There’s No Tanking in Baseball, Just Ask the Phillies

Following an 8-7 loss to the then Florida Marlins on July 10, 1997, the Phillies found themselves with a record of 24-62, on a pace barely above that of the 1962 Mets, and with the worst record in the majors by a staggering 11 games. One would figure that the Phillies would then go completely into the tank, as an NBA, NHL, and especially an NFL team would have every incentive in the world to do.

But no. Not in baseball.

The '97 Phillies proceeded to pull off an amazing turnaround, going 44-32 the rest of the way, and didn't finish with the worst overall record at all, their 68-94 final record ahead of both Kansas City at 67-94 and Oakland at 65-97 (records between teams in different leagues conveniently becoming directly comparable that very year, the first of interleague play) and tied with the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota, also 68-94.

This year, the Phillies decided to commemorate the 1997 team on its 20th anniversary, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent: they were 28-58 after they lost 2-1 to San Diego on July 8. That put them 4.5 games behind the Giants for the worst record in both the National League and the majors. But after that the fightin' Phils split their final 76 games to end the season at 66-96, two games ahead of both the Giants and the AL's Tigers. Unfortunately, this surge wasn't enough to save Pete Mackanin's job as manager; by contrast, their second-half rally of two decades earlier did result in Terry Francona staying on.

Why did the Phillies do this — then and now?

Part of it is the lack of a direct, or even, really, an indirect incentive for baseball teams to submarine games. Yes, a draft exists in baseball, but it is nowhere near on a par with those the other three major sports maintain. But the other, and probably more relevant, issue, is the sociology of baseball: no other sport is as generous toward its winners — the Cubs received $369,000 per man for winning the World Series last year, the Patriots, just $173,000 for getting to Super Bowl LI and then winning it — or as harsh on its losers: no meaningful draft, no breaks in the following season's schedule as in the NFL, along with the traditional stigma attached to finishing in the "cellar," handed down to posterity by the sport's redoubtable "purists."

Even not breaking or tying an all-time futility record is deemed worth a herculean effort: when the Tigers were 38-118 with six games left in the 2003 season and staring down the barrel of breaking the '62 Mets' record, they responded by winning five of their last six games and ended up finishing better than both the latter's number of losses (120) and won-lost percentage (.250) — and after they won the last game, the entire team came tearing out of the dugout as if they had just won the World Series.

This inherent Social Darwinism of baseball is what gives the sport its special charm.

No crying in baseball? Indeed. And no tanking, either.

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