It's Anyone's Ballgame
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
A year ago on Opening Day, there was nothing obvious that would have foretold the fact that the Chicago White Sox would be the last team standing seven months later. The White Sox, who had won only 83 games the year before, had jettisoned a top slugger in Magglio Ordoñez and, by all accounts, were looking at another season spent as a distant second-place team in both the American League Central Division and the city of Chicago.
But the White Sox not only won their division, they went on to steamroll through the playoffs with a record-tying 11-1 mark, capping it with a sweep of the Houston Astros to win the World Series.
In hindsight, the White Sox' success should not have been so unexpected simply because they were mediocre the year before. In fact, they were the fourth team in five years to win the World Series after logging 85 or fewer wins the year before -- including two champions (the 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2002 Anaheim Angels) who had losing records the year before.
So, with the dawn of the 2006 season upon us, we say to thee: Have faith, Milwaukee. Hang in there, Arizona. Believe, Baltimore. This really could be your year.
If the period from roughly 1995 to 2001 will be known forever as the Steroid Era, perhaps this one will be known as the Parity Era. The evidence, as it was in the last era, is right in front of our eyes:
Eight different NL pennant winners in the last eight years. Four straight unique AL champs. Six different teams winning the World Series in the last six years. In the last five years, almost half the teams in baseball -- 13 out of 30 -- have played in a league championship series. And by our count, there are perhaps 17 teams good enough to win it all this season.
"It's not like it used to be a few years ago, when you felt like only a few teams could win it all," Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "Look at our division [the NL East]. Any one of us could have won it in the last month."
Perhaps instead of the "Parity Era," we should call this one the "Era of Fundamental Soundness."
Gaze at the Big Picture of Baseball over the last few years, and you can almost sense a sea change coming over the game. In the post-steroid era, the impact of the long ball clearly is diminished, and what is taking its place is a renewed emphasis on pitching, defense, athleticism, teamwork -- all the things the 2005 White Sox, like the 2002 Angels and the 2003 Marlins, possessed in large quantities. (The 2004 Boston Red Sox? We'll call them the exception that proves the rule.)
If anything, the trend should accelerate in 2006, the first year in which amphetamines are banned from the game -- which is expected to result in starting players getting more frequent days off, and making the quality of a team's bench that much more important.
But that's not all. Look at what happened in the recently concluded World Baseball Classic. While the star-studded United States, Venezuela and Dominican Republic teams were bounced, the tournament was ruled by the disciplined, fundamentally sound teams from Asia and Cuba -- a fact that did not go unnoticed in the U.S. dugout.
"The thing that stood out was how fundamentally sound they were," New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said of the Asian teams after his U.S. team lost to South Korea and barely beat Japan, which went on to win the tournament. "They're like ultimate National League teams -- they do all the little things, and they overwhelm you with fundamentals."