Underdog teams topple baseball's caste system

Had this all happened next year, no one would have been too surprised.

The New York Yankees ousted. The Arizona Diamondbacks' aces trumped. An American League Championship Series between one team that nearly folded and another whose history is so depressing that even Disney – the folks that gave America furry woodland creatures like Thumper and Bambi – wanted to sell them.

Next year, it would have been a sign that baseball's labor pact, reached in September with such great ceremony, was leveling the playing field through new initiatives like revenue sharing.

Instead, it changes the perception that there was ever a problem in the first place. For years, critics looked at the dynasties of the Yankees and Atlanta Braves and said baseball was a caste system of big-bucks Brahmins and underfunded untouchables. This postseason, however, has shown what some already knew: By many measures, baseball's competitive balance is as good as it has ever been.

Two years ago, for the first time in Major League history, no team won more than 60 percent of its games and no team lost more than 40 percent. This year will mark the sixth consecutive year that the National League sends a different team to the World Series – tying a league record.

In fact, none of the teams left – Anaheim, Minnesota, St. Louis, or San Francisco – have been to the World Series since the year that President Bush waged war on Iraq. The other President Bush, that is.

Of course, there are always the Tampa Bays and Detroits – teams that look likelier to move to Bombay than challenge for a World Series championship. But small-market Minnesota has shown that the plight of bumbling teams is less about some inviolable order of being, and more to do with bad baseball decisions.

Survival of the savviest

Indeed, if anything, this postseason shows that the savviest can survive – and even succeed – in a sports world run by big spenders.

"The nature of the game is to have some imbalance, but the question is whether the imbalance has gotten to the point that rich teams can win and poor teams can't," says Jules Tygiel, author of "Past Time, Baseball as History." He adds, "This postseason has shown that is not the case."

For decades, though, it was. During baseball's golden age of DiMaggio and Mantle, Musial and Williams, no more than a handful of teams had a chance of winning anything each year.

For years at a stretch, teams such as the St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics took on almost a sideshow air, merely presenting a venue for New York teams to impress their annual dominance.

"Not only did the team have no hope, but the players didn't try," says Chris Kahrl, author of "The Baseball Prospectus." "These teams were basically there to fill out the schedule for the A-list teams."

Famously, in the 29 years from 1936 to 1964, the New York Yankees took the American League pennant 22 times, winning an average of 64 percent of their games during those seasons.

To some, those days seemed to be coming back again. After the advent of free agency boosted parity in the 1980s, giving baseball's ballast a new way to lure new players, the massive rise in salaries during the '90s hinted at a renewed hierarchy.

Even this year, big spenders were winning big. The Atlanta Braves – backed by Ted Turner's wallet – had earned their 11th consecutive division title. The Yankees were penciled in to their sixth World Series in seven years.

Commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig – former owner of baseball's smallest-market team, the Milwaukee Brewers – had made this new/old world order a focal point of this year's labor negotiations. Fearing the future credibility of the game, he pushed for and won a payroll tax on the highest spenders and revenue sharing to spread the wealth.

Then came the Anaheim Angels.

Postseason upsets

Their victory over the Yankees last weekend – taken with the San Francisco Giants' upset of the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals' win over the defending champion Diamondbacks – shows that things weren't as dire as they might have seemed.

"The Yankees obscured the fact that baseball has become more competitive," says Dr. Tygiel.

Today, the teams defying the small-market myth are those who make the wisest moves. They're finding that building a team from the bottom up – through draft choices and scouting – yields a cheaper and more cohesive team than simply dipping into the free-agent market.

This is what the Angels have done, as have the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland A's, who set an American League record this year with 20 consecutive wins. Even the Yankees, for all their spending, trace their identity to four players – Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, and Jorge Posada. All came up through the farm system.

"We might see other teams start to copy this," says Stan McNeal, managing editor of The Sporting News. "We've reached the point where [this approach] is paying off."

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