The World Series lineup was set in the early hours of this morning as the New York Yankees completed their 4-2 ALCS victory over the Los Angeles Angels with a 5-2 win. Fans of the long ball should be in for a treat as this is just the third time in MLB history that the top two home run-hitting teams from the regular season have matched up in the Fall Classic. More importantly, the contest will be between the best team from each league (admittedly Dodgers fans might argue with that, but it’s a close-run thing either way), which isn’t always the case owing to the unpredictable nature of best-of-five and best-of-seven series.
The New York Yankees’ triumph is in some ways a public relations problem for MLB. It’s a simple story to write that the Yanks have bought their way to the World Series. At $208m, their payroll is $63m higher than the second highest (the Mets) and $97m more than what the defending champs have spent. The huge contracts that they dished out to Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett over the offseason can be cited as prime examples of a big-money team simply blowing their competitors out of the water in the pursuit of success. It was the baseball equivalent of Chelsea Football Club parking their tanks on the lawn and firing £50 notes at their rivals, as ex-Arsenal Vice-Chairman David Dein once memorably put it. Those competitors are always going to cry foul in response (the Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio was particularly vocal about the task teams like his face), but that reaction can also spill over to baseball fans and onlookers in general. We can accept that some teams will always have more than others, but the financial disparity between the Yankees and the rest may begin to look insurmountable and if that’s the case, does anyone else really stand a chance?
You then have the unfortunate story of the Yankees’ postseason hero, Alex Rodriguez, who began the year having to admit to steroid use back in 2001-2003. It could make for a great tale of redemption in some people’s eyes, especially following his much-publicised postseason struggles in the past, but we all know that a guy with a $275m contract doesn’t generate much sympathy among the masses.
No, if somebody like a barely-interested person in the British press looked at the 2009 Yankees, there’s only one conclusion that they would come up with: the Yankees outspend everyone, buy their competitors’ best players and then make heroes of ‘drug cheats’. That’s not exactly the MLB that Commissioner Bud Selig wants the world to see. Thankfully for all of us, that’s not the MLB that actually exists. Of course there are kernels of truth in the simplified description, but the real picture is more complex.
The Yankees do spend more money than anyone else and their wealth clearly gives them an advantage; however they’ve had that advantage every year since 2000 and it hasn’t led to World Series success. Money doesn’t guarantee anything and there are now plenty of measures in place, from the amateur draft to revenue sharing, to give teams with less money other opportunities. The Phillies’ imposing batting lineup, for example, has been fashioned from excellent drafting (Rollins, Utley and Howard) and astute pick-ups of players that other teams had given up on (Werth and Victorino, both essentially taken from the Dodgers for nothing). Maybe the playing field could be levelled further, yet any such attempts must not get in the way of the underlying principle that all teams should strive to be the best they possibly can be. Artificially making teams worse to spread talent more widely does not improve your product.
I’ve always argued that the way the Yankees spend their money on trying to build a great team is a good thing for the sport, even though it gets me down sometimes as an A’s fan. It sets the bar high for everyone else; sometimes frustratingly high, but that’s for the other teams to deal with. Front Offices have to be smarter, mangers have to be more tactically astute and players have to work harder and make the most of any opportunities that come their way. Thirty teams of roughly the same ability will not make for an exciting competition, it just makes for a bunch of teams that can beat each other all the time because everyone is much of a muchness. Sports fans are not interested in mediocrity; we want to see great teams pushing each other all the way. Everyone loves an underdog fighting against all the odds, but you need to have a successful team in the first place to match them up against. If the Yankees’ only contribution is to make you root like mad for the Phillies to put them in their place, then they’ve been a force for good in MLB this year.
That will remain the case so long as teams still have a chance to beat them and in baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, that will always be so. The New York Yankees have a great team, but they are not unbeatable and the Phillies have every chance of retaining their title. If they’re not successful then the credit should go to the Yankee players, irrespective of what they are earning. The four remaining Yankees of the late Nineties dynasty, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, all spoke eloquently amid their Game Six celebrations about the strength of the other teams in MLB and how difficult it is to make it to the Fall Classic. Even though they accept that winning a World Series is what is expected of them in the Bronx each year, that shouldn’t diminish the achievement on a personal and collective level if they are able to complete a dream debut year in the new Yankee Stadium.
As for A-Rod, well that’s a matter for every baseball fan to come to terms with on their own. My personal view is that what he did in the past should stay in the past. He has no doubt been tested countless times this season and has come up clean. Some will argue that this doesn’t mean he isn’t using anything, but if you take that line of thinking then we may as well scrap drug testing altogether and say athletes can put whatever they like into their bodies. I don’t know what, if any, benefits that taking steroids would have had on his ability to play baseball. I do know that he is a supremely gifted athlete and that no amount of medical assistance could have made him the elite player that he is. It’s a real shame that he made the decisions he did, but they can’t be undone. I’m going to put all of that to one side and get on with booing him regardless of any previous drug-taking transgressions.
Well, he’s just too bloody talented and rich, isn’t he?! Some would say that sums up the Yankees as a whole, but then again that’s why baseball fans should be glad that they are part of this year’s World Series.