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In this World Series, the little guys make their case

Rise of the Rays and the Phillies hints at decline of the George Steinbrenner strategy of writing big checks to build winning teams.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 2008

People attended game three of the World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays in Philadelphia Saturday.

Julie Jacobson/AP

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St. Petersburg, Fla.

Ticket sales are down across the league. The Rays-Phillies matchup in the World Series has been ruled a ratings snoozer. Is the business of baseball on the verge of a critical late-inning strikeout?

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Just when front-office bean counters are poised to answer "yes," a hopeful thing has happened on the way to the ballpark, courtesy of an offbeat World Series between two fresh-faced teams with nary a big-name rental player on the roster.

For one, many fans see this matchup as the first post-steroid-era World Series, a squeaky-clean "small ball" game featuring lanky young players playing for the love of the game, more than for the money. For another, the ability of a small-market team, the Rays of Tampa Bay, Fla., and a mid-market team, the Phillies, to develop home-grown talent and benefit from a 12-year-old revenue-sharing agreement signals advances in curbing Major League Baseball's fiscal and athletic excesses.

"The fact that these two teams with small markets and fairly ordinary salaries are in the World Series, that's great," says Bob Linder, a Kansas State University historian who teaches a class on baseball. "It's good for baseball, but it may not be good for the economics of baseball."

The usually pitiful Rays – rejuvenated by a name change, mind-set adjustment, and big hitting from rookies B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria – stunned the baseball world by leading the American League for most of the year, and then dispatching the Red Sox monolith in a dramatic seven-game playoff series. The surging Phillies used good pitching led by Cole Hamels, Chase Utley's sweet left-handed swings, and aggressive base-running to forge a team dynamic that steamrolled the National League's challengers, including the favored Dodgers. They moved up 3-1 Sunday night in the best-of-seven contest.

Though baseball took in a record $6.5 billion in revenues, its TV ratings still lagged this year, and it saw an attendance downturn at ballparks after four straight years of growth.

Similar patterns emerged for other sports. With recession looming and Americans' disposable income squeezed tighter, sports leagues are cinching in their training belts. The NBA has already cut 9 percent of its workforce, and three baseball clubs have sliced ticket prices by 25 percent. Even wealthy teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox will have to make tough decisions about player salaries in coming years, says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts. But the Rays, which are 29th out of 30 in payroll (the Phillies are 13th), may also have showed how bigger clubs can save money: by doing more to develop talent rather than buy it.

The league is planning post-World Series talks to discuss ways to address the economic slump.

"Clubs will have to flatten salaries, which is likely to provoke some additional conflict between owners and players," says Mr. Zimbalist.

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