Rays taste success as expansion club
Only three franchises left that haven't reached Fall Classic
It seemed to be such a rare thing when the Rockies did it, and rightfully so -- reaching the World Series happens so infrequently even for the most successful teams. So when the Rockies did so last year, with a chance to become the league's first expansion team to win the World Series since the 2003 Marlins, many around the organization and the game were thrilled.
"It's good for so many different people on so many levels," manager Clint Hurdle said that night.
And now the Rays, the Rockies' juniors by five years on the Major League circuit, have bested that feat. By beating the Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday night, the Rays reached the Fall Classic in their 11th year of existence, leaving only three Major League expansion teams lacking a World Series appearance -- the Rangers, Mariners and Nationals.
"It's really been a work of conviction, great effort and perseverance," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Everybody in the organization has a stake in what was accomplished."
Founded in 1998 as one of the league's most recent two expansion teams, the Rays endured a full decade's worth of losing, rising higher than last place in the AL East just once, before storming out to the division crown this summer. Now they've flown through the playoffs, as well, knocking off the White Sox and the Red Sox -- two of the league's original 16 teams -- on their way to the World Series.
Perhaps their rise to the pennant seemed long, made even more so by the fact that the Rays didn't enjoy a single winning season until this one. But a quick glance at history can assure that the Rays, among expansion teams, are not alone in that respect.
For solace over their first 11 seasons, the Rays needed only to look to the league's first expansion team, the Rangers. Joining the league in 1961 as the Washington Senators, the Rangers endured 14 seasons and one name change before even finishing within five games of first place. They enjoyed relative success in the late 1970s, little of the same throughout the '80s, and then finally some sustained winning in the mid-to-late '90s. Yet they lost all three of the postseason series they played over that stretch -- the Yankees beat them by a combined nine games to one -- and haven't made it back since.
Los Angeles Angels:
Even the Angels, who draw well over 3 million fans per year and have become a model for teams throughout baseball, struggled mightily when they first entered the league in 1961. Briefly the Los Angeles Angels before changing their name first to California, then to Anaheim, then back to Los Angeles once more, the Angels stayed well out of playoff contention for nearly their first two decades in the league. Not until Rod Carew and Nolan Ryan both shined for the team in 1979 did the Angels make the playoffs, dropping their best-of-five ALCS to the Orioles, three games to one. It would be another 23 years before the Angels would make the World Series, beating the Giants in 2002.
This seems to be something of a trend. After joining the Major Leagues in 1962, it took the Astros 18 seasons to even come within 10 games of first place. The following year -- Ryan's first with the team -- brought their first playoff berth, though the Astros then endured seven fruitless playoff series before finally winning one in 2004. They won their first pennant the following season, losing to the White Sox in four games of the World Series, but still completing a journey that began more than four decades earlier.
New York Mets:
The original poster child for expansion-team success, the Mets famously lost 120 games in their inaugural season and finished at least 40 games out of first place in five of their first seven, before experiencing a miraculous turnaround and winning the World Series in 1969 (with Ryan on the roster, of course). The Mets won again in '86 and collected two additional pennants along the way, perhaps providing inspiration to the Rays that winning, for an expansion team, is not impossible.
Kansas City Royals:
For all their recent struggles, the Royals were -- after four consecutive losing seasons -- remarkably proficient during their first two decades in the league. Making the playoffs six times over one 10-year stretch, the Royals won their first pennant in 1980, 11 seasons after joining the league, and won their first World Series in '85. The fact that they've since struggled has done nothing to discredit the notion that playoff success can be had, even for the youngest of teams.
Moving to Milwaukee after joining the league in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots, the Brewers faced some typical expansion struggles when they endured nine straight losing seasons. They made the playoffs in back-to-back years, 1981-82, even making a miraculous comeback in the '82 ALCS to win their first pennant. But the Brewers had not been back to the playoffs until this year, when they lost to the Phillies in the Division Series.
Though they became competitive quicker than most, even narrowly missing the playoffs in their fifth season, the Expos and Nationals have combined to make just one postseason appearance since joining the league in 1969. And that one came by virtue of the Expos holding the league's best second-half record in the strike-shortened '81 season, when two teams from each division made the playoffs. Perhaps a bit of baseball justice came 13 years later, when the Expos -- led by Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou and Larry Walker -- lost a postseason opportunity when another strike canceled the end of the '94 season. Since moving to Washington prior to the 2005 season, the Nationals have missed the playoffs by a wide margin every year.
San Diego Padres:
Poor attendance and poor records muddled the Padres throughout their first 13 years in the league, before Tony Gwynn helped mold them into a National League force in the early 1980s. Not long after, in '84, the Padres won their first pennant, before winning another in 1998. In 40 years of existence, the Padres have now made the playoffs five times, though they are 1-8 in World Series games.
It took nearly two decades for the Mariners to make the postseason, though they made their first appearance count, beating the Yankees in a dramatic Division Series comeback in 1995. Thus began a run of seven straight productive seasons for the Mariners, who even tied a Major League record by winning 116 regular-season games in 2001. Yet they lost in the playoffs that season and haven't made it back since, despite boasting winning seasons in '02, '03 and '07.
Toronto Blue Jays:
Like so many other expansion teams, the Blue Jays needed quite a bit of time to become competitive, finishing at least 40 games out of first place in each of their first three seasons. Though their first playoff appearance came in 1985, sustained success did not arrive until more than half a decade later, when the Jays won consecutive World Series titles in '92 and '93. Yet in what's become a trend for quite a few formerly successful expansion teams, the Blue Jays haven't made it back to the postseason since.
In part thanks to the Wild Card, some of baseball's more recent expansion teams have found success sooner rather than later. Take the Rockies, for example, who made the postseason in just their third season of existence. Plenty of losing seasons followed, but the Rockies finally made it back to October in 2007, completing a miraculous run by winning the National League pennant. History will tell if that was simply a fluke, or if the Rockies will be soon be back yet again.
Like the Rockies, the Marlins found quick success after joining the league in 1993, using the Wild Card as a springboard to the playoffs in both '97 and 2003. They flew through the playoffs in each instance, winning the World Series both times. And they traded away the core of their team shortly after each championship, ensuring that they would be unable to parlay that into any sort of long-term success.
Perhaps the most efficient expansion team in history, the D-backs earned a playoff berth in just their second season, then won the World Series in their fourth. They have made the postseason four times in 11 years of existence, finishing with a winning record seven times. And perhaps not coincidentally, they have drawn more than 2 million fans every year since joining the league.
Tampa Bay Rays:
Until this season, the Rays were the only team in baseball never to have made the playoffs. Now they have done so in quite a dramatic fashion -- and their run isn't over yet. Just how the Rays perform this week against the Phillies should help dictate their place among the other 13 expansion teams in Major League history.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.