The BestCoolest MLB Teams (I’ve Ever Seen)

Are you ready for a Friday argument? Because we’re about to have a big one.

Last year, I unveiled my rankings of the BestCoolest Player I’ve Ever Seen, pitchers and hitters editions. As with most other Grantland baseball fare, there was some level of objectivity to the rankings, since we can do a pretty good of evaluating the best players from the past 30-plus years. “Coolest” is an entirely different matter, though. Should steroids guys count? How is Rickey not no. 1? And what the hell should we do with Bo Jackson? While unanimity was impossible, you could still find a wide swath of baseball fans who’d stump for Rickey, Bo, or Pedro, because of their incredible combination of raw skills and off-the-charts entertainment value.

Today, we’re rolling out the BestCoolest Teams I’ve Ever Seen — a much tougher proposition. Baseball fans — like fans of every other sport — can be provincial, to the point of becoming irrational. A Yankees fan might have a tough time crediting a great Red Sox team. Can a Cubs diehard really be expected to fully appreciate a loaded and exciting Cardinals squad? As someone whose only major rooting interest lies with a team that no longer exists, this isn’t a major problem. Still, you’re going to get some highly subjective arguments, and you’re going to get pissed off about them. (Please send all complaints to RanyJazayerliWillAnswerAllMyHateMail@grantland.gov.)

Here are the rules for our little exercise, modeled after the template for BestCoolest Players:

• “Best” remains the most important criterion here — you won’t find a non-elite team in the bunch. We’ll lean on objective metrics as we always do to go beyond mere wins and losses. But there’ll be some subjectivity too. I’m not above giving bonus points for flair. So if a certain team had goofy handshakes, delightfully, earnestly unironic/terrible/foreign-language songs, or commercials, more power to them.

• To be eligible, teams had to have played at a time when I was old enough to watch and appreciate baseball. That’s anything from 1981 on. Sorry, 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

Got all that? Let’s go.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

1984 Padres: Because Kurt Bevacqua needed to be mentioned here somewhere. And yes, 10-year-old Jonah owned this “Cub-Busters” T-shirt.

1988 Dodgers: One of the worst teams ever to win the World Series. Still, they deserve a mention for two reasons — Orel Hershiser’s streak, and this:

1991 Twins: “We’ll see you tomorrow night!”

1995 Rockies: It was the height of the ’90s absurd-offense era, in one of the greatest home run theme parks ever built. But the Blake Street Bombers were undeniably fun (and cool), launching 200 homers in 144 games and leading the expansion Rockies to their first playoff berth in just their third season of existence.

1998 Astros: The Killer B’s, 102 wins, plus the following numbers from Randy Johnson following a midseason trade: 10-1, 1.28 ERA, 116 strikeouts, 26 walks, and four home runs allowed in 84⅓ innings. If only they (ever) got a little playoff luck.

1999 Mets: Mike Piazza, Rickey Henderson still going strong at age 40, and one of the best infields any team had assembled in years. The 2000 Mets weren’t as good, but stormed their way to a Subway Series anyway.

2005 White Sox: They didn’t get anywhere near as much hype as the other teams that broke long pennant and World Series droughts. But following the Red Sox ’04 exorcism with an ’05 South Side celebration was pretty cool.

2006 Tigers: In 2003, they lost 119 games, making that year’s Tigers one of the worst teams in baseball history. Three years later, this happened:

2010/2012 Giants: It’s an even-numbered year again this season. Just saying.

2011 Cardinals: “We will see you … tomorrow night!”

Every other World Series–winning team from 1981 through 2013 that didn’t make the cut: Seriously, Rany is standing by to handle all your complaints.

15. 1982 Brewers

Named for manager Harvey Kuenn and their deep lineup full of mashers, Harvey’s Wallbangers were one of the best offensive teams of the moderate-offense ’80s. Robin Yount led the league in hits, doubles, slugging, OPS+, and total bases and won the Gold Glove and MVP awards at shortstop. Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper, and Gorman Thomas all smashed 30-plus homers. They made it all the way to the World Series before falling to a lightning-fast Cardinals team in one of the biggest clashes of style in World Series history. More important, between Yount, Thomas, Cooper, Rollie Fingers, and Pete Vuckovich/Clu Haywood, no team on this list can top the ’82 Crew for mustache splendor.

14. 1990-92 Pirates

Fifty years from now, people will likely look back at Barry Bonds’s career through the prism of his preposterous 2001-04 run. It would be a shame if people forgot the kind of player he was when the Pirates came into their own in the early ’90s. In addition to prolific power, Bonds also flashed breathtaking speed and athleticism in those days, averaging 45 steals a year during the Pirates’ run of three consecutive NL East titles. Only a silly round of voting in ’91 prevented him from winning four consecutive MVPs.

Bonds was just the brightest young star on a team full of them. He teamed with Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke to form what remains one of the best outfields of the past quarter-century. But once again, we turn to less tangible factors to seal the Buccos’ place on this list. To wit …

… this theme song:

… this clip of Jim Leyland cussing out Bonds:

… and this shot of Bonds giving absolutely zero F’s:

13. 1984 Tigers

They started the season 35-5, which earned them a Sports Illustrated cover, with their Hall of Fame–worthy shortstop getting the honor. They ended up with one of the most unlikely Cy Young (and MVP!) winners in baseball history. They rode that hot start and huge regular season all the way to a convincing World Series victory, earning another SI cover — with their Hall of Fame–worthy shortstop again getting the honor. Maybe one day, Alan Trammell (and Lou Whitaker, while we’re here) will get his just due for the incredible player he was, including in that magical ’84 season.

12. 1990 Reds (Nasty Boys)

Over the years, we’ve come to know this team as the Nasty Boys Reds, in honor of the club’s flamethrowing relief trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble, and Randy Myers. But that would be a disservice to the rest of the roster, one that included future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin; poster boy Eric Davis; and inspirational nerd Chris Sabo. All of that, plus the most confusing game of eff, marry, or kill ever:

11. 1992-93 Blue Jays

Rooting for the back-to-back champs was like rooting for the Death Star. Enriched by a state-of-the-art new megastadium that packed in 4 million fans a year, the Jays outbid everyone for every thirtysomething veteran in the universe, including Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, Dave Stewart, and Jack Morris. On the other hand, you’ve got Roberto Alomar and John Olerud at the peak of their powers; the confusing ’90s baseball dystopia that would allow the Blue Jays to be the Yankees before the Yankees were the Yankees; and the greatest home run of my lifetime.

10. 1996 Braves

The toughest choice on the entire board, because how the hell do you pick just one Braves team from the era of 14 division titles in 15 years? The most obvious calls might seem to be the ’95 Braves (the only Atlanta squad from that span to win it all) or the ’91 team, which got the quasi-dynasty started with a dramatic worst-to-first season. But we’ll go with the ’96 club, for three reasons.

1. The 1991 team didn’t have Greg Maddux, and Greg Maddux is the best.

2. Marquis Grissom caught the final out of the ’95 World Series, and I’m still not ready or willing to accept the sequence of events that led to that happening.

3. Few baseball memories will ever top 19-year-old master of cool Andruw Jones belting home runs in each of his first two World Series at-bats.

9. 2003 Marlins

A major upset, at first glance — how could a Jeffrey Loria–owned expansion team beat some of the decorated franchises that finished lower on the list, or are not on it at all? Three reasons. One, another phenom bursting onto the scene in his first postseason, in this case a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera. Two, a 23-year-old Josh Beckett taking the world (and the Yankees) by storm. Three, 21-year-old rookie of the year Dontrelle Willis, a high-socked dynamo who I imagined to be a hybrid of Satchel Paige and Luis Tiant. Side note: Considering what he did for three franchises, Dave Dombrowski should go down as one of the best general managers of the past 30 years.

8. 1996 Yankees

The ’98 squad was certainly better, winning 114 games and cruising to a four-game World Series sweep. But by 1998 the Yankees had become the buttoned-down villains of the baseball world, running up huge payrolls and also employing future scumbag Chad Curtis. By contrast, the ’96 squad was a fun and new entrant into baseball’s pantheon, claiming the first Yankees World Series crown in 18 years, following the team’s first playoff berth in 14 in ’95. The Core Four was just starting its reign, with Jorge Posada getting his first cup of coffee in the big leagues, Andy Pettitte emerging as the staff ace, Mariano Rivera pitching like MARIANO RIVERA for the first time, and Derek Jeter winning rookie of the year, thus paving the way for all the Yeah Jeets to follow. As Grantland contributor/baseball nut Justin Halpern put it on GChat:

Remember, the Yankees were fucking losers when I was growing up. I never thought of them as a storied franchise. For my generation, they were unimportant. It was ’96 that suddenly forced me to learn history.

7. 1995 Mariners/2001 Mariners

Another really tough dilemma. The ’95 M’s fielded a murderers’ row of talent, including future no-doubter Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, should-be Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, and yet another megastar just getting started in rookie Alex Rodriguez. Martinez’s walkoff double to clinch the ALDS against the Yankees remains the signature moment in Mariners history:

Still, we have to give a nod to the ’01 M’s too. That team won 116 games, the most ever by an AL squad. It did that without Griffey, A-Rod, or the Big Unit, making the feat all the more impressive. Credit Martinez for continuing to rake into his late thirties and beyond, the additions of excellent two-way players Mike Cameron and John Olerud, a balanced pitching staff, and bat flip Übermensch Bret Boone. But the star of the show was Ichiro. The Japanese star came to the big leagues at the height of his powers, immediately showing off his laser beam–emitting arm, hitting .350, stealing 56 bases, and winning both the rookie of the year and MVP awards. He was, and is, a national treasure.

6. 1994 Expos

The ’94 Expos got better as the year improved, going 70-31 after a slow start and winning 20 of their final 23 games before the season shut down. When the strike hit on August 12, 1994, the Expos owned the best record in baseball at 74-40. Though they never got a chance to win anything, the ’94 Expos had established themselves as the class of the league, even smashing their loaded division rivals in Atlanta. They were cocky mf’ers too. Here’s what a few of the ’94 Spos had to say when I interviewed them for Up, Up, & Away:

Darrin Fletcher: “At the start of the game, we just seemed to get a two- or three-run lead in the first three innings all the time. We just flipped it to the on switch all year long.”

Larry Walker: “Most of my career, you’d go to the park that night, and hope you were going to win. In ’94, we pretty much knew we were going to win. After the break, we played the Braves and beat ’em again. I remember leaving Atlanta, and we were just laughing. Like, ‘This is our competition?’”

Rondell White: “After one of those games in Atlanta, we were in the showers, and someone yelled out: ‘The Braves are hamburger, when are we going to eat some steak too?!’”

Cliff Floyd: “We knew were going to win every night. We knew no one could beat us.”

5. Whiteyball

Another team that had a multiyear run of success, the 1980s Cardinals rank as one of the savviest teams when it comes to taking advantage of their environment. Spacious, hard-turfed Busch Stadium was a ballpark that rewarded speed and hitters who could slash the ball into the gaps, rather than sluggers. That’s how you got a team like the ’82 Cards, who finished last in the league in home runs but still won the World Series, thanks to players like Ozzie Smith, Lonnie Smith, and Keith Hernandez. They’d become even more reliant on speed later in the decade, getting three consecutive 100-steal seasons from drunken clubhouse interview master Vince Coleman, and an MVP award from Willie McGee. Whitey Herzog was the manager who made the engine go, leading the rabbit-laden Cardinals to three NL pennants and that one World Series triumph. All of that makes it odd to think about the most memorable play from that Cardinals era: an unlikely walkoff homer by Ozzie Smith, accompanied by a call for the ages.

4. 2004 Red Sox

This:

… then this:

3. 1995 Indians

From last year’s article on the BestCoolest hitters:

A few years ago, I got a tour of the MLB Productions offices in Chelsea Market in New York City. It was an amazing place, with all kinds of cool baseball-related decor. But the highlight, by far, was the wall of editing bays. Strolling through, I saw technician after technician cutting video for soon-to-be-released MLB documentaries and other specials. I passed one reel of classic Yankees highlights, another showing footage of Willie Mays. Only one made me stop and watch: a special on the 1995 Cleveland Indians.

Flip through this roster and consider how so many killers could’ve played on the same team. Kenny Lofton hit .310 and stole 54 bases. Jim Thome was a relatively skinny 24-year-old third baseman already flirting with a 1.000 OPS. A 23-year-old Manny Ramirez posted a .402 OBP and hit 31 home runs. Thirty-nine-year-old Eddie Murray hit .323/.375/.516. Albert Belle crushed 50 homers and 52 doubles, all in a strike-shortened season. You could rank any of these guys individually and they’d be high on the list. Lofton was one of the master table-setters of the ’90s, following in the footsteps of Henderson and Raines. JI-JIM THOME became the Internet sensation of our time. Ramirez was one of the best right-handed hitters of the past 50 years, plus, you know … Manny. Murray was already a Hall of Famer with Baltimore who found a second wind long past the point at which many of his contemporaries retired. And Belle was a certified BAMFer.

They didn’t win it all that year (or during the rest of their big run in the ’90s). But the Indians of that era were relentlessly entertaining. And after 41 years of misery, they finally gave Cleveland fans some hope.

2. 1986 Mets

In the past 30 years, Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry are among the coolest duos in the majors. Gooden’s blazing fastball and hammer curve made him terrifying for even the best hitters to face, while Strawberry was a tightly wound bundle of fast-twitch goodness, able to crush baseballs to the moon with just a flick of his wrists. The ’86 Mets complemented Doc and Darryl with still more young stars (Lenny Dykstra, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Wally Backman, and Roger McDowell), plus an armada of fierce veterans (Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Ray Knight, Bobby Ojeda, and Jesse Orosco). If anything, that ’86 Mets team was so loaded, it makes you wonder why they never became a dynasty.

1. 1988-90 A’s

The Bash Brothers. Dennis Eckersley in the midst of the greatest run for a relief pitcher this side of Mariano Rivera. Rickey Henderson posting the best season of his legendary career. On talent, the A’s were loaded, with veteran starting pitching in Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, and Bob Welch, quality supporting players like Dave Henderson and Carney Lansford, and a deep bullpen expertly run by Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. Like the ’90s Braves, the ’80s Mets, and other memorable teams, the A’s of the late ’80s and early ’90s only won it all once, despite making it to the World Series three years in a row and making the playoffs four times in five years. But you can trace the impact of those teams to major structural changes in the way the game would be played in future seasons. Future teams went on to emulate the La Russa/Duncan model of bullpen specialization. Moreover, the GM of those successful ’80s and ’90s Oakland clubs was Sandy Alderson, who started relying on analytical principles to build successful teams … a trend he would pass on to his successor, Billy Beane.

And as for cool factor, no one, anywhere, is topping this:

Filed Under: MLB, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays, Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Montreal Expos, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, New York Mets, Oakland A's

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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