By Colin Salt
There are many legendary championship teams in sports history. The 1927 Yankees. The 1996 Chicago Bulls, and many more. But there are also the bad champions, the ones that squeaked into a title. The 1987 Twins and 2006 Cardinals are baseball’s most-cited examples.
Of course, any viable pro player is better than 99.9999% of the population at that sport, and no team capable of the steps necessary to win a championship can truly be considered “bad”. But it’s a fact of sports life that some winning teams are just more memorable or talented than others.
The “how” of this could be the subject of an article in its own right. It depends on the nature of the sport (baseball and hockey have more inherent variance in individual games than basketball) and the nature of the champion system (a “best record in a season” one makes shocking results much harder, while anything single-elimination makes it easier). There are always ways to make the “bad” champions temporarily better and their opponents temporarily worse.
A more interesting question, and one more relevant to alternate history, is the “why”. Why make a middling team stagger into a title that it didn’t do so historically? Well, it’s weird and has a lot to do with the nature of a lot of sports alternate history as it exists. In many ways, it has to do with Liam Connell’s “We need more alternate history about peasants, not kings” statement in a strange, non-political way.
A lot of sports alternate history ends up just shuffling the same names around. This isn’t surprising. A lot of AH, whatever the subject, does this. But, also like in other subjects, it often comes across as empty and shallow.
In a baseball simulation, one my starting lineups included four Hall of Famers-Rickey Henderson, Charlie Gehringer, Gary Carter, and Lou Gehrig. The pitching rotation included Cooperstown inductees Mike Mussina and Cy Young. THE Cy Young. And I could have easily made it even better!
Needless to say, that team did pretty good. But it was unsurprisingly good. It was the most one-sided and least dramatic sports simulation since the time I played Football Manager as Celtic and easily sailed through the Scottish Premiership. Placing a bunch of OTL stars, especially those that never won a title in real life, all on one superteam (as has happened in sports AH) can make for good wish fulfillment. But to me it frequently feels cheap, shallow, and artificial. The players are simply putting on different colored uniforms. The jewelers are simply designing different title rings.
What’s more intriguing is seeing how a team of “peasants” can become more than what the sum of their parts “should” be. Take a team that’s either bland or weirdly bad. In the same simulation as my Murderers Row 2.0, I had another team that had a 37-year-old shortstop and a right fielder whose only “talent” was striking out at ridiculous rates. The latter was more fun, and it’s also fun to ponder (and simulate) the bare minimum needed to get them from worst to (potentially) first.