Baseball's All-Star game is this week, but I regard the mid-season break in the action as more significant than the game itself. Now that we have dozens of interleague games crowding the schedule, the All-Star game itself feels kind of unnecessary. Yes, it determines home field advantage in the World Series, but the last World Series where the home ball park exerted any impact was 2002. Since then, all but one of the deciding games has been won by the visiting team.
Instead, I look at the break as a good chance to get a gauge on where the season is heading. As is true in basketball, theater and opera, baseball's intermission occurs a bit past the actual halfway mark, which makes noun substitution a little more challenging but serves to weed out the flukes. Cleveland, a pre-season favorite, has already thrown in the towel by trading away their best pitcher, C.C. Sabathia for young players likely to help them in future campaigns. Several other teams are leaning that way, but it's become complicated to know what's what in baseball these days.
This year the American League division leaders are Tampa Bay in the East, Chicago in the Central and Anaheim in the West. Last year around this time, they were Boston in the East, Cleveland in the Central and Anaheim in the West. In 2006, the leaders were New York in the East, Detroit in the Central and Oakland in the West.
The National League has had the same lack of stability. This year's division leaders are Philadelphia in the East, Chicago in the Central, and a tie between Arizona and Los Angeles in the West. Last year around this time, the leaders were New York in East, Milwaukee in the Central and San Diego in the West. In 2006, New York led the East, St. Louis led the Central and the West was a five-way donnybrook in early July with top to bottom separated by only a few games.
In other words, the big picture is that MLB is fast becoming the new NFL. I don't mean that in terms of marketing and popularity but in terms of parity. In the NFL, the casual fan could easily get the impression that New England and Indianapolis are always title contenders, Seattle is always good, and that the other 29 teams rotate into and out of playoff contention in some sort of vaguely random fashion.
Until recently, baseball was a sport with two leagues divided by class. Rich teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels in one league and everybody else in the other. However, one low-budget team after another proved talent development trumps big wallets in baseball. Each of the Yankees' three consecutive first-round playoff defeats have come to teams whose entire payroll is equal to or less than what the Yanks spend on their infielders. This has lit a fire underneath several ball clubs whose management had previously been content to sing the blues that they couldn't compete while pocketing the revenue sharing income that trickles from large market teams to smaller clubs. Now they appear to be investing in grooming their future stars. This is as it should be.
Baseball has the biggest and most sophisticated talent-development system of any major sport. Most teams have five minor league teams and instructional camps. They draft 40-50 new players from the college and high school ranks each season and sign several more from countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela whose best athletes are not part of the draft. With that kind of influx and development available, all teams should be able to nurture enough talent to fill 25 roster spots and compete for a title. If a team can't, budget really isn't the issue; organizational incompetence is.
The current situation is a golden opportunity for baseball, yet they couldn't be less prepared for it. The tenure of Bud Selig as commissioner has been one public relations disaster after another. The strike of '94 canceled a World Series. The home-run fiesta of '98 was aided by performance enhancers, and it has led to a seemingly never-end round of hearings and court cases that tarnish the game further. After the scintillating 2001 playoffs when for the first time in history, the lead changed hands in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, Selig's minions began talking about contracting teams inciting the fan bases of several teams. And lastly Selig himself said that the economics of the game created a competitive imbalance that left many teams with only faith and hope.
Obviously he forgot the resources available in-house to develop a team. The best irony of this new era of competitive balance is that the Milwaukee Brewers, until recently owned by the Selig family, is one of the big surprises. They contended deep into September last season and with the recent acquisition of Sabathia, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, they are poised for another run at the post season.
Several observers have pointed out that the Brewers may lose Sabathia and pitcher Ben Sheets to free agency at the end of the season. However, what these observers miss is that their replacements at the top of the Milwaukee rotation, Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra are ready to step into that role next season, and both are products of the Brewers' farm system.
The message during the all-star break is that baseball is in great shape in terms of competition and emerging talent. Unfortunately, the people charged with getting that message out are likely to drop the ball.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.