Commentary

Baseball's all-time 'train-wreck' seasons

Updated: September 3, 2009, 4:15 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com

There have been worse teams than the 2009 New York Mets -- just look a couple of hundred miles south to a team in their own division. But as Jayson Stark writes, it's hard to find a more disastrous season than what the Mets have suffered.

We call it a "train wreck."

Baseball history, of course, often repeats itself. Just ask Yogi Berra. So, Mets fans, take solace in the fact that you have company. Here are some teams that suffered similar fates -- expectations were high, but catastrophe ensued. (Which is different than, say, a team like the 2003 Tigers that lost 119 games but wasn't expected to be competitive.)


2004 Arizona Diamondbacks

Record: 51-111, last in NL West
2003: 84-78, third in NL West


The expectations
Sure, 2003 had been a bit of a disappointment after three division titles from 1999 to 2002, but Randy Johnson had missed half the season, so hopes were high for a team that also featured Brandon Webb, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, free-agent acquisition Roberto Alomar and trade acquisition Richie Sexson.

The train wreck
Johnson was fantastic (16-14, 2.60 ERA). Webb was very good (3.59 ERA). The rest of the guys turned poor Al Pedrique into Jimmy Dugan. Pedrique took over as manager after Bob Brenly was given the heave-ho and went 22-61. Sexson dislocated his shoulder and missed most of the season, Alomar played just 38 games and Gonzalez and Finley both missed time. So injuries played a part, but this also was a nightmare of a team. It finished last in runs scored despite playing in a hitters' park. The pitching staff featured Casey Fossum (4-15, 6.65, 31 home runs allowed in 142 innings), Steve Sparks (6.04 ERA in 120 innings) and Edgar Gonzalez (0-9, 9.32 in 10 starts).

What happened next?
The team committed to a rebuilding process by trading Johnson to the Yankees after the season. By 2007, the Diamondbacks were back in the playoffs.


2004 Seattle Mariners

Record: 63-99, last in AL West
2003: 93-69, second in AL West


The expectations
Following their 116-win season of 2001, the Mariners had won 93 games in both '02 and '03, although they missed the playoffs both seasons. Still, they were a crown jewel of a franchise, generating some of the highest revenues in the sport and finishing first or second in attendance in the AL those three seasons.

The train wreck
What could go wrong? Other than Ichiro setting the all-time record with 262 hits, everything. Consider this: Ichiro managed to score just 101 runs despite all those hits. Let us count the ways to 99 losses: (1) The Mariners were old (they had the oldest batting roster in the AL in 2003) -- John Olerud was 35, Bret Boone was 35, Dan Wilson was 35, Edgar Martinez was 41; so, of course, the team's big offseason moves were (2) to let Mike Cameron walk as a free agent, (3) trade Carlos Guillen to Detroit for Ramon Santiago and (4) sign 32-year-old Rich Aurilia and (5) 31-year-old Scott Spiezio. Those guys combined to hit .226, Boone, Olerud and Martinez aged like bad cheese and the Mariners fell to last in runs scored.

Meanwhile, remarkably, the 2003 rotation had not missed a start the entire season, using only five starters; it was not so fortunate in 2004. Although Jamie Moyer and Ryan Franklin were healthy, they combined to go 11-29. Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche both missed time, new closer Eddie Guardado gave up too many home runs and the rest of the 'pen reminded Mariners fans of the horror days of Bobby Ayala.

What happened next?
Years of bad draft picks and free-agent signings had left the farm system barren. The Mariners had no youth to replace the aging vets. GM Bill Bavasi proved too inept to provide solutions, so despite a willingness to spend money, the Mariners fell to the bottom of the AL basement, a hole they are just now digging out of.


2000 Houston Astros

Record: 72-90, fourth in NL Central
1999: 97-65, first in NL Central


The expectations
Coming off three straight division titles, the Astros featured a powerhouse offense, with rookie Lance Berkman joining a lineup with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. The team had traded 22-game winner Mike Hampton to the Mets and 100-RBI center fielder Carl Everett to the Red Sox, but Moises Alou was back after missing all of 1999. Four in a row seemed a good bet.

The train wreck
Consider this: The Astros slugged an NL-record 249 home runs. Bagwell hit 47 home runs and scored 152 runs. Richard Hidalgo hit .314 with 44 home runs. Alou hit .355. The team scored 938 runs … so the train wreck, you can surmise, was created by the pitching staff.

There was one major injury: Closer Billy Wagner missed the final three-plus months with a torn flexor tendon. Shane Reynolds, a 16-game winner in 1999, was limited to 22 starts. But three starters all made 30-plus. Alas, those three guys were Jose Lima, Scott Elarton and Chris Holt. Lima went 7-16 and allowed 48 home runs. All told, 23 different Astros pitched, including infielder Tim Bogar. Seventeen of them finished with an ERA more than 5.00. Only one finished with an ERA less than 4.00.

What happened next?
The Astros dumped Lima and Holt, Wagner returned, rookie Roy Oswalt jumped to the majors and Houston made it back it to the playoffs in 2001. 2000 was the franchise's only losing season between 1992 and 2006.


1993 Oakland A's

Record: 68-94, last in AL West
1992: 96-66, lost ALCS


The expectations
The A's had averaged 97 wins the previous five seasons, winning four division titles. The Bash Brothers were no more (Jose Canseco had been traded to Texas in 1992), but Big Mac, Rickey, Hendu and Eck were still around.

The train wreck
Mark McGwire hurt his heel and played just 27 games. Dave Henderson hit just .220. Ruben Sierra, acquired for Canseco, proved you can drive in 100 runs and still be one of the least valuable hitters in the league, as he hit .233 with a .288 on-base percentage. Rickey Henderson was traded to Toronto in July. And that was the good news. The pitching/defense was brutal, the worst in the league, as none of the primary starters (Bobby Witt, Ron Darling, Bob Welch, Todd Van Poppel, Kelly Downs) was even league-average. Even Dennis Eckersley, the 1992 AL MVP, was past his prime, posting a 4.16 ERA.

What happened next?
This was a classic case of an old team that got old in a hurry. Without young reinforcements on the way, it didn't finish better than .500 again until 1999.


1992 Los Angeles Dodgers

Record: 63-99, last in NL West
1991: 93-69, second in NL West


The expectations
These were the Dodgers, with their spotless white uniforms, their perfect stadium nestled in Chavez Ravine with the perfect sunny weather, with everybody's pal Tommy Lasorda managing the boys. Of course those upstart Atlanta Braves had just been lucky in '91.

The train wreck
This team featured 16 players who would be All-Stars at some point in their careers. It's perhaps telling that this team's lone All-Star rep in '92 was Mike Sharperson, a utility infielder. We didn't make that up. Anyway, the pitching wasn't so bad and, other than a few missed starts from Ramon Martinez, was healthy.

The defense? Well, Jose Offerman committed 42 errors at shortstop. Looking through the Los Angeles Times archives is like a sucker punch to a Dodgers fan's memory:

Feb. 29 -- "Dodger management has asked several pitchers to speak with shortstop Jose Offerman this spring to help him build confidence."

March 5 -- "The baseball man with the gray sideburns stands behind the young, wide-eyed shortstop and shouts in a voice strong enough to span generations."

March 24 -- "Offerman Gets Lecture After Errors"

April 14 -- "Offerman can't handle grounder that fuels Astros' six-run burst in first."

April 15 -- "Claire Comes to Offerman's Defense"

Anyway, as bad as Offerman was, the offense was even worse. Dave Hansen and Mitch Webster each hit six home runs. That was tied for second on the team. And we don't have time to get into the whole Darryl Strawberry fiasco.

What happened next?
The '92 wreck was mostly a blip on the radar, as the Dodgers have suffered just two losing seasons since. (Of course, they haven't won a playoff series, either.)


1989 Detroit Tigers

The record: 59-103, last in AL East
1988: 88-74, one game behind first-place Boston


The expectations
The Tigers had won the AL East in 1987 and just missed the division title in 1988. With 11 consecutive winning seasons, Sparky Anderson's gang was considered a division favorite, still led by a core of Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris.

The train wreck
The lineup featured over-the-hills such as Fred Lynn, Keith Moreland, Chet Lemon, Dave Bergman and Gary Ward. Only one regular was younger than 30; unfortunately, it was Rick Schu, who hit .214. The bench consisted of never-weres such as Mike Brumley, Scott Lusader and Torey Lovullo. The top three starters were Frank Tanana, Doyle Alexander and Morris; the first two were older than the urinals at Tiger Stadium, and Morris went 6-14 in 24 starts. Alexander led the AL with 18 losses. A relief pitcher led the team in wins. Things got so bad that Anderson suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave the team for a spell.

What happened next?
The team rebounded to play around .500 for a few seasons, but the great run of the '80s was over.


1982 Cincinnati Reds

Record: 61-101, last in NL West
1981: 66-42 in strike season, the best record in the NL


The expectations
Remember when the Reds won all the time? They had missed the playoffs in '81 because of the wacky split-season format but entered '82 with 10 consecutive winning seasons and 19 of 21.

The train wreck
The '81 Reds had scored the second-most runs in the league. Led by George Foster, seven of their eight regulars had an above-average OPS. The Reds then decided to jettison their entire outfield: Foster signed a big deal with the Mets as a free agent (a good move for the Reds, as it turned out, as Foster declined rapidly), Dave Collins signed with the Yankees and Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to the Yankees for Brian Ryder. Suddenly without an outfield, the Reds decided it would be wise to move Johnny Bench to third base and trade Ray Knight to Houston for Cesar Cedeno. This worked about as well as you would expect moving a 34-year-old catcher with bad knees to third base to work out. At least Cedeno tied for the team lead in RBIs. Too bad that total was 57. The Reds finished last in the league in runs. Tom Seaver went 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA, and the Reds lost 100 games for the only time in franchise history.

What happened next?
After two more bad seasons, the Reds were playoff contenders again by 1985, won (and lost) bets for Pete Rose in the late '80s and won the World Series in 1990.


1965 New York Yankees

Record: 77-85, sixth in the AL
1964: 99-63, lost World Series


The expectations
The Yankees had won five straight pennants. It was their birthright to win a sixth. Or so thought Yankees fans.

The train wreck
Yogi Berra was fired after losing the World Series and was replaced by Johnny Keane -- who had just managed the Cardinals to victory over the Yankees. Anyway, that didn't help, but this was an aging team without youngsters ready to step in (caused, in part, by the Yankees' reluctance to sign black players). Elston Howard was 36; Mickey Mantle was 33 with 63-year-old knees; Whitey Ford was 36. Mantle played hurt and managed 122 games but hit just .255 with 46 RBIs. Roger Maris broke his hand and played just 46 games. Jim Bouton, who had won 39 games the previous two years, battled a sore arm. The Yankee Dynasty, which had produced 14 pennants in 16 years, was over.

What happened next?
The Yankees plummeted to last place in 1966 and didn't reach the postseason again until 1976.


1925 New York Yankees

Record: 68-85, seventh in the AL
1924: 89-63, second in the AL


The expectations
The Yankees had averaged 95 wins the previous four seasons and had won the AL pennant in 1921, '22 and '23. They had Babe Ruth in his prime -- eating, drinking, hitting and chasing women -- coming off a season during which he hit .378 with 46 home runs and a .513 on-base percentage. They had the biggest stadium, the most money and a rookie first baseman named Gehrig waiting for Wally Pipp's headache.

The train wreck
Ruth fell ill during spring training and underwent what was reported as stomach surgery. One writer reported that Ruth's illness was brought on after bingeing on hot dogs and soda pop before a game, and it became known as "The bellyache heard 'round the world." Others have suggested Ruth really suffered from venereal disease, tainted alcohol or an intestinal abscess. Whatever the cause, Ruth played in just 98 games and hit .290 with 25 home runs. There were other small declines in offense (despite the additions of rookies Lou Gehrig and Earle Combs) and pitching (which was healthy but not as good), but the Babe's bellyache explains much of the fall.

What happened next?
Ruth returned as strong as ever, the team replaced its middle infield with rookies Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig, and the '26 to '28 Yankees won three straight pennants, with the '27 team regarded as one of baseball's best teams.


1919 Boston Red Sox

Record: 66-71, sixth in AL
1918: 75-51, World Series champions


The expectations
The Red Sox were baseball's pre-eminent franchise, having won four World Series in the previous seven seasons.

The train wreck
The Red Sox had been built around pitching, allowing the fewest runs in the league four of the five previous seasons. The 1918 champs featured five primary starters: Carl Mays, Joe Bush, Sam Jones, Dutch Leonard and Babe Ruth. The offense, meanwhile, had slugged 15 home runs -- 11 by Ruth, who moonlighted a bit in the outfield -- but that was actually the third-highest total in the league.

The team made three major moves: 1. It moved Ruth full time to the outfield, and he hit 29 home runs, 19 more than any other player in the league. (He also won nine games in 15 starts.) 2. Leonard and Duffy Lewis were traded to the Yankees for Ray Caldwell and $15,000. Caldwell pitched poorly and was released in August. 3. In July, Mays was essentially sold to the Yankees for $40,000.

Combined with a bad season from Jones (12-20), the pitching fell to fourth in runs allowed, despite the emergence of Herb Pennock, who, alas, was traded to the Yankees in 1923 and became a Hall of Famer.

What happened next?
Ruth was sold in the offseason for $100,000, and the Red Sox suffered 15 consecutive losing seasons.

David Schoenfield is a senior editor for ESPN.com.

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