Baseball’s loss leaders hit a new low

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It was an everyday baseball scene. The crowd in Philadelphia rose in time-honoured ritual to applaud as a strike-out ended the match.

Except the home crowd were applauding a defeat as the strike-out of the Philadelphia Phillies’ first baseman Ryan Howard completed a 10-2 win for the visiting St Louis Cardinals.

Philadelphia fans are famous for turning viciously on their teams but the mood on Sunday was benign and celebratory. The reason was that defeat made the Phillies the first team to lose 10,000 matches.

Even as profound ambivalence attends the widely disliked San Francisco outfielder Barry Bonds’s imminent capture of the game’s most cherished record – Hank Aaron’s all-time mark of 755 home runs – Philadelphia has shown that baseball’s passion for statistical landmarks remains undimmed. Last month, another landmark was reached when Atlanta manager Bobby Cox was acclaimed for equalling the legendary John McGraw’s record of being ejected from 131 major league games.

Phillies fans packed their 45,500-capacity stadium for three consecutive matches awaiting the momentous defeat. One brandished a placard reading “10,000 and proud”.

The Phillies’ all-time low dwarfs record losers in other sports. Australian football’s St Kilda, whose achievement of one championship and 26 last places closely echoes the Phillies record, are four shy of 1,300 defeats. English soccer’s loss leaders, Notts County, have been defeated 1,687 times in 108 Football League seasons.

But only in baseball, which has been going non-stop since the late 19th century and where there are no draws in the 162-game season, can a team amass
a record like the Phillies’.

Defying American stereotype, baseball not only acknowledges defeat but often celebrates it. No teams inspire greater nationwide affection than the Boston Red Sox, who went 86 years without a World Series victory before triumphing in 2004, and the Chicago Cubs, who are still waiting after 99 years.

The Phillies are greater losers than either – the Cubs are third with a mere 9,425 defeats up to last Sunday – but they fall short as romantic underdogs. Columnist and lifelong Phillies fan Joe Queenan says they have been “pathetic without being lovable”.

It is not that their history lacks colour or anecdote. In the 1930s, Hugh Mulcahy earned the nickname “Losing Pitcher” after his consistent failures. In 1964, they achieved perhaps the most spectacular late-season collapse in baseball history.

Their single World Series win was, though, comparatively recent, in 1980. Until then they were the last of the game’s historic franchises without a championship. After their 1980 triumph, that distinctiveness was lost. As a Baltimore Orioles player put it when a record losing run ended in 1988: “Yesterday we were national figures. Now we’re just a lousy ball club.”

Baseball purists, a tenacious breed, indict them for devising the most durably insufferable of team mascots, the Phillie Phanatic. Visiting fans of all temperaments are impressed by the vitriol of the Phillies’ home supporters who, it has been said, “would boo a cancer patient”. Queenan has described the Phillies as “exactly like nicotine, a preposterously noxious semihallucinogenic substance capable of giving great pleasure for brief periods of time, but that will ultimately destroy your health”.

There are reasons for anger. Philadelphia’s baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey teams have combined for zero championships since 1983. It competes with Cleveland (whose baseball, football and basketball teams have won nothing since 1964) as the US’s prime sporting wasteland. Philadelphia struggles off the field as well. The 10,000th defeat came not long after census figures showed that, having lost close to one third of its population in 50 years, Philadelphia had been displaced by Phoenix as the US’s fifth-largest city.

Explanation enough for serial failure? Baseball analyst Allen Barra has argued not, noting in 2003 that the Phillies had exclusive rights over potentially the largest and most lucrative market in the US, a vast, populous tract stretching between New York and Baltimore. Instead, he argued: “In a city of classically mismanaged sports franchises, the Philadelphia Phillies have been the worst.”

But Woody Allen, himself a baseball fan, caught something in the American psyche when he suggested that “90 per cent of success is turning up”. No modern baseball achievement is more lauded than Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr playing 2,632 consecutive matches.

Similarly with the Phillies. They’ve been turning up since 1883. They outlasted the more illustrious Philadelphia Athletics, who migrated to Kansas City – en route for Oakland – in 1954. And things may just be looking up. Powered by young players such as Howard, last year’s home-run champion, and second baseman Chase Utley, they are the highest-scoring team in the traditionally low-scoring National League. As of Thursday they were third in their five-team division, five wins behind but with 68 games to go. Lovable? Not yet, perhaps, but far from pathetic.

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