The Rays' rush to prominence in 2008 has made us wonder what the future holds for them. How has history treated previous upstarts? Were those teams flashes in the pan, or did they manage to stay relevant beyond their initial success?
To identify which teams had rises that most closely resemble that of the 2008 Rays, the following criteria had to be met -- all of which the Rays accomplished. For inclusion here, a team had to:
• Make it to the World Series;
• Improve by 20 games from the season before (or 19 in the 154-game era);
• Be under .500 in each of the previous two seasons, at least.
A number of teams qualified on the first two criteria, but weren't truly upstarts because they'd been over .500 two seasons prior to their World Series appearance. Since we're trying to find relative matches for the 2008 Rays, teams like the infamous 1919 White Sox -- who had been world champions in 1917 before dropping off in 1918 -- don't qualify. This requirement also disqualifies clubs like the 2002 Angels and 1998 Padres, who were bouncing back and forth between mediocrity and competence. There were also teams that qualified on the second and third requirements, but not the first in that they rose, but not quite as spectacularly, relative to Tampa Bay. The 2007 Rockies and 1987 Twins would be examples.
We found these 11 clubs, some of whom are quite famous in their own right:
2006 Detroit Tigers (95-67): Lost to St. Louis Cardinals, 4-1
How were they the season before and previous to that? (71-91): 2006 was their first .500 season in 13 years, not to mention that they went from 43 wins all the way to the Series in just three seasons.
What happened the next season and beyond? (88-74): The slippage actually began in 2006 itself when the Tigers went under .500 the last two months of the season and had to settle for the wild card. They haven't lived up to expectations since.
1993 Philadelphia Phillies (97-65): Lost to Toronto Blue Jays, 4-2
How were they the season before and previous to that? (70-92): Their 1993 effort marked the only time they finished over .500 between 1987 and 2000.
What happened the next season and beyond? (54-61): They went 119 games under .500 for the rest of the decade. Don't ever let it be said Phillies fans haven't earned their day in the sun.
1991 Minnesota Twins (95-67): Beat Atlanta Braves, 4-3
How were they the season before and previous to that? (74-88): The Twins had the second-worst record in the league in 1990 behind the Yankees, of all teams. They were not too far removed from their world championship of 1987, but there had been a lot of roster turnover in the interim.
What happened the next season and beyond? (90-72): The Twins stayed at or near the top into mid-August the following year and then went into eclipse for the rest of the decade.
1991 Atlanta Braves (94-68): Lost to Minnesota Twins, 4-3
How were they the season before and previous to that? (65-97): The only all-upstart World Series ever ended in defeat for the Braves, but theirs proved to be the more sustainable rise. They were coming off six straight seasons in which they finished last or next-to-last and during which they cracked the 70-win barrier just once.
What happened the next season and beyond? (98-64): The best upstart launch ever, as it kicked off a decade and a half of playoff appearances.
1988 Los Angeles Dodgers (94-67): Beat Oakland A's, 4-1
How were they the season before and previous to that? (73-89): Since the Dodgers' rise at the end of the 1930s, they have had two only consecutive losing seasons twice: 1967-1968 and 1986-1987. Even when the Dodgers do have a losing season, though, it's not pronounced; they've won under 70 games in a full season only once since 1944. In other words, they just barely qualify for inclusion on this list.
What happened the next season and beyond? (77-83): The '88 record wasn't as good as it seemed based on runs scored/runs against, and the 1989 record wasn't that bad, so the drop really wasn't as pronounced as it appeared. This put the Dodgers in a good position to bounce back in 1990, which they did, followed by a decade with just two under-.500 seasons.
1969 New York Mets (100-62): Beat Baltimore Orioles, 4-1
How were they the season before and previous to that? (73-89): 73 wins was an all-time high for the Mets, who had amassed 648 losses in their first six seasons of existence prior to 1968.
What happened the next season and beyond? (83-79): After their rise to the heights, the Mets settled into something they had never experienced before: mediocrity. (The exception was 1973, when they reached the World Series after winning the NL East with a pedestrian 82-79 record.)
1967 Boston Red Sox (92-70): Lost to St. Louis Cardinals, 4-3
How were they the season before and previous to that? (72-90): The Red Sox were only truly terrible in 1965 (100 losses), but hadn't finished over .500 since 1958.
What happened the next season and beyond? (86-76): 1967 marked the beginning of an age of competence for the Red Sox. While they would make it to the playoffs only once in the next 18 seasons, they did finish over .500 every year from 1967 to 1982.
1961 Cincinnati Reds (93-61): Lost to New York Yankees, 4-1
How were they the season before and previous to that? (67-87): 1960 was the worst Reds season between 1951 and 1981 and it came on the heels of two years below .500.
What happened the next season and beyond? (98-64): The Reds held their ground in 1962, thanks in part to a 26-10 record against the expansion Mets and Colt .45s. Unfortunately for their playoff hopes, the Giants and Dodgers also took it out on the Mets and finished ahead of Cincinnati. 1961 marked an entry into an era of competitiveness for Cincinnati that carried over into greatness in the next decade.
1945 Chicago Cubs (98-56): Lost to Detroit Tigers, 4-3
How were they the season before and previous to that? (75-79): After finishing under .500 in each season from 1940 to 1944, the Cubs nipped the Cardinals for the '45 pennant.
What happened the next season and beyond? (82-71): After 1946, it would be another 17 years before they finished over .500 again. You may also have heard that they have not returned to the World Series since then, either.
1918 Chicago Cubs 84-45: Lost to Boston Red Sox, 4-2
How were they the season before and previous to that? (74-80): 1918 marked a return to near-glory for a franchise that had fallen into mediocrity when its powerhouse team of the previous decade dispersed. The 1918 season was cut short due to World War I, but the Cubs projected to 100 wins over a full, 154-game schedule, hence their inclusion here.
What happened the next season and beyond? (75-65): Another decade of so-so play.
1914 Boston Braves (94-59): Beat Philadelphia A's, 4-0
How were they the season before and previous to that? (69-82): The word "miracle" is thrown around a bit too much in sports, but the 1914 Braves really did earn the sobriquet they have carried since then: the Miracle Braves. Compared to the years 1903-12, their 1913 showing was quite good. The only other time they cracked 60 wins in the previous decade was 1908. For the first two months of the 1914 season, though, it seemed like the Braves were reverting to form. At the end of play on July 4, they were 26-40, seemingly stuck in last place, 15 games out of first. From that point on, they won nearly 80 percent of their games and swept the defending champion A's, holding them to just six runs in the process.
What happened the next season and beyond? (83-69): The Braves remained relevant for two more seasons and then spent the better part of the next three decades in the second division. Their highest finish between 1917 and 1946 was fourth place.
If you're looking at team ages -- something that doesn't always translate well between the pre-free agency and free agency eras -- the Rays would rank around fifth on this list (the 1914 Braves, 1969 Mets, 1967 Red Sox and 1961 Reds were younger). Not surprisingly, the '45 Cubs skew to the oldest side.
So what would the perfect scenario be for an upstart team? It would be a combination of the efforts of three of these teams:
• Improvement: 2008 Rays -- 31 games, most on this list;
• Result: 1914 Braves -- destruction of opponent in World Series;
• Sustainability: 1991 Braves -- long-lasting excellence.
With the loss to the Phillies in the World Series, the opportunity for the second one is gone, but the 1991 Braves model remains on the table for emulation.
Jim Baker is a regular contributor to Page 2.