The New York Yankees
are already being hailed the 2004 World Series Champions even before Spring
Training has fully commenced. The Yankees’ acquisition of Alex Rodriguez
(arguably Major League Baseball’s best overall player) from the Texas Rangers
for Alfonso Soriano has put the Yankees on the front of the sports pages
and deepened an intense rivalry between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who
had been trying to acquire Rodriguez in the off season.
There is no doubt that the Yankees have had a tremendous run over the past
decade. They have represented the American League in six of the last eight
World Series and have won four of those World Series. Many have argued
that since the Yankees have the largest payroll it is no surprise they have
dominated Major League Baseball. Of course, when they won the World Series
in 1996 over the Atlanta Braves it was their first World Series championship
since 1978. Between 1979 and 1995, thirteen major league teams won
World Series titles. If that isn’t a representation of healthy competition
I don’t know what is.
Perhaps you have heard the terms “big market” and “small market” teams. No
one has provided a precise definition of big or small market teams other
than this: big market teams win and small market teams lose. I suppose
that so-called big and small market teams are measured by their payrolls.
One of the best books of 2003 was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball
profiled the 2002 Oakland Athletics and in particular their General Manager
Billy Beane. Although the Athletics have one of the lowest payrolls
in Major League Baseball, they have reached the post season for four straight
seasons (albeit without winning the American League Division Series).
They have been successful through drafting prospects and acquiring journeymen
-type players who have an uncanny ability to draw walks, get on base frequently,
and rarely strike out. There is a heavy reliance on statistics -- known
in baseball parlance as sabermetrics.
In an article that appears in online edition of The New Republic,
Aaron Schatz argues that the methods innovated by the Athletics have been
adapted by other teams such as the Toronto Bluejays and Boston Red Sox. Consequently,
the gap between big and small market teams will grow:
this league-wide rush to statistical analysis has created a problem for those
optimistic that sabermetrics would have a leveling effect: Rich teams are
discovering that they can play the sabermetric game, too. In the short term,
this is actually worsening the gap between some rich and poor teams, as rich
teams with sabermetric approaches extend their advantage over poor teams
without them. And, in the long term, once everyone is using sabermetrics,
every team will correctly value players, and there won’t be any more inefficiencies
to exploit. Suddenly major league baseball will be right back where it started:
With the richest teams buying up the best players, and the poorer teams settling
for the dregs.
What I find most beautiful about baseball is that when everything makes sense,
the universe then turns upside down. Baseball, like the free market,
regulates itself. And in the free market there are no guarantees.
In Schatz’s article, he mentions the hiring of Paul DePodesta as the new
general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He mentions it principally because
DePodesta was Beane’s assistant in Oakland, and argues that DePodesta will
bring Beane’s methods to Chavez Ravine. What Schatz fails to mention
is that the Dodgers have the highest payroll in the National League but have
not played post-season baseball since 1996. The Dodgers have not won a post-season
game since Orel Hershiser nailed down the final out of the 1988 World Series.
A high payroll does not guarantee wins.
In all likelihood, A-Rod will continue to be a productive player in Yankee
pinstripes. But one might remember that when Rodriguez came up with
the Seattle Mariners in 1995, his teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. was considered
the best overall player in the game. Griffey was a spectacular
centerfielder who had nearly 400 homeruns before the age of 30, and was on
pace to eclipse Hank Aaron’s all-time homerun record. But before the
2000 season, Griffey was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He had
a good season in 2000, hitting 40 homeruns and driving in 118 runs.
But he has been plagued by injuries ever since, missing over 250 games the
past three seasons. Over this time, the Reds have been a second division
team while the Mariners are perennial playoff contenders.
Even if A-Rod continues to be the best player in the game there is no guarantee
the Yankees will continue to win World Series championships. Since
Derek Jeter is the Yankees' all-star shortstop, A-Rod will play third base
this season. For most of the Yankees' championship run their third
baseman was a journeyman player named Scott Brosius who retired after the
2001 season. Can anyone outside of New York name the third baseman
who caught the final out of the 1996 World Series? Yankee fans will
remember Brosius, Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez every bit as much as Jeter,
Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, because of their hustle, intensity and
ability to come through in clutch situations.
Schatz argues that the “real losers” of the A-Rod trade are the Toronto Bluejays.
He argues, “The division has reached the point where Toronto has almost no
chance of making the playoffs – despite managing its resources in an ultra-efficient
manner – because it is competing with two other teams that also have
relatively intelligent management, plus more than double (the Red Sox) or
triple (the Yankees) its resources.”
The Bluejays may very well be the surprise of the 2004 season.
They already have the best pitcher in the American League in Roy Halladay
(who won the 2003 American League Cy Young Award) and have reacquired 1996
American League Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen along with pitchers Miguel
Batista and Ted Lilly. A starting rotation of Halladay, Hentgen, Batista
and Lilly can easily compete with the Yankees' rotation of Mike Mussina,
Kevin Brown, Javier Vasquez and Jose Contreras, or the Red Sox' rotation
of Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield. I
haven’t even mentioned the formidable one-two offensive punch of Carlos Delgado
and Vernon Wells. In fact, many in baseball circles believed that Delgado
and not A-Rod should have been named the 2003 American League Most Valuable
Schatz points out that the Yankees, Red Sox, Bluejays, Baltimore Orioles
and Tampa Bay Devil Rays have finished in the American League East in that
order for the past six seasons. That is no guarantee it will happen
for a seventh. The Orioles and Devil Rays have also improved.
The Orioles signed shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was the 2002 American League
Most Valuable Player, along with former Atlanta Braves catcher Javy Lopez,
and reacquired Rafael Palmeiro (a 500 career homerun man perhaps best known
for endorsing Viagra). Jay Gibbons, Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos are
an outstanding outfield. The Devil Rays for their part acquired Robert
Fick and Tino Martinez. The same Tino Martinez that played on four
World Series Championship teams with the Yankees. The Devil Rays also have
an outstanding young outfield in Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Damian
Rolls. I strongly believe that the American League East will be a five-way
race not a two-way race. And I’m an ardent Red Sox fan.
Three years ago, I attended a panel discussion on baseball at Brookline High
School. One of the panelists was Tony Mazzerotti, a sportswriter for the
Boston Herald. Mazzerotti, who buys into the
notion of big- and small-market teams, guaranteed that the Minnesota
Twins would lose 100 games in the forthcoming season. Not only did the Twins
not lose 100 games but they nearly won the American League Central that season
and have won the AL Central in both 2002 and 2003. Between 1995
and 2001, the Cleveland Indians won the AL Central six times and appeared
in two World Series. However, they have had two straight losing seasons.
So does that make the Indians a small-market team, even if the population
of the Cleveland has grown?
Who would have predicted at the beginning of last season that the Florida
Marlins would win the 2003 World Series? Since winning the 1997 World
Series, the Marlins had five straight losing seasons. Indeed, they
started the 2003 season with a 16-22 record before firing manager Jeff Torborg
and replacing him with septuagenarian Jack McKeon. The rest, as they say,
is history. Who would have predicted in 2002 that the Anaheim
Angels would win that year’s World Series? They had never won a World
Series in their forty years as a franchise. Yet Mike Scioscia and the
Rally Monkey did not fear the Yankees and in fact dominated them in the American
League Division Series. Who would have predicted in 2001 that a fourth-year
expansion team with a rookie manager would win the World Series? Yet
that is exactly what Bob Brenly and the Arizona Diamondbacks did, beating
the Yankees in seven games.
I look forward to the pennant races, the individual accomplishments, comeback
stories and emergence of new players. I look forward to walking around Memorial
Drive on Sunday afternoons while listening to the Red Sox game on the radio.
I will enjoy every minute of it even if the Yankees do win another World
Series. There is no need to write off the season before the first pitch has
even been thrown.
Email Aaron Goldstein
Aaron Goldstein, a former member of the socialist New Democratic Party, writes poetry and has a chapbook titled Oysters and the Newborn Child: Melancholy and Dead Musicians. His poetry can be viewed on www.poetsforthewar.org.
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