Most of us, when we think about the game's grand history, think about the 20th Century. With only a few exceptions, all the greatest, most famous players hailed from that century. So it's natural to focus on those 100 seasons of the American and National League, and the legends and feats therein.
But you know, we're now a baker's dozen of seasons into a new century. And going way back, there was something we might loosely describe as "major" baseball for a quarter of the 19th Century. All of which got me to thinking about the greatest teams of their respective centuries.
Not that you probably care much, but the No. 1 candidate for Team of the 19th Century is probably the franchise now known as the Atlanta Braves. In the 19th Century, they were known as the Boston Red Stockings and later the Boston Beaneaters, and they led the National League in victories nine times between 1876 and 1900. They also captured, in 1892, the last pre-World Series postseason championship series.
The 20th Century belonged to the New York Yankees. By virtually any measure except National League pennants.
And now, the 21st Century. Before this World Series, it was routinely said that the winner would, by default, take over as the greatest team of the last decade. Because the winner would become the only team in the decade with three World Series wins.
But that strikes me as the wrong question, answered with the wrong methodology. I find this question ...
What's the best World Series team of the last 10 years?
a lot less interesting than this one:
What's the best baseball team of the 21st Century?
... and to answer that one, I think we have to look at more than just World Series Championships.
The field of candidates is small, almost distressingly so. Before getting to that exclusive group, though, what measures of success shall we use? Fortunately, baseball teams play lots of games, both during and after the regular season. I think that the Team of the Century should
a. win lots of regular-season games,
b. go to the playoffs most years,
c. win its share of division titles,
d. reach the World Series a few times, and
e. yes, win a World Series or three.
I identified five candidates: the Red Sox, the Cardinals, the Yankees, the Giants, and the Braves. You might be wondering about the Giants and the Braves. Well, the Giants have won two World Series, and the Braves are really good almost every year, and ... well, I wanted to wind up with five teams to rank. They might not be in the conversation, but for the moment they're in this conversation.
So how to measure them?
To count the wins, I assigned one point for every point of winning percentage over .500. Which leaves only the postseason, and I came up with a system that awards a maximum of 60 points: 5 points for reaching the playoffs, 10 for winning the division title, 15 for reaching the World Series, and 30 points for winning the World Series. You can make up your own values, obviously. I was just looking for some balance, and didn't want the World Series to completely overwhelm the results. Because all those other days and nights do count, at least if you're a fan of that team.
I ran the numbers, and you'll be happy to know that the race for Team of the Century is a very, very close battle between two franchises ... and you might be unhappy, or at least surprised, to learn that the Red Sox are not one of those franchises.
By way of comparison, let's look at the Cardinals, who have won almost exactly as many regular-season games as the Red Sox. Yes, St. Louis has won "only" two World Series, same as the Giants and one fewer than the Red Sox. But where the Red Sox have been to the playoffs seven times, with two division titles and three American League championships, the Cardinals have been to the playoffs nine times, with six division titles and four National League championships.
Here's how the points come out:
246 Red Sox
Wait, didn't I say it was very, very close? Yeah. Because of the Yankees. It's easy to dismiss them, in the wake of a Red Sox championship and a non-playoffs season for the Bombers. But let's get into the Wayback Machine and revisit the Yankees' nine division titles in the last 13 seasons (leaving two apiece for the Red Sox and Rays). That's impressive. That's really impressive. So is the Yankees' .594 winning percentage in this century, easily the best in the majors.
The Yankees wind up with 279 points, just two shy of the Cardinals. Here are all five teams:
246 Red Sox
Again, you're more than welcome to make up your own system. If you give the Yankees extra credit for playing in the toughest division in the toughest league, it's easy to push them past the Cardinals. If you give the Red Sox the same extra credit, plus more for winning those World Series, and maybe even a little extra nudge for saving Fenway Park and finally busting the Curse, you might even get them into the No. 1 slot.
To be sure, the Red Sox and their science did beat the Curse, just as John Henry predicted. They beat it bad in 2004, and since then they've chopped it up into little pieces and buried it deep within the earth. But they've missed the playoffs six times in this century, and that counts for a lot in my book.
The Boston Red Sox are the Story of the Century, baseball-wise and maybe even sports-wise. But for the qualitative team honors, they still have some work to do.