By Sean McAdam
SAN FRANCISCO -- Executives at Fox might bemoan the absence of ratings titans such as the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies from the World Series, which begins Wednesday night, but for Major League Baseball the matchup between the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants couldn't be more perfect.
Baseball is less than 14 months out from an expiring collective bargaining agreement, the highlight of which has been increased revenue sharing and consequently, improved parity.
The elimination of the Yankees last Friday night at the hands of the Rangers means that baseball will once again not have a repeat champion. (The Yankees themselves were the last team to win back-to-back titles, in 1999-2000.) And because the Rangers have never won a championship and the Giants haven't won since moving West to San Francisco in 1958, baseball is assured of having its ninth different team win the Series in the last 10 years.
This World Series, in fact, is evidence of how the game has shifted away from dominance by a handful of teams. If one begins the current decade with the 2001 season, 14 different teams -- or, one team shy of exactly half of the 30 clubs which make up MLB -- have reached the World Series.
An additional five teams have gone so far as to reach the League Championship Series, meaning almost two-thirds have either reached the pinnacle series or fallen just a win or two short.
And tellingly, the three teams which reached the NLCS but couldn't clear the final hurdle to get to the World Series represent the National League's three biggest markets: New York (Mets), Chicago (Cubs) and Los Angeles (Dodgers). That would seem to indicate that while resources are a useful tool, they do not guarantee dominance in the sport, as some have alleged.
The presence of the Giants and Rangers also means that of the last six series, 11 different teams have claimed the 12 available spots; only the Phillies have been to the Series more than once (winning in 2008 and losing in 2009).
(In contrast, the NFL, whose supporters like to claim that the league offers more parity and opportunity because of its salary cap, has not had a Super Bowl in any of its last seven seasons which hasn't featured either the Patriots, Indianapolis Colts or Pittsburgh Steelers. Ditto, the NBA, which, with few recent exceptions, is dominated by the Celtics or Los Angeles.)
Part of the rotating cast of champions (or participants) surely can be attributed to the demanding nature of its postseason. Teams must survive three rounds and win 11 games over a postseason, which now lasts more than a month.
While some general managers such as Billy Beane and Theo Epstein often cite the "randomness'' of playoff results, the truth is, baseball's postseason, by dint of its demands and length, following an already draining 162-game season, is nearly immune to fluky champions. World Series titles are earned, not lucked into.
Moreover, baseball is said to be considering an expanded postseason format after the current CBA expires at the end of 2011, one which could expand the current Division Series format from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven, and requiring 12 wins instead of 11.
Then again, the presence of the Rangers and Giants could be nothing more than yet one more example of the importance of pitching. Had the Yankees' starting rotation performed as well it did a year ago, they surely would have provided a more formidable opponent for the Rangers.
As it is, Game One will feature a dream matchup of Tim Lincecum, winner of the last two National League Cy Young awards, and Cliff Lee, who is merely establishing himself as the most dominant October mound force since Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax.
Either way, regardless of the outcome, baseball will welcome relative newbies to its biggest stage. And while Fox frets about declining numbers and the absence of bigger brand names, baseball can puff out its chest and point to a playing field than has never seemed more level.