is possible, at least before the season starts.
And sometimes hope is rewarded.
There have been some amazing turnarounds by teams from one year to the next. Who can forget the 1936 Boston Bees (AKA Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, and Atlanta Braves) who had one of the largest single-season improvements in baseball history? They won 33 more games more than the 1935 team. Unfortunately, in 1935, they had lost 115 games, winning only 38 times, the second-worst record in post-1900 MLB history. The team had fans select a new team name, to change their luck, with Bees the winner. And it worked. In 1936 the Boston Bees improved from 38 wins to 71 wins. They still finished in 6th place, 21 games out of first. And their ballpark was nicknamed the ‘Beehive,’ a pretty cool name.
And don’t forget the 1929 Philadelphia Phillies: they improved by 28 games over the prior year edition, enough to move them from 8th place to 5th place. Or the 1962 Phillies team which used a huge 34 game improvement to move from 8th to 7th place. On the other hand, a 27 game single season improvement in 1993 put the Phillies into the World Series.
The Arizona Diamondbacks seem to specialize in turnarounds, both positive and negative. As an expansion team in 1998, they finished last winning only 65 games. In 1999 they went from last-to-first with a 35 game improvement. On the other hand, the 2004 version of the team lost 33 more games than the prior season, one of the worst declines ever. Not to worry, both the 2007 and 2011 Diamondbacks went from last to first. They are the only team to go from last to first three times. Hope certainly can spring eternal in the desert.
The 1969 Baltimore Orioles won 18 games more than the prior year. Unfortunately, they ran into the Miracle New York Mets who had improved by 27 games over 1968 and upset the Orioles in the World Series. 1969 is also a season that shall live in infamy for Cubs fans, as they collapsed late in the season.
Talk about a seesaw. The 1917 White Sox won the World Series. In 1918 the team got worse by 43 games, as some their stars, including ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, were part of the WWI effort. With everyone back, the 1919 version improved by 31 games. However, after the Black Sox scandal resulted in the suspension of eight players, the 1921 team lost 34 more games than the previous season. Probably out of concern for their fans health, the team remained comfortably mediocre for the next 30-years, until the 1950s.
1991 was an interesting year. Two teams went from ‘worst to first,’ each improving by over 20 games. They met in a thrilling world series where the Twins beat the Braves 1-0 in game 7.
How about the Yankees? If a team is consistently good from year-to-year, you would not expect to see dramatic improvements. But even the Babe Ruth Yankees had ups and downs. The 1925 Yankees lost 29 more games than the World Series winning 1923 team. But they improved by 22 games in 1926 and an additional 19 in 1927, appearing in the Series both times.
There is one team that has two turnaround seasons in the last ten years. I refuse to mention their name. For some inexplicable reason, their fans sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ every game. And they call themselves a ‘nation’. And they play in a decrepit old ballpark that they think is quaint. But yes, in 2013 and 2016 the denizens of Fenway Park pulled off ‘last to first’ seasons in both 2013 and 2017.
I could go on and on. Virtually every team has had seasons where they got significantly better by 20 or more games. Yes, in some cases they have gone from terrible to mediocre. But in others, they have finished first and gotten into the playoffs.
Perhaps Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard explained hope best. After losing the 2016 wild-card game, despite an outstanding pitching performance, he tweeted: “Baseball has a way of ripping your (heart) out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training."