Baseball has definitely moved into a new age, joining the National Football League in a period of dubious parity.
It's getting harder every year to tell the good from the bad and the ugly in baseball, even if you have a program.
Baseball's traditional Upstairs/Downstairs class system has been smashed to smithereens, and whether you think the new state of affairs is hot free-for-all stuff or a confusing bore is very much a matter of taste.
While football has deliberately jumped into the questionable embrace of enforced mediocrity, baseball has done so by accident. What the college draft, profit-sharing and a restrictive free-agent policy have done to the NFL, baseball has done to itself though the natural workings of an almost completely free marketplace.
If the just-completed World Series reinforced two ideas, it is that baseball doesn't have a truly great dynastic team and that, with a little luck, almost any club can wake up one day and find itself in the World Series.
Seldom, if ever, have such thoroughly ordinary teams as the '83 Phillies and the '84 Padres made their way into the Series. The "names" on both teams were oldsters far past their prime who survived one last pennant battle for nostalgia's sake.
Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage barely resemble the players of the same names who were in the '77 Series, just as the Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Steve Carlton of '83 were faint replicas of the heroes of earlier Series years.
As for the Tigers, the feeling here is that their chances of repeating, even within the AL East -- let alone as world champions -- are considerably less than a 50-50 proposition.
It hasn't been a month since Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson said, "The AL East is what I call 'the one-to-five trip.' We look great now, but Baltimore looked great last year and Milwaukee looked great the year before that.
"We got five teams in this division that could finish anywhere from one to five next year, depending on who signs who and who gets injured. It's a scary division to manage in."
Baseball has reached a point where even minidynasties within one division are almost impossible to build. Having one team dominate a whole league or win consecutive World Series now falls into the long shot class.
Only yesterday, it seemed that such teams as the 1969-71 Orioles, the 1972-74 Oakland A's, the 1975-76 Reds and the 1977-78 Yankees were all-time great teams or threatening to be so.
Now, baseball lives in a time of lowered expectations. "Our big challenge will be 1985," Anderson said less than a half-hour after his Tigers won the World Series.
"They say even a blind squirrel can find one acorn. Let's see if we can find a whole bunch . . . If this team doesn't improve next year, then it's my fault. I'm a bad manager."
Talk about a nice man setting himself up for a fall. If the last several years in baseball show anything, they demonstrate how difficult it is to build and maintain a better-than-good team. All the economic dynamics of the free-agent era contribute to a wide distribution of talent.
As soon as a team gets very good, the payroll becomes prohibitive; the best it can hope is simply to hold itself intact. The ability to buy more free agents becomes nil and the team falls easy prey to injury and stagnation.
Already the Tigers have said they doubt if they'll sign a free agent this winter. Reliever Willie Hernandez is negotiating in the press.
As another example, the Chicago Cubs spent the playoffs talking about how much they wanted to get to the Series because they doubted management could pay enough to keep 'em alll in town.
Sometimes the most obvious point of view also is the correct one. It seems clear that, from the start of division play in 1969 until about 1980, baseball was a sport of divisional dynasties.
From 1969 through '81, Baltimore won six division flags, Oakland five, New York five and Kansas City four. Four teams won 20 of 26 flags.
The National League was the same. From 1969 through '79, the Pirates won six flags, the Reds six and the Phillies and Dodgers three each; so, four teams won 18 of 22 division titles.
Now, all that has changed.
In the last six years, 10 of the 12 teams in the NL have won flags. Only the Mets and Giants have been left out of the party. That's amazing, considering that when free agency first appeared, in 1976, baseball's owners uniformly moaned that all the game's talent would gravitate to a few megamarkets and Sunbelt teams.
In the last four seasons in the AL, the maximum possible number of teams -- eight -- has been in the playoffs. Not only has no team repeated, but none has resurfaced after falling.
These days, about 10 teams (five in the AL East) can dream of being good enough to win a world title. Perhaps as many as 10 others can hope to reach a World Series, even if they can't win it.
This is the best or worst of worlds, depending on your perspective.
The Tigers are probably as close to a great team as we'll see for a while. And they aren't that close. Sure, if they could get a better first baseman, third baseman, leftfielder and fourth starter, they'd be comparable to any team ever. That is, if shortstop Alan Trammell comes out of his postseason surgery well and Milt Wilcox doesn't get old and Aurelio Lopez doesn't get fat again and designated hitter Darrell Evans hasn't lost his reflexes and . . .
But the Tigers can't afford to make the jump from good to great. Nobody can. Only one team -- Steinbrenner's Yankees -- tried to go the whole nine yards and buy up talent at every position. And look what it got them: internal chaos, an insane self-perpetuating salary structure, a roster bottleneck that prevented young players from developing. The bottom line was middle-of-the-pack finishes the last three years.
The correlary to this Can't Speed Too Much theory is that almost all second-division teams realize that they must join the multimillion-dollar bidding to some degree. Look how quickly the Padres, Cubs and White Sox bought the last key pieces to their one-season puzzles. The rewards are too great not to play big-money roulette, and the punishments for being really lousy -- like the Cleveland Indians and Giants -- are too great.
Baseball's worry, and it may be a legitimate one, is that great players like Reggie Jackson, Rose, Gossage and others will change uniforms so much the sport will seem to lack order. The names may stay the same, but if we can barely remember what city has hired which Hessian, will we care who wins?
On the other hand, were the old days really so great? How much fun was it to watch the Yankees and Royals meet in the playoffs four times in five years? Or see the Reds against the Pirates three times, the Orioles against Oakland three times?
The Phillies and Padres contaminating the World Series may get on our nerves, but just think how close baseball's current system came to producing a truly classic Classic.
Makes a fan mad just to think of it. Yes, curse those miserable Cubs.