CLEVELAND — Night falls in Cleveland. The Florida Marlins take their last cuts of batting practice. The grounds crew applies a fresh coat of spray paint to the World Series logo behind home plate.
It's baseball's Fall Classic, all systems go.
But the game is already on. It's happening down in the tunnels of Jacobs Field, where a swarm of reporters has cornered Bud Selig, the interim commissioner of Major League Baseball.
They want to know why the World Series is being played in a snowstorm, why the owners decided to add two new teams and realign divisions next year, and most of all, why the best teams lately are the ones with the most cash.
The subtext here, many say, is that baseball has become a business governed by luxury skyboxes, free agents, and general managers with law degrees; that its time-honored traditions have been bought and sold like so many ballpark nachos slathered with cheese.
Perhaps baseball is just a game that ripens in the memory. Maybe Mr. Selig's unshakable optimism will someday seem prescient. But here in Cleveland, in the midst of a frigid three-game series, it's hard to escape the notion that money might be eating away at baseball's foundations.
"It's obvious that in the last couple of years, the clubs with higher payrolls have generally advanced [to the postseason]," says Dave Dombrowski, general manager of the Florida Marlins. "I don't think that's healthy for the game."
This year, five of the eight teams that played in the post season, ranked in the top eight in total team salary: New York Yankees, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Florida. The Indians ranked fourth in the American League and fourth overall, the Marlins were second in the National League and seventh overall. Not since 1991 has a team outside the top 10 won the World Series.
Although the league has established a luxury tax for clubs with high payrolls, and a revenue-sharing plan to funnel money from big-market clubs to smaller ones, they've yet to show any sign of mending the disparities. Teams with new stadiums, like Cleveland and Baltimore, and clubs with free-spending owners, like Florida's Wayne Huizenga, still own October.
"I think it's still possible for a little team to win once," says Florida manager Jim Leyland, "But it would be real hard for them to put a string together."
The Minnesota syndrome
Despite winning the World Series in 1991, the small-market Minnesota Twins have failed to post a winning record in the six years since. In that time, their payroll has fallen from 12th in the majors to 20th and the team is considering a move to Charlotte, N.C.
Likewise, cash-poor teams like the Montreal Expos and Pittsburgh Pirates have developed some outstanding players, only to watch helplessly as richer teams pluck them away.
But what's even more ominous for baseball is the fact that the most successful clubs are struggling to make a profit.
According to Cleveland general manager John Hart, the Indians would not have made money this year if they hadn't made the playoffs. Despite his team's advance to the Fall Classic in only its fifth season, Mr. Huizenga, the Marlins' owner, has complained publicly about the economics of baseball and suggested he might sell the team.
In an effort to mollify fans disgusted by the 1994 players' strike and generate more revenue, Mr. Selig and his fellow owners have added two new divisions, instituted a wildcard system for the playoffs, and allowed interleague play for the first time in baseball history. Next year, two new teams will join the majors, and several teams will switch leagues or divisions to cut travel distances and spark regional rivalries.
Quick fixes or progress?
To critics, these changes reflect the owners' willingness to sacrifice tradition in the name of doing something, rather than addressing the game's deeper structural problems. To Selig, it's an attempt to escape the strictures baseball has often imposed on itself.
"We walk a very fine line in baseball," Selig says. "We have to respect our history, but we can't let ourselves be imprisoned by it, either. This country has changed a lot since baseball began, and we have to change with it."
Seinfeld vs. strikeouts
Yet there are signs that baseball is losing its grip on the national imagination. Last week, NBC's Don Ohlmeyer, a longtime critic of his network's deal with professional baseball, said he hoped the World Series would end in a four-game sweep and not preempt the network's Thursday night lineup. He later
Although Neilsen ratings for World Series games have fallen over time, and this year's numbers have been disappointing, the games continue to produce excitement.
Livan Hernandez, Florida's Cuban pitching sensation, reflects the rise of Latin players in the major leagues, and the tremendous potential for attracting Hispanic fans.
Despite a host of ugly gaffes, the series has produced a 25-run game, a matchup between two rookie pitchers, a spectacular catch off the centerfield wall, and a 15-degree wind chill.
It all goes to show that baseball, the stately old game of fastballs and sliders, solo homers and suicide squeeze plays, still has the power to surprise and delight. The question facing Selig and other baseball barons is whether that's enough to satisfy fans whose favorite clubs find themselves short on dollars and long in the loss column.
"The beauty of the game keeps the fans coming back," says Joe Morgan, the former major leaguer and NBC commentator. "But that doesn't mean you can keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Someday, there's going to be a day of reckoning."