- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Here it is again, another postseason series that contradicts the deep thinkers who believe baseball is out of whack, that teams cannot change their fortunes and that money buys championships.

The Detroit Tigers, who lost 119 games three years ago, tonight will meet the Oakland Athletics, that model of fiscal restraint, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

The Yankees and their $199 million payroll? Home.

The Red Sox and their $120 million payroll? Home.

The Angels ($104 million) and White Sox ($103 million)? Both watching the series at home.

The Tigers ranked 14th in baseball this season with a payroll of $82 million, just $7 million ahead of the woeful Baltimore Orioles. The A’s ranked 21st with a $62 million payroll, $1 million behind the losing Washington Nationals.

The Beatles were right: Money can’t buy you love.

A generation of fans has grown up believing baseball belongs to big spenders like the Yankees, playing in the postseason year in and year out the past decade.

But for generations that grew up between 1966 and 1995, the norm was for teams like the Tigers, Orioles, Kansas City Royals and even Milwaukee Brewers to battle for a World Series championship.

That kind of parity is the exception over the long course of baseball history — after all, the longest stretch the Yankees were absent from the World Series from 1921 to 1965 was three years — but it appears the exception is back.

The Anaheim Angels won the World Series in 2002, followed by the Florida Marlins in 2003 — both teams long-shot contenders with small- to midsize payrolls at the start of their championship run. This year, if either the A’s or Tigers manage to win the World Series, it will be another relative stranger on the throne.

Why has parity come around again?

Baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig likes to credit his revenue-sharing efforts for giving small-market teams a competitive chance.

The sharing is not done to the same degree as it is in the NFL. However, there certainly is more money to share in baseball now — revenue rose from $48 million the first year the plan went into effect to $323 million this year — and a better formula for dividing it than at any other time in the history of the game.

“If a person left baseball in 1998 and came back today, they would be stunned at the difference,” Cadillac Bud said during the All-Star Game festivities in Pittsburgh in July. “The system has got to be fair, and we have made enormous progress.”

But it’s not just the money. It’s how the money is being spent. It is no coincidence that 2006 looks a lot like 1966, the year the Orioles broke the Yankees’ stranglehold on the American League and started the parade of new teams (Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Oakland) in the World Series.

Player development changed forever in 1965 when the first amateur draft took place, giving losing teams a chance to bring quality young players into their minor league systems.

More than 40 years later, player development is all the rage again. Free agency, which turned the game upside down in 1975, finally found its place as a complement to, not a substitute for, player development.

This bodes well for Nationals fans because it is the path team president Stan Kasten laid out for the future of the franchise.

The A’s lost aces like Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson and replaced them with Rich Harden and Dan Haren. The Tigers’ comeback was led by two young pitchers: Justin Verlander, drafted in the first round by Detroit in 2004, and Jeremy Bonderman, drafted by the A’s in the first round in 2001 and traded to the Tigers in 2002.

Frank Thomas is a key part of the A’s success this year, but he is a piece of that success, not the foundation. Same with Magglio Ordonez on the Detroit roster.

The success of these teams that rely on player development and payroll flexibility will breed more of the same success with other teams. And with that will come a new norm: parity in major league baseball. It will be on view in prime time tonight.

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