Baseball 2002: The fix isn't in

So you think the big-market teams have it all locked up? Then I guess you'll be betting on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

By Allen Barra
Published April 3, 2002 8:05PM (EST)

This year I'm going to do a baseball preview based on scientific fact. This year, I'm going to pick the winners on the basis of how rich the teams are. Everyone knows that money is the reason in Major League Baseball that winners win and losers win -- the New York Times, USA Today and ESPN are all in firm agreement on that subject if no other -- so this should be a breeze.

Let's start with the National League West, home of the defending champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks. I'm afraid the D-backs are out of luck: The richest team in the National League -- possibly the richest team in baseball -- is the Los Angeles Dodgers. Given their enormous resources and the fact that they're owned by Rupert Murdoch, I frankly think that it's foolish for Arizona, San Francisco, Colorado and San Diego to even show up. Boy, that was simple.

This one's even simpler. Neither the Cardinals, Astros, Reds, Pirates nor Brewers play in a market anywhere near the size of Chicago. Wrigley Field is always packed, and the Cubs have one of the biggest cable TV deals in the country. No contest -- the Cubs win the National League Central in a walk.

NL East? This one is trickier. Atlanta isn't an especially big market, but the Braves' market is national thanks to their TV station. Ah, but the New York Mets play in the biggest market in the country and since their resources are theoretically as great as the Yankees', their on-field success should be just as great. But I'm going to surprise you with this pick: The potential big market in the National League East -- in fact, potentially the biggest market in all of baseball -- is the one the Philadelphia Phillies play in. There's a population density in the Phillies' area nearly equal to that of New York, and the Phils don't have to share it with anyone. So expect them to finish ahead of both the Braves and the Mets.

The American League West is the easiest of all to pick. The Anaheim Angels have one of the biggest fan and TV bases in the country. How could relatively small-market franchises like the Seattle Mariners or Oakland A's possibly compete with them?

There's a similar situation in the American League Central with the Chicago White Sox owned and operated by one of the richest men in sports, Jerry Reinsdorf. The Sox also have a sensational cable TV deal. This should be enough to fend off the division's second and third biggest-market teams, the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians.

In the American League East, of course, the New York Yankees would seem to be a prohibitive favorite, but don't forget that the Baltimore Orioles' stadium, Camden Yards, gives them enormous revenues to work with.

So there you have it: In the American League, it will be the Yankees, White Sox and Angels battling for the top spots with the Baltimore Orioles a likely wild card team. In the National League, the Dodgers and Cubs should win their divisions in a walk, while the Philadelphia Phillies edge out the Braves and Mets, who will have to settle for the table scraps of a wild card slot.

Now, what I'd like to know is, if money is the major factor in deciding who wins and loses in baseball, why aren't the division races going to go like this? How did the contractionally threatened Minnesota Twins manage to finish two games ahead of the White Sox last season? (Did anyone notice that the Twins' 85-77 record was identical to the Yankees' 2000 championship season?) If Seattle and Oakland are such poor markets, why did they dominate the American League West for the last two seasons? And how could the Mariners possibly have won 21 more games during the season than the Yankees? Why aren't the Philadelphia Phillies a major power? Why are the Cubs baseball's perennial laughingstock? And why are the Los Angeles Dodgers the dullest team in baseball?

One might conclude from looking at won-lost records over the last five or six years that there are other reasons besides plain economics why teams win and lose. Reasons such as player loyalty (which has kept Sammy Sosa a Cub and which sent Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati?) or the competence of management. Or the fact that many ballplayers simply don't care for the high-pressure world of baseball's big-market cities. One might have thought from the number of teams that have posted better records than the Yankees since 1996 that the post-seasons and World Series (except for '98) were tough, tight, nail-biting thrillers that featured some of the greatest clutch baseball in any fan's memory. Instead, we are now informed by nearly every gloomy preseason prognosticator that the Yankees simply dominated the game.

For instance, Nicholas Dawidoff told us in Saturday's New York Times that on this year's Opening Day, "That democratic sense of possibility will be diminished. In recent years, winning has come too predictably to the teams with the highest payrolls." I don't want to detract from Mr. Dawidoff's freedom to feel as pessimistic as he likes about the relative chances of the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates or Montreal Expos. (Though surely these teams' chances are no worse than the doormats of Dawidoff's youth, such as the Kansas City Athletics, Chicago White Sox or Washington Senators, so I'm not sure exactly what he means by their possibilities being "diminished.")

If winning were simply a matter of a large payroll, then why couldn't Mr. Dawidoff and everyone else have predicted that the Arizona Diamondbacks were going to win the World Series last year? Why in fact don't the Atlanta Braves win the World Series every year? Surely it is apparent to Dawidoff that the enormous Yankees payroll of recent seasons has not gone to free-agent superstars but to reward the Yankees' largely homegrown talent for what they have already won.

And then, maybe this hasn't occurred to Dawidoff. He writes that, "As is its custom, the team [the Yankees] spent the cold months filling its already potent rosters with expensive free agent players. This year's prized auction-house plunder was the slugging first baseman Jason Giambi from the Oakland Athletics." In Dawidoff's eyes, signing with the Yankees made Giambi a "shameless mercenary." I don't even want to know what Dawidoff, a Red Sox fan, thought about Colonel Rupert's theft of Babe Ruth, though I am curious to know if he approved of the Red Sox taking Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez from smaller-market teams.

But let that pass. I don't know what "custom" Dawidoff refers to, but in fact before Giambi the Yankees haven't signed a slugging free agent in more than 20 years. And isn't it just possible that Jason Giambi -- like another A's slugger before him, Reggie Jackson -- thought that after seven seasons in the big leagues he had earned the right to play with the most celebrated team in sports? Is it possible that Giambi's interest might be more than mercenary? Surely Dawidoff, when he writes one of his excellent books (my favorite is about catcher-turned-spy Mo Berg), considers other aspects than money when choosing publishers.

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Smart, funny and foulmouthed as a Chicago Cubs fan, "Bleacher Bums" debuts on Showtime this Sunday. The popular play on which the film was based was inspired by dialogue overheard more than 20 years ago in Wrigley Field's bleachers by future stars Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, who fleshed out the play with nine other actors from Chicago's Organic Theater. As relaxing as a day game in May, the Showtime version is directed by actor Saul Rubinek (who also plays the manager of the opposing team). "Bleacher Bums" features Matt Craven, Wayne Knight, Peter Riegert, Charles Durning, Sarain Boylan, Brad Garrett and several other fine actors, all of whom, to one degree or another, reflect the idea that baseball is a metaphor for life. Catch it.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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