Requiem for the greatest years of the AL East

Al Bello

Because why should the essentially-defunct Big East in collegiate sports get all the hype?

On Sunday night, ESPN aired a special on the highly popular college basketball conference, the Big East, which saw its history basically come to a close last year, as several longtime staples departed while the conference broke up and rebooted. It was the end of an era, and it got me thinking about the Yankees and the history of their division, the American League East. For the past 45 years, the Yankees have competed in this division, and they have been fortunate enough to secure an incredible 18 AL East division titles, including an AL record nine titles in a row from 1998-2006. The relative stability of the division's three most successful teams have helped make the AL East arguably the most historically rich division in baseball.

When Major League Baseball decided to adopt divisional play beginning with the 1969 season, it was only logical that each league split into two divisions: one in the east, one in the west. While the National League made some strange decisions with their alignment, most notably sending the Atlanta Braves to the NL West division for no apparent reason, the AL split made sense. For the first three years, the AL East had the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers, Indians, and Senators. Those early years were all Baltimore. The O's became the first team in baseball to "three-peat" as division champions from 1969-71, an amazing streak success that also saw them win three consecutive AL pennants. The "Miracle Mets" shocked them in '69 and Roberto Clemente's Pirates trounced them in '71, but they reached their pinnacle with a World Series title over an early edition of Sparky Anderson's "Big Red Machine" in 1970. The young division quickly had its first shake-up in '72, when the hapless Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers, abandoning baseball in the nation's capital for over 30 years. The Rangers moved to the AL West, so the AL East grabbed the next-closest team to balance out the divisions: the Brewers.

A Billy Martin-led Tigers team interrupted the Orioles' streak in '72, but Baltimore was back on top in '73 and '74, though none of them could contend with the rising Athletics dynasty out west. Boston won its first division title in '75 and swept the A's in the ALCS to give Oakland its first playoff series loss in four years. They won Game 6 of the World Series of course on Carlton Fisk's unforgettable homer, but the "Big Red Machine" was ultimately too much for them. The Yankees followed Boston's lead of restoring glory to its franchise with a return to the playoffs via the AL East title in '76 and thanks to Chris Chambliss, a return to the World Series as well. Just like Boston, however, the "Big Red Machine" destroyed them in the Fall Classic.

In '77, the Blue Jays joined the AL East as an expansion team, the first Canadian club in AL history. However, they were complete non-factors in the now-seven-team AL East during their first few seasons; the Yankees went on a roll by repeating as back-to-back division, league, and World Series champions. The '78 division title race was particularly memorable, as they fought back from a 14 1/2 game deficit in July to beat the free-falling Red Sox in a one-game playoff for the division title. The Orioles fought their way to the top of the heap '79 and made it to the World Series, where they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Pirates. The Yankees took the title back in '80 behind Dick Howser, but a sweep at the hands of their longtime punching bag AL West counterpart Royals led to the AL East's only absence from the Fall Classic over a 10-year stretch from 1975-84. During a weird '81 season split in half by the players' strike, first half leaders met second half leaders in the first Division Series in baseball history. The Yankees then took the division crown over the Brewers with a five-game ALDS victory (despite finishing four games behind Milwaukee in the overall AL East standings). They swept the A's in the ALCS, then lost to the Dodgers in the Fall Classic. Baseball's most celebrated franchise then somehow missed out on playoff baseball for 14 years in a row.

The Brewers had the greatest year of their AL history in '82, as they won a tight division race to secure their first AL East title, then stormed back from an 0-2 deficit in the best-of-five ALCS to win the pennant in a five-game series over the California Angels. "Harvey's Wallbangers" came within 11 outs of their first World Series victory, but they lost to the Cardinals and never again reached the AL playoffs. The Orioles and Tigers took turns romping to division titles and eventual World Series victories in '83 and '84, respectively, and the eight-year-old Blue Jays led by Bobby Cox stunned everyone by winning 99 games and the '85 AL East title. They blew a 3-1 lead in the ALCS to the Royals, but a year later, the AL East champion Red Sox returned the favor to the Angels en route to an agonizing World Series loss to the Mets.

The years 1987-1991 were uncharacteristically dry for the AL East, as none of their division champions could surpass the Twins or A's in the ALCS. A revamped Blue Jays squad came back in full force in '92, and they brought pride back to the AL East with back-to-back World Series wins over the Braves and Phillies. The '93-'94 off-season brought the next big shake-up to the division, as AL Central and NL Central divisions were added along with the promise of one Wild Card berth for each league's winningest team that did not capture a division title. Thus, the Brewers left the AL East, as did the Indians, who only had four winning seasons to show for their 25 seasons in the AL East. The long-suffering Cleveland fans would have to join the AL Central before snapping their 41-year playoff drought.

So in '94, the division had the Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Tigers. There was sadly no true division champion that year though, as the players' strike cancelled the postseason. The Yankees were all set to return to October baseball, as they had the best record in the AL at the time of the strike, but it was not meant to be. The next year, they were fortunate to rally for the first AL Wild Card berth, as the Red Sox and Mo Vaughn slugged their way to a division title. While neither team made it to the ALCS in '95, both AL East playoff teams made it to the ALCS in '96: the champion Yankees and the Wild Card O's. In an exciting and controversial five-game series, the Yankees emerged victorious in the first all-AL East ALCS, and they of course stunned the baseball world by taking down the defending champion Braves' vaunted pitching staff in the World Series.

Baltimore and New York swapped playoff spot in '97 as the O's took home the division title while the Yankees settled for the Wild Card. Neither was much of a match for their former AL East whipping boys in Cleveland. The Indians beat both teams on their way to the AL pennant. Joe Torre's Yankees, led by a talented young core that featured Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, returned to the top of the division in '98 with a then-AL record 114 victories and a dominant season that ended in another World Series title. They won the next nine division titles consecutively, adding two more champions in '99 and 2000 to complete a three-peat and winning the AL pennant in '01 and '03 to boot.

The Red Sox were a constant thorn in the Yankees' side, taking home the Wild Card in five of those nine seasons and playing against them during the ALCS in '99, '03, and '04. While the latter two were agonizing defeats for Boston, they stunned the Yankees in '04 to win the AL pennant and then end their 86-year championship drought. Both teams were one-and-done in '05, and the Red Sox missed the playoffs in '06 while the Yankees again went one-and-done. Boston ended the Yankees' streak of division titles with an AL East crown in '07 on their way to another World Series victory.

Although the Yankees made the playoffs that year, their 13-year streak of consecutive postseasons came to an end '08 during their last season at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox made it as the Wild Card in their place, but the team that won the title was a shocker: the newly-christened Tampa Bay Rays. Although Joe Maddon's team had spent a decade languishing in the cellar, they won 97 games out of nowhere in '08 to win their first AL East division title. They took down the White Sox in the ALDS, then dismantled the defending champion Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS to move on to the Fall Classic, where their Cinderella story came just short of a happy ending in a loss to the Phillies. Against those very same Phillies in '09 though, the Yankees came back with a vengeance thanks to free agent acquisitions like CC Sabathia and old standbys like Jeter; they won 103 games to win the division and beat Philly in six games to claim their 27th World Series title. Although Boston made the Wild Card that year, they were swept by the Angels in the ALDS and missed the playoffs during the next three years.

The Rays took the division title back in 2010, forcing the Yankees to settle for the Wild Card. Neither team had an answer to hired gun Cliff Lee and his Rangers though, as they both bowed out of the playoffs against the resurgent Rangers. It was the Yankees who won the AL East in 2011, and it looked like the Red Sox would take the Wild Card again. However, the Rays unfurled another comeback down the stretch as Boston lost their big lead and eventually fell on the last day of the season to make way for the Rays. Ultimately, it was all for naught, as both the Yanks and Rays were one-and-dones in the 2011 playoffs.

The Yankees won their 18th division title in 2012, persevering in a tight division race over the Rays and baseball's biggest surprise in 2012, the Orioles. Baltimore had gone through an awful stretch of 15 straight seasons under .500 before skipper Buck Showalter helped them break through with 93 wins to earn them a Wild Card spot. Under MLB's new rules, there were now two Wild Cards in each league, so the Orioles had to take down the Rangers in a one-game playoff to make it to a highly-competitive ALDS against the Yankees. Like in the regular season, the Yankees managed to hold the fort and beat them in five games before getting swept in the ALCS. The 2013 campaign witnessed an incredible end to the regular season, as the Rays had to win a one-game playoff over the Rangers just to make the Wild Card playoff, which they also won over the Indians to advance to the ALDS. The Red Sox bounced back from their worst season in 45 years to win the AL East and they dismissed the Rays in four games during the ALDS on their way to a World Series title.

The AL East has had a long and impressive history, with 26 pennants and 15 World Series titles. Both figures rank higher than any other baseball division's total. The entire division has combined to be over .500 in 33 of their 45 seasons, a very impressive figure. Here's to many more years of the division's dominance over baseball. With the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Rays all looking quite capable to take home the division title in 2014, it looks like the AL East will continue to be formidable for years to come.

Most AL East titles

1. New York Yankees, 18
2. Baltimore Orioles, 8
3. Boston Red Sox, 7
4. Toronto Blue Jays, 5
5. Detroit Tigers, 3
6. Tampa Bay Rays, 2
7. Milwaukee Brewers, 1
8 (tie). Cleveland Indians/Washington Senators, 0

Major MLB Awards

1969 - Mike Cuellar (BAL) and Denny McLain (DET), Cy Young
1970 - Thurman Munson (NYY), Rookie of the Year
1970 - Boog Powell (BAL), MVP
1971 - Chris Chambliss (CLE), Rookie of the Year
1972 - Carlton Fisk (BOS), Rookie of the Year
1972 - Gaylord Perry (CLE), Cy Young
1973 - Al Bumbry (BAL), Rookie of the Year
1973 - Jim Palmer (BAL), Cy Young
1975 - Fred Lynn (BOS), Rookie of the Year and MVP
1975 - Jim Palmer (BAL), Cy Young
1976 - Mark Fidrych (DET), Rookie of the Year
1976 - Jim Palmer (BAL), Cy Young
1976 - Thurman Munson (NYY), MVP
1977 - Eddie Murray (BAL), Rookie of the Year
1977 - Sparky Lyle (NYY), Cy Young
1978 - Lou Whitaker (DET), Rookie of the Year
1978 - Ron Guidry (NYY), Cy Young
1978 - Jim Rice (BOS), MVP
1979 - Alfredo Griffin (TOR), Rookie of the Year (tie)
1979 - Mike Flanagan (BAL), Cy Young
1980 - Joe Charboneau (CLE), Rookie of the Year
1980 - Steve Stone (BAL), Cy Young
1981 - Dave Righetti (NYY), Rookie of the Year
1981 - Rollie Fingers (MIL), Cy Young and MVP
1982 - Cal Ripken, Jr. (BAL), Rookie of the Year
1982 - Pete Vuckovich (MIL), Cy Young
1982 - Robin Yount (MIL), MVP
1983 - Cal Ripken, Jr. (BAL), MVP
1984 - Willie Hernandez (DET), Cy Young and MVP
1985 - Don Mattingly (NYY), MVP
1986 - Roger Clemens (BOS), Cy Young and MVP
1987 - Roger Clemens (BOS), Cy Young
1987 - George Bell (TOR), MVP
1989 - Gregg Olson (BAL), Rookie of the Year
1989 - Robin Yount (MIL), MVP
1990 - Sandy Alomar, Jr. (CLE), Rookie of the Year
1991 - Roger Clemens (BOS), Cy Young
1991 - Cal Ripken, Jr. (BAL), MVP
1992 - Pat Listach (MIL), Rookie of the Year
1995 - Mo Vaughn (BOS), MVP
1996 - Derek Jeter (NYY), Rookie of the Year
1996 - Pat Hentgen (TOR), Cy Young
1997 - Nomar Garciaparra (BOS), Rookie of the Year
1997 - Roger Clemens (TOR), Cy Young
1998 - Roger Clemens (TOR), Cy Young
1999 - Pedro Martinez (BOS), Cy Young
2000 - Pedro Martinez (BOS), Cy  Young
2001 - Roger Clemens (NYY), Cy Young
2002 - Eric Hinske (TOR), Rookie of the Year
2003 - Roy Halladay (TOR), Cy Young
2005 - Alex Rodriguez (NYY), MVP
2007 - Dustin Pedroia (BOS), Rookie of the Year
2007 - Alex Rodriguez (NYY), MVP
2008 - Evan Longoria (TBR), Rookie of the Year
2008 - Dustin Pedroia (BOS), MVP
2011 - Jeremy Hellickson (TBR), Rookie of the Year
2012 - David Price (TBR), Cy Young
2013 - Wil Myers (TBR), Rookie of the Year

Year-by-Year history

Year Champion Combined W-L% % Teams > .500 Wild Card
1969 Orioles 0.530 0.667 N/A
1970 Orioles 0.528 0.500 N/A
1971 Orioles 0.499 0.667 N/A
1972 Tigers 0.501 0.667 N/A
1973 Orioles 0.510 0.500 N/A
1974 Orioles 0.503 0.500 N/A
1975 Red Sox 0.492 0.500 N/A
1976 Yankees 0.507 0.667 N/A
1977 Yankees 0.496 0.429 N/A
1978 Yankees 0.527 0.714 N/A
1979 Orioles 0.530 0.857 N/A
1980 Yankees 0.532 0.714 N/A
1981 Yankees* 0.519 0.857 N/A
1982 Brewers 0.525 0.571 N/A
1983 Orioles 0.534 0.714 N/A
1984 Tigers 0.522 0.714 N/A
1985 Blue Jays 0.509 0.571 N/A
1986 Red Sox 0.522 0.714 N/A
1987 Tigers 0.511 0.571 N/A
1988 Red Sox 0.502 0.714 N/A
1989 Blue Jays 0.482 0.429 N/A
1990 Red Sox 0.483 0.286 N/A
1991 Blue Jays 0.474 0.571 N/A
1992 Blue Jays 0.509 0.429 N/A
1993 Blue Jays 0.510 0.571 N/A
1994 Yankees** 0.518 0.400 N/A
1995 Red Sox 0.489 0.400 Yankees
1996 Yankees 0.483 0.600 Orioles
1997 Orioles 0.527 0.400 Yankees
1998 Yankees 0.538 0.600 Red Sox
1999 Yankees 0.522 0.600 Red Sox
2000 Yankees 0.493 0.600 N/A
2001 Yankees 0.473 0.400 N/A
2002 Yankees 0.490 0.400 N/A
2003 Yankees 0.512 0.600 Red Sox
2004 Yankees 0.512 0.400 Red Sox
2005 Yankees 0.507 0.400 Red Sox
2006 Yankees 0.495 0.600 N/A
2007 Red Sox 0.504 0.600 Yankees
2008 Rays 0.538 0.800 Red Sox
2009 Yankees 0.520 0.600 Red Sox
2010 Rays 0.532 0.800 Yankees
2011 Yankees 0.528 0.600 Rays
2012 Yankees 0.519 0.600 Orioles
2013 Red Sox 0.534 0.800 Rays

Italics = Won World Series Bold = Won AL pennant
*=Split-season due to strike, won division title in five-game playoff vs. second-half AL East leader Brewers
**=Strike-shortened season, no division title technically awarded due to cancelled playoffs

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