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.

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

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?

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.

The rise of the Rays and the Phillies hints at the decline of the George Steinbrenner strategy of writing big checks in the free-agency market to build winning teams. That's especially true because drug-testing is likely to diminish the value of proven but aging players who in years past might have relied on pharmaceuticals to stay at the top of their game.

This series also marks a turnaround from MLB's Blue Ribbon Panel report in 2000, which showed that only the top-spending teams made the playoffs between 1995 and 2000. "This kind of series was unthinkable 10 years ago," said Bill Reynolds, a veteran ticket scalper working outside Tropicana Field the other day.

Not everyone agrees that money teams face real threats from gritty party-crashers like the Rays. Statistically, any team can make it into the World Series, says Rodney Fort, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "This series is a fluke," he says.

The ratings pressure, meanwhile, is intense. MLB opted to start a rain-soaked Game 3 in Philadelphia later than any championship game in history to prevent the series from seeping into the Halloween weekend. The Vegas line is that it'll be the least-watched series in MLB history.

"If it feels like a small-market series, it's because we're so inured to the Sox and Yankees beating the heck out of each other the last five years," says J.T. Barbarese, a Rutgers University assistant English professor, Phillies fan, and poet. "The ratings are down because there are other things going on, not because the quality of the game isn't up to what you would expect."

Judging by the rumble at Tropicana Field last week, he's right. Double steals, timely home runs, close calls at home plate, and pinpoint tossing from the mound have given baseball purists reason to cheer. "This is baseball heaven," says Mike Rohrer, a Rays fan.

Mr. Barbarese, the poet, sees this matchup as reclaiming a simple game from the complexities of big-money markets and mogul managers. "People who love baseball love this kind of baseball," he says. "People are tired of moguls, and maybe this is consistent with the tenor of national feeling about what's brought the stock market to where it is. People need to be punished for greed, and this World Series is an example of that."

If the overall economic picture is glum, don't tell that to Dennis Spencer, co-owner of Ferg's sports lounge on St. Pete's sleepy downtown strip. Ferg's lost money for years before the Rays caught on, he says. "We finally stand to make some money now," he says.

What's more, the Rays' run is reviving talks of a new waterfront stadium to help ensure the team doesn't pick up and move. Although there are few guarantees of continued success in St. Pete at a time when market realities are, at best, static, this Fall Classic could mark a turning point for a national pastime deeply tied to America's fortunes.

"This series opens the door for small-city franchises who are relying on draft choices, smart trading, and player development, and it gives a higher probability to teams like the Rays to sustain their success," says Zimbalist of Smith College. With equity finding its way back into the sport of summer, major-league dynasties will have to adjust – perhaps by taking a page from the playbooks of this year's World Series contenders. "[Big payroll] teams will have ... a tougher job to maintain dominance," he says.

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