- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The folks at Major League Baseball’s offices in New York can preach about parity. They can rave about the dozens of small markets that have gotten to experience baseball’s postseason this decade, and they can gush about the good that has come to the game through a set of unlikely Octobers.

But while they’re doing all that talking, nobody’s watching - at least they weren’t last year. Television ratings for the 2008 postseason saw double-digit drops from 2007, with a soggy and somewhat bland World Series matchup between the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays drawing an average of just 13.6 million viewers a game.

That shouldn’t be a problem this year. The 2009 field is dotted with big markets - New York, Boston and two teams from Los Angeles - and storylines that sell.

The Yankees are back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus - with the best record in baseball. If they face the Red Sox in the ALCS, it will be the first time since Boston’s historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit in 2004. Since then, Boston has won two World Series, while the Yankees missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1993.

Should one of those teams reach the World Series, they could face a Dodgers team that brings a juicy subplot for either opponent. Manager Joe Torre would face his old team in a Dodgers-Yankees series, and Manny Ramirez would return to Boston if the Dodgers face the Red Sox.

Then there are the Phillies, who are trying to become the first repeat champions since the Yankees in 2000 and the first from the National League since the Cincinnati Reds in 1976. The Rockies are back, two years after streaking to the 2007 World Series and five months after firing the manager (Clint Hurdle) who got them there.

The prospect of a ratings boost couldn’t come at a better time for MLB, which saw attendance drop for the second straight year. The final gate was down around 6.65 percent from last year, partially because of the Yankees and Mets opening stadiums with smaller capacities but also because of a recession that left half of baseball’s 30 parks more than 40 percent empty this year.

Commissioner Bud Selig will get the ratings. He’ll also have to deal with some scrutiny.

The flip side of the higher-profile slate of playoff teams is a renewed round of questions about whether baseball’s pay-for-postseason culture has returned. The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies and Angels, five of baseball’s nine teams with payrolls over $100 million, are in the playoffs. The Yankees remade their roster with a $423.5 million spending spree that brought in first baseman Mark Teixeira and starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

“In the end, it’s about the baseball judgments and decisions,” former Orioles shortstop and current TBS analyst Cal Ripken said last week. “But it is nice to have extra money in case something doesn’t work out, or you have an injury or two that you have the ability to go make those moves.”

Asked by the Los Angeles Times last month if he felt baseball’s competitive balance was out of whack again, Selig said he takes “great exception” to that claim.

“I think this year is an aberration. In the last five years, I think we’ve had as much competitive balance as we’ve ever had,” he said. “Am I concerned that we’re back to where we were in the ‘90s? We’re a long way from that. I don’t think this year has discouraged me one bit. I know I’m right, to be frank with you.”

Even if it’s not the sign of a continuing trend, Selig will get his ratings boost this year. Like it or not, that means big stories and big markets.

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