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There Is No Final Score Without a First Pitch
by Aaron Goldstein
23 February 2004Yankees

Who would have predicted at the beginning of last season that the Florida Marlins would win the 2003 World Series?


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:

But 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.   

Balderdash!!!

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 Player.   

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.

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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