- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Let's get the obvious out of the way so we can move on to the more compelling debate. As painful as it is to write (and for many to read), the decade's best team is the franchise that has dominated so many of the past nine decades and the team likely to dominate the next decade as well. The New York Yankees.
Feel free to curse.
No other team is close. No matter the criteria, the Yankees come out on top. The Yankees won the first World Series of the decade, and they won the last. They played in two others. They won their division eight times and reached the postseason nine times. They won 45 games more than the nearest team. They had some of the greatest players in history (Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter). They had the decade's best closer (Mariano Rivera) and some of the best starters (Clemens, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte). They opened the most expensive stadium in history and were so good, fans paid $2,500 for a ticket to see them. Well, a couple of fans did.
And the Yankees not only spent more freely than a targeted congressman in an election year (nearly $1.9 billion in combined payroll), but they grew so ravenous that they started stealing two bases at once.
Sorry, Red Sox fans. Yes, your team finally won a World Series in 2004 (thanks for not going on and on about that). Yes, you matched the Yankees' decade output with another championship in 2007. And yes, Red Sox Nation grew so large that Lonely Planet should have a guide to it ("Entry requirements to Red Sox Nation include a platinum Visa card, a tetanus shot and a 'Jeter Sucks!' T-shirt"). But Boston failed to reach the playoffs four times and got swept in the first round twice. The Red Sox won their division only once and finished ahead of the hated Yankees only twice. Plus, there was that whole "Fever Pitch'' thing.
How about the Cardinals? Well, they were the National League's team of the decade by far. The Phillies might have matched St. Louis in world championships and World Series appearances (one and two, respectively), but the Cardinals won 63 more games than the Phillies, reached the postseason more than twice as often as the Phillies (seven to three) and won twice as many division titles as the Phillies (six to three). And they had probably the player of the decade (Albert Pujols). But all that comes with an asterisk compared to what the Yankees accomplished in the American League. Be honest -- the last time a league was so inferior to the AL, Tom Hanks was one of the managers.
No, the Yankees (grrrrrrr) are the best team of the decade, no question about it. The real debate, however, is over the decade's worst team, a category in which several teams were highly competitive. Which was about the only time they were highly competitive.
Entering the decade, Tampa Bay was the heavy favorite for this award, and it remained so with seven last-place finishes and three 100-loss seasons in the first eight years. But then the Rays knocked themselves out of contention overnight, winning the AL East title in 2008, reaching the World Series and earning dozens of new fans.
That leaves five candidates: the Reds, Orioles, Pirates, Royals and Nationals/Expos. Here are the arguments for each.
Pros: The Pirates entered the decade on a seven-season losing streak, so they were the leaders in the clubhouse, which, when you think about it, is where they should have stayed rather than venturing onto the field. The Pirates finished last five times, piled up seven seasons in which they lost at least 90 games and extended their losing streak to a record 17 seasons. They had four managers, including Lloyd McClendon, who was so frustrated by his team one day that he literally stole a base.
Their biggest claim to worst team is not the constant turnover of their best player in an inept attempt to save money, but that those players, while good, wouldn't have turned the Pirates into winners even if they had stayed (Jason Schmidt, Jason Kendall, Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Kris Benson, Freddy Sanchez, Ian Snell, Nate McLouth).
Cons: Unfortunately, the Pirates get no extra credit for those seven losing seasons in the '90s. Plus, they moved into the best ballpark in baseball. So Pittsburgh is at least a lovely place to watch a team lose.
Pros: The Reds lost a one-game playoff for the wild-card slot in 1999, traded for Ken Griffey Jr. before the 2000 season and were considered one of the best, most exciting teams in baseball entering the decade. And then the decade began. Before it ended, the Reds had nine losing seasons and went through five managers.
Cons: On the other hand, the Reds also had one winning season and only three 90-loss seasons. And because they played in the same division as Pittsburgh, they never finished in last place.
Pros: Surprised to see the Orioles here? You wouldn't be if you were one of their dwindling fans. Has any team fallen as far as Baltimore? The Orioles were second in attendance in 1999 with 3.4 million. By the end of this decade, attendance had fallen to 1.9 million. They had a losing record every season, finished in last place twice and finished next to last seven times. They had only one season in which they were in first place after April -- and one year, their final day in first place was in March.
Cons: Baltimore won 26 more games than the Royals and 17 more than the Pirates. Plus, fans could watch Cal Ripken Jr. the first two years of the decade.
Pros: You would think a team that began the decade with an outfield of Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye would have fared better, but remember, we're talking about the Royals. While their neighbors across I-70 in St. Louis were proving that playing in Missouri really isn't a competitive hurdle, the Royals finished with the decade's worst record (672-948), losing a dozen more games than the Pirates (no easy feat). They averaged 95 losses a year with four -- count 'em, four -- 100-loss seasons and finished in last place five times. They had a 19-game losing streak. Like the Pirates, they suffered from zealous belt tightening and incompetent management, continuing to make questionable moves right up to the end, when they traded a top prospect for Yuniesky Betancourt. C'mon, Yuniesky Betancourt?
Cons: It might be difficult to remember, but the Royals had one winning season, 2003, in which they were in first place as late as Aug. 29 (you could look it up). They also had the 2009 Cy Young winner (Zack Greinke) and haven't traded him away. Yet.
Pros: They finished in last place six times, more than any other team. They had the majors' worst record two years in a row. But to appreciate how truly bad this franchise was, recall that the team began the decade as the Expos in Montreal, where then-owner Jeffrey Loria (hissss!!!) gutted the fan base by not broadcasting their games in English on the radio or on TV in any language. Nice marketing strategy, huh? Then commissioner Bud Selig threatened to contract them. Then the league took them over, in the sort of baseball move rarely seen outside of a movie starring Charlie Sheen. Then baseball had them play 21 of their home games in a stadium more than 2,000 miles from Montreal, essentially forcing them to play 102 games on the road. Then baseball moved them to Washington, where they finished last four times in five years and had their general manager resign amid a federal investigation into the skimming of signing bonuses for Latin players.
Cons: They had three non-losing seasons, averaged only 91 losses per season and finished the decade 39½ games better than the Royals. They also drafted Stephen Strasburg, the most coveted pitcher in years, and will get the top pick next year. Plus, Manny Acta isn't the manager anymore.
OK, who's the worst team of the decade?
The answer isn't easy and undoubtedly will be debated, but upon careful review, the honor falls to your Montreal/Puerto Rico Expos/Washington Nationals. As close as all five teams were, the tie-breaker was becoming the first baseball team to move in three decades.
Yes, Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh fans endured more losses and more losing seasons, but at least they still have baseball teams to watch, which is far more than Montreal fans can say (although they still can follow Youppi! at Canadiens hockey games). Losses come and go (and come again, all too often) but there is no sports pain worse than breathing the exhaust fumes from the U-Haul speeding away with your beloved team, your cherished memories and your most fervent hopes.
Although watching one of your players smack a guy in a giant sausage costume comes close.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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