The distance between winning and losing is usually measurable. Sports minds much wiser than mine have spent the past century studying training, coaching, facilities, equipment, performance-enhancing drugs, weather, economics and even curses.
But it's time we take a closer look at what exactly separates a team like the Orioles from similarly situated clubs that have found more success. We already know that deep coffers is why larger-market teams set up camp atop division standings each year, but last month Orioles owner Peter Angelos offered an interesting theory as to why some mid-market teams thrive and a team like his continually struggles.
"The only answer I can give you is better luck," Angelos told the PressBox, "as well as more astute general manager performance."
You'd hate to peg the Orioles' futility on any one general manager - since most have a Baltimore life span shorter than an elephant's gestation period - so we're forced to assume that what separates the Orioles from playoff teams is simply misfortune, superstition and clover leaves.
After all, if the Cardinals win tonight, this year's World Series will pit St. Louis against Detroit. Like the Orioles, neither of those teams had a top-10 payroll. They must be thrilled that luck finally found them. (The Mets opened the season with baseball's fifth-highest payroll. In total, three of this year's eight playoff teams spent less money but had more luck than the Orioles.)
Of course, this marks the Cardinals' third straight year in the postseason - they were top 10 in payroll the two previous seasons - but the Tigers had to suffer through a nearly 20-year penance (Did Alan Trammell walk under a ladder or something?). They were certainly due, just the latest in a line of lucky teams.
To get a better sense of how luck randomly shines on certain mid-market teams, we need only study a bit of recent history. There have been 72 ballclubs that have made the playoffs since 1997, the last time the Orioles fielded a winning team.
Using a database maintained by USA Today, we know that 28 of those 72 reached the postseason spending less money than the Orioles. (It's safe to assume that all 28 of those teams completely broke the luck bank.) An additional 11 teams reached the postseason while spending just a few thousand more than the Orioles, which means that more than half of the playoff teams in the past nine seasons have featured payrolls similar to those of the Orioles.
If we didn't believe in luck's indisputable role in determining baseball's winners, we might have a hard time drawing a direct line between spending and the postseason. Sure, 41 playoff teams since 1997 have featured a top-10 payroll, but there have been 17 others with payrolls at or below the league median in each respective season.
(It's worth noting that the Orioles compete in a division with two notorious big spenders, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.)
It wasn't long ago that economics was the sole determinant. The new collective bargaining agreement, struck in 2002, was supposed to level the playing field a bit. All teams now share in 34 percent of locally generated money (a 14 percent increase from the old CBA). That money is divided evenly among the 30 franchises - thus helping mid-market teams. (Plus, the luxury tax was supposed to discourage high-rollers from paying enormous salaries.)
But what was foolishly omitted at the negotiating table was any discussion over the dispersal of luck. While some big-market teams that benefit from operating their own cable companies have enjoyed their financial cushion, many mid-market teams have had a complete monopoly on the luck market. Given their success, you'd think the Twins have kidnapped a flock of leprechauns. And I wouldn't be surprised if Athletics general manager Billy "The Butcher" Beane cuts off the rabbit's feet personally!
They're not the only ones. Look at all the tiny markets that somehow lined up the stars in their favor these past nine years: Oakland, Minnesota, Detroit, San Diego, Florida, Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland and St. Louis. Lucky fools.
Let's not forget that the Orioles weren't always counting nickels, waiting for their turn on the luck carousel. They led baseball in payroll in 1998, the first year of their losing slide and the last year that any team not named the Yankees topped the league in payroll. In fact, the Orioles featured a top-10 payroll in 1998, '99, and '00 - all losing records, all fourth-place finishes. So even when they spent money, they suffered from bad luck!
"The only answer I can give you is better luck," the owner says.
Clearly, it's something to work on during the offseason. The Orioles can't afford to wait for luck to find them. They have to plan for it. After all, it was Branch Rickey, one of the brightest baseball minds the game has ever seen, who so poignantly noted, "Luck is the residue of design."