Reflecting On Impossible History

SEATTLE: Former Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick throws out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the game against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. Members of the 2001 Mariners team stand behind Gillick.(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Do you know how good the 2001 Mariners were, and how bad the 2003 Tigers were? Do you really? Do you *really*?

Which was the worst team in recent baseball history? The 2003 Detroit Tigers. Which was the best team in recent baseball history? The 2001 Seattle Mariners. Maybe you think it was the 1998 New York Yankees, and maybe it was the 1998 New York Yankees, but by record, it was the 2001 Seattle Mariners. They won two more games in the regular season than those Yankees did. Most baseball fans know about those Tigers and those Mariners. Many baseball fans can specifically remember the significance of the numbers "119" and "116". Those two teams featured a lot of losses, and a lot of wins.

But I was thinking yesterday about how, with the passage of time, people might have lost their appreciation for how crazy those loss and win totals were. "The 2003 Tigers lost 119 games," you might say without recognizing that 119 losses is batshit insane. "The 2001 Mariners won 116 games," you might say without recognizing that 116 wins is just about equally batshit insane. These totals are just numbers, and they've never been anything but numbers, but I wonder how many people stop and think about how they are extraordinary numbers.

So in an effort to boost historical appreciation and awareness, I'm going to pull those two teams into the present day. Today is June 19. For proof, look at your wall calendar, or more probably, look at your cell phone, or look at the bottom-right corner of your monitor. You will find confirmation that today is the 19th day of June, and that I'm not trying to pull one over for literally no reason I can think of.

The team with the best record right now is the Dodgers. Later today, they'll play the A's, and if they win, they'll improve to 43-25. If they lose, and if the Yankees beat the Braves, the Yankees will have the best record at 42-25. The Yankees have won ten games in a row to surge to the top of the AL East.

The team with the worst record right now is the Cubs. Later today, they'll play the White Sox, and if they lose, they'll fall to 23-45. If they win, and if the Padres lose to the Rangers, the Padres will have the worst record at 24-45. People think the Padres have an outstanding collection of developing top prospects. It's damn good that they do.

Okay, so you're aware of those numbers. You have a feel of how good the Dodgers have been, and you have a feel of how bad the Cubs have been. Following play on June 19, 2001, the Mariners stood at 53-16. Following play on June 19, 2003, the Tigers stood at 17-52.

Let's say the Dodgers win tonight. Let's just say. With the win, the Dodgers would end up 9½ games behind the 2001 Mariners in the overall standings. That's greater than the current separation between the first-place Yankees and the last-place Red Sox. That's greater than the current separation between the first-place Nationals and the last-place Phillies.

Let's say the Cubs lose tonight. Let's just say. With the loss, the Cubs would end up 6½ games in front of the 2003 Tigers in the overall standings. That's greater than the current separation between the first-place White Sox and the fourth-place Royals. That's greater than the current separation between the third-place Cardinals and the fifth-place Astros. Right now, the Pirates are 6½ games worse than the Yankees.

These gaps -- these are unbelievable gaps. Through June 19, the 2001 Mariners had a +134 run differential, while the best current run differential in 2012 is +88. Through June 19, the 2003 Tigers had a -131 run differential, while the worst current run differential in 2012 is -74. Think about how you feel when you look at the present-day MLB standings. Now introduce a pair of extremes, with significant separation at either end.

I think it's challenging to appreciate how good those Mariners were, and how bad those Tigers were, because we can't conceive of actual teams achieving those levels of performance. The best teams are supposed to win a hundred, and the worst teams are supposed to lose a hundred. Those two teams absolutely blew those numbers away. It seems impossible that we could've had even one of those seasons since the dawn of the new millennium, but we've had two of them, two opposites, and they should never be forgotten.

On June 19, 2001, the Mariners beat the A's 8-7. Some people forget that those A's won 102 games. They finished 14 games behind the Mariners in the division. The Mariners fell behind 4-0 early, they rallied to lead 6-5 late, they fell behind 7-6 even later, and they rallied to win 8-7 later still. The ninth-inning rally against Jason Isringhausen featured characteristic good offense, and characteristic good fundamentals. Said a modest Lou Piniella after the game:

"We battled back in the ninth and it wasn't textbook baseball, that's for sure," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "You've got to be pleased from a managing standpoint from what the team has accomplished and the effort they've given. The win wasn't textbook but we'll correct that and learn from it."

By winning, the Mariners avoided what would've been their first three-game losing streak of the season. All year, they had one losing streak longer than two games. It was four games.

On June 19, 2003, the Tigers lost to the Indians 10-3. Those Indians would go on to lose 94 times. The Tigers fell behind 1-0, and then it was 2-0, and then all of a sudden it was 6-0. Nate Cornejo yielded to Wil Ledezma, who yielded to Gary Knotts, who yielded to Steve Sparks. Interestingly, at the time, none of those pitchers had an ERA over 5. Said a very honest Shane Halter after the game:

"This is as close to the bottom as it gets," Shane Halter said after a 10-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Thursday. "We got swept by a team that should never sweep you, no matter how well or poorly you are playing."

Unfortunately for Halter, the Tigers would get closer to the bottom. This was their 12th loss in 13 games. They won the next day. Then they lost another nine in a row. There is no floor. You can keep trying to find it, but you will never find it.

While we're here, Jody Gerut, an Indians player, after the same game:

"The last thing I want to say is that we've got their number because I don't think we do," said Jody Gerut, who had three RBIs Thursday. "I think there's a lot of parity on the field. Their guys are right there with our guys. I think we've got a little more luck right now. I'd say that's about it."

In that quote, Jody Gerut said his team was no better than what turned out to be pretty much the worst team in modern baseball history. Jody Gerut must've been pretty down on his team.

After June 19, the 2001 Mariners went 63-30, which was outstandingly good, but remarkably still six games worse than the A's. After June 19, the 2003 Tigers went 26-67, which was dreadful. It was 13 games worse than the next-worst AL team. It was eight games worse than the next-worst team overall. Those Tigers.

That's impossible history, and I hope you appreciate it better than you did when you woke up this morning. And as a neat little twist to give you faith in the balancing powers of the universe, three years later the Mariners lost 99 games. Three years later the Tigers went to the World Series. The 2001 Mariners were but a peak, and the 2003 Tigers were but a valley. But what a peak, and what a valley.

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