ALCS gives hope for team game
Building winning ballclub requires more than deep pockets
ANAHEIM -- In the interests of consumer safety, we offer this disclaimer at the top of this piece:
What follows will be considered heresy, and possibly treason, in certain regions of the Northeastern portion of our Republic. To people in these regions, I humbly plead: "Hey, let somebody else have a turn."
The fact that the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are not involved in the final two levels of postseason play this October is bad for the business of baseball. But the fact that the Yankees and the Red Sox have not reached this level is good for the GAME of baseball.
The business issue is indisputable. The Yankees and the Red Sox are big draws, not only in America's ballparks, but in the newspapers, on television, on radio, and, yes, right here on the World Wide Web. No other team can match the Yankees' aura, or their history, for that matter. When the Red Sox staged their dramatic, epic march through October 2004, increased interest and improved baseball business were global phenomena.
And yet, as a sport, baseball is better off with the Angels and the White Sox in the 2005 American League Championship Series. How can I make this outrageous statement? I have two sets of reasons, like them or not. And, west of the Hudson, a lot of people are OK with them.
Between the Yankees and the Red Sox, there are 2005 player payrolls totaling roughly $330 million. Admittedly, more than $200 million of that amount goes to the Yanks, the Red Sox being a distant financial second. But these are the two organizations in baseball throwing the most money at players.
The fact that they are not in baseball's Final Four proves that money is not everything in contemporary baseball. It is downright encouraging to teams of the middle class and beyond. It says that perhaps baseball is moving away from gross economic inequities that characterized the game not that long ago. It says that parity, which baseball has been seeking through mechanisms such as increased revenue sharing and the luxury tax, is, if still not a reality, at least a concept that is drawing breath.
And it says that the time-honored baseball virtues, such as astute scouting, diligent player development and overall sound personnel judgment, might be able to stand up and compete against the vast expenditure of capital.
The Yankees and Red Sox could not get past their respective Division Series for the most elemental of baseball reasons: Neither one of them had enough pitching. The Yankees spent more on their rotation than half of the teams in baseball spent on their entire 25-man rosters. And it made no difference how much money was spent, because it wasn't spent on the right pitchers.
The White Sox have a player payroll of about $75 million, ranking 13th among the 30 franchises in that category. They are solidly in baseball's middle class. They are like baseball's answer to white picket fences and suburban lawns. They went back to the basics this season. They remade their team with an emphasis on pitching, defense and speed.
And this gets us to the second reason why the game of baseball is better off with the Angels and the White Sox in the ALCS. These people play the game the way it was played in the past, before steroids, and the way it will be played in the future, after steroids.
The Angels won a World Series with small ball in 2002. Oh, they always have some pop, but the pitching and the defense and the offensive versatility always come first with them. This ALCS, with a total of eight runs scored in the first two games, may well be a test of whether the Angels are still better at the traditional things and the little things than the White Sox.
When you play this way, you must be a team in the best sense of that word. You can win without All-Stars at every position. You can win with gamers, guys with more guts and brains than raw ability, guys who play unselfishly, guys who bring their heads and their hearts to the competition every night.
This is the best part of baseball. It is not a matter of bulking up. It is a matter of playing heads-up.
These are baseball teams. They are not without flaws. They are not without shortcomings. But they are teams, not random collections of the biggest names available, complete with the gaudiest price tags. Had the Yankees assembled an actual team, instead of a bunch of highly recognizable names who had nothing in common but their tax brackets, they would have never coughed up that three-game lead against Boston in 2004. The Red Sox had a team for the ages then, and they had a team this season, too, but the 2005 model was so desperately short of pitching that it could not repeat.
The fact that the Angels and the White Sox have advanced in place of the Yankees and Red Sox is obviously encouraging for a lot of teams. But what is encouraging for the game in general is that big individual salaries have been defeated by bigger, but less expensive, collective efforts.
There are vastly different realities at work here. The Yankees have not won a World Series in five years and this brings on a crisis mode in the Bronx. The White Sox have not won a World Series in 88 years and this brings on another day at the office on the South Side. If you are from neither New York nor Chicago, how deep do you have to dig to find a more pronounced sympathy for one side of this situation?
The Yankees will be back. The Red Sox will be back. This is not anything as dramatic as the end of an era for these franchises. The Yankees in particular will be back because they can afford to be back.
What we have here is evidence that the top of the American League can be reached by teams playing a brand of ball that is appealing to the traditional baseball senses and can be just a little easier on the checkbook balance. For 28 of 30 clubs, this is very good news.
Mike Bauman is the national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.