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's 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."
The critics and observers who walked away from the WBC wondering how in the world the U.S. team got bounced in the second round are the same people who can't figure out why the Yankees haven't won a World Series title since 2000. The two facts, however, are not unrelated.
"It's not surprising" that the Asian teams excelled in the WBC, said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. "They did all the little things. They don't make too many mistakes. But that's what wins in baseball. That's what we [the Yankees] did when we were winning. That's what the White Sox did last year."
In other words, it has become clear over the past few years that you can no longer expect to win the World Series with $200 million rosters full of all-stars at every position. (So goodbye, Yankees.) You don't win titles by spending wildly on pitching, then backing up your pitchers with shoddy defenders. (Sorry, Blue Jays.) You can't win by boosting your lineup's potency at the expense of your starting pitching. (See ya later, Mets.)
In fact, in this age of increased revenue sharing, payroll budgets have become almost immaterial when looking at potential champions. (Except in the case of a handful of extreme small-market teams, such as Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, who have virtually no chance to win.)
Both of last year's World Series participants were near the middle of the pack in terms of payroll -- the White Sox in 13th place ($75,178,000), the Astros in 12th ($76,779,000). And both the 2002 Angels ($61.7 million) and the 2003 Marlins ($48.7 million) were poor enough that they actually received money under the revenue-sharing formula that shifts funds from the haves to the have-nots.
Lately, the concept of baseball's revenue sharing has been a subject of debate, as labor battles in the NHL and NFL have played out in recent months, and as baseball itself prepares to begin negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires after this year.
First, Red Sox owner John Henry went on record decrying a system that, he said, forces his team to bring in $2 for every $1 it invests just to break even. Then, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner complained to USA Today that baseball was in danger of becoming a "socialist state." Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey, on the other hand, recently advocated raising the revenue-sharing percentage from about 34 percent to closer to 50 percent.
"I sense the signals . . . coming loud and clear from Boston and New York," Godfrey told the Canadian Press, predicting a battle over revenue sharing in the next negotiations. "But isn't [parity] in the best interests of the game? . . . It will work 100 percent when every team at the beginning of April will feel like [it] has a shot at the playoffs. That's the ideal thing."
Would it be absurd to suggest we simply leave well enough alone? This system clearly works. All that revenue sharing has not stopped the Yankees and Red Sox from fielding the highest and second-highest payrolls every year. Meantime, it has helped the Oaklands and Minnesotas of the world -- in other words, small-market teams with superior management -- make the playoffs. And in between, it has allowed a parade of mid-market teams to make it to the World Series, and frequently win it.
Besides modest payrolls and big jumps in the standings from one year to the next, what else ties together our recent World Series champs (excluding, of course, the aberrational 2004 Red Sox)?
For one thing, they all stuck with young pitchers through the inevitable growing pains -- and were rewarded for it in the end.
For Chicago, right-hander Jon Garland went from 12 wins and a 4.89 ERA in 2004 to 18 wins and a 3.50 in 2005, and lefty Mark Buehrle dropped his ERA by more than three-quarters of a run in the same time frame. The 2003 Marlins had similar success with Brad Penny and Josh Beckett, and the 2002 Angels with Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz.
Another similarity -- and this will not please the many "Moneyball" advocates around the game -- was that all of the champions were adept at playing small ball, which tends to take on added importance in the postseason, when better pitching means runs are harder to come by. The 2005 White Sox, 2003 Marlins and 2002 Angels all ranked in the top three in their league in both of the key small-ball categories -- sacrifice bunts and stolen bases.
Somewhere out there, then, is a seemingly humble team coming off a disappointing year, whose own fans give them little chance of bringing home the glory -- but who might just rise up from the mediocre masses and follow the trail blazed by the 2005 White Sox, the 2003 Marlins and the 2002 Angels.
Who might it be? We like the way the Brewers and Orioles have stuck with their young pitching, the way the Twins play defense, the way the Athletics are all of those things, and more.
But really, the team that does it all the best is the same one that did it the best last year. We won't let the White Sox surprise us again. This time, we see them coming.