10 Reasons Why Baseball Is Back There's hope in San Diego, Cincinnati and, heck, even Tampa Bay--and that's just one explanation for why fans are flocking to the game again

July 04, 2004

1
More teams have a chance to reach the postseason.

when he unfolds his morning newspaper and studies the major
league standings, commissioner Bud Selig is a meteorological
maven awed by a confluence of conditions that may come once in a
generation. Call it baseball's perfect storm. "This," he says in
hushed reverence, "is exactly the way I dreamed about it in the
1990s."

Selig has the globally marketable uberteam that every sport
covets: the Yankees. He has the two Wagnerian ball clubs with the
most obsessive fan bases, the Cubs and the Red Sox, playing well
and to alltime heights of fan interest. He has three other
tradition-rich teams, the Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals, also
contending. Those six crown-jewel franchises, covering both
coasts and the Midwest and comprising the game's three greatest
rivalries, are all on their way to having consecutive winning
seasons in the same two-year period. When was the last time
baseball was this fortunate? Never.

There's more. Selig has many middle-and small-market teams, most
of them buoyed by luxurious new ballparks and cash infusions from
baseball's new revenue-sharing system, contending with the
Rockefeller franchises. At week's end 17 of the 30 teams were
within five games of first place--including such surprises as the
Indians, Padres, Rangers and Reds--the most such contenders on
June 27 in the 11-year history of the six-division format (box,
below). Such parity comes on the heels of a 2003 pennant race in
which 17 teams began September within 3 1/2 games of the eight
playoff spots.

"Without revenue-sharing," Selig says, "[baseball] wouldn't look
like it does today. San Diego, Detroit, Cincinnati, Milwaukee,
Minnesota, Oakland, Florida ... without revenue-sharing they are
nowhere."

Twenty-first-century baseball may have been epitomized last
weekend in St. Petersburg, where the hottest team in baseball,
the Devil Rays, who lost 99 games last year, hosted the defending
world champion Marlins in a meaningful series. Florida accepted
the second-largest revenue-sharing handout for last year ($21
million) while Tampa Bay was tied for third on the dole list ($19
million).

No, it's not the purists' pre-wild-card "good old days." It's
better. Just two years ago, after the Yankees had come within two
outs of winning a fourth straight World Series, Selig and the
owners anguished about competitive balance and payroll disparity
and schemed to disband two teams. Their caterwauling ended with
the 2002 collective bargaining agreement, which included a
luxury-tax system that has penalized but not curbed the Yankees'
spending. New York will pay a $22.5 million tax on its $195.5
million payroll this year. Boston, with a bill of about $2
million, is the only other club expected to be taxed. That $24.5
million will be split among player benefits, an industry growth
fund and player development in countries without organized high
school baseball, such as the Dominican Republic.

What has impacted competitive balance more than the luxury tax is
the CBA's new two-tiered revenue-sharing plan. On one level all
teams kick 34% of their locally generated revenue (up from 20% in
the previous CBA), minus ballpark expenses, into a pool that is
divided in 30 equal parts. On the other level the new CBA created
a central fund revenue-sharing system in which the average
revenue for the 30 teams is determined, and then money is paid by
the rich teams and distributed to the poor teams in proportion to
how much they exceed or trail the average. The Yankees, for
instance, paid the most ($52.7 million) into the pool last year
while the Expos received the most ($29.5 million). In all, the
teams below the average revenue shared $169 million in 2002 and
$220 million in '03 and are expected to share $270 million this
year. The system, which won't be completely phased in until next
season, has helped forge a competitive balance in which:

*The Yankees have been eliminated from the playoffs the past
three years by eventual world champions (Arizona, Anaheim and
Florida, the latter two being wild cards) who had won one
previous title in 54 combined seasons.

*The National League has had six clubs win the past six pennants,
a streak that occurred only twice previously (1914-19 and
1986-91).

*Since 1991 seven teams have made the playoffs the year after
losing 90 games, something that had occurred three times before.

*Fifteen teams have been within three wins of the World Series in
the past seven seasons.

"A lot of people invariably figured the new system was aimed at
the Yankees," Selig says. "The system is designed to improve the
game as a whole, for all teams. It's working exactly as it's
supposed to work."

2
The fans are fired up.

At a meeting with major league executives last winter, with the
room full of smiles, Fox Sports president Ed Goren issued a
warning. His network had just broadcast a share of the best
reality show on television in October--38 postseason games (out
of a possible 41), of which nearly one third (12) were decided by
one run and almost one fourth (nine) were decided in the last at
bat. The cultish Cubs and Red Sox had each waited until they were
five outs from the World Series to break the hearts of their
faithful. The other networks surrendered to Fox's 10.5 overall
postseason rating (up 28% from 2002) by pulling original
programming and offering reruns as fodder. "Don't feel so good
about yourselves," Goren told the executives. "The goal now is to
ride that momentum, not to lose it."

Surf's up. Thanks to a headline-grabbing off-season, new
ballparks in Philadelphia and San Diego, crowded pennant races,
the appeal of the star-studded Yankees and the growing fanaticism
of all things Cubs and Red Sox, the Show, whether viewed in
person or at home, is a certifiable hit.

*At week's end overall attendance was up 13% from the same point
last year, a trend that would result in a record 70.8 million
fans in 2004. Twenty-two of the 30 teams are drawing better this
year than last.

*The average number of households tuned to their local cable
baseball telecasts was up 17% overall (through June 20),
including increases for 24 of the 28 U.S. teams.

*Ratings among men 18 through 34 were up 50% on Fox, 14% on ESPN
and 25% on ESPN2.

*The Phillies (a 91% increase in attendance) and Padres (54%)
predictably have profited from new ballparks. But Sun Belt teams
Florida (74%), Tampa Bay (42%) and Houston (37%) were the hottest
"same-store" markets.

In terms of per-game attendance, baseball has yet to completely
recover from the 1994 strike, when the average crowd was a record
31,612. But this season the average is running within 94% of that
record (29,693).

3
Damn Yankees are box-office magic.

Fortified by the addition of baseball's best all-around player,
Alex Rodriguez, the sport's preeminent franchise is spreading
excitement and money around the game like never before. The
Yankees, who had the game's best record at week's end (47-26),
have already sold a franchise-record 3.5 million tickets. With a
roster that includes 16 players who have been selected to
All-Star Games--including six who have finished first, second or
third in league MVP voting--the New York club is also on track to
become the biggest road draw in baseball history (3.4 million),
eclipsing the 2000 Reds, who attracted three million fans in Ken
Griffey Jr.'s first tour of the National League. At these rates
the Yankees will displace the 1993 Rockies, who in their first
season played before 7.17 million fans (including 4.48 million at
home), as the most watched team in baseball history.

"I'd been around for nine years [with Seattle and Texas] and had
never seen this type of intensity from the fans," Rodriguez says.
"It's like being part of a traveling circus. It never stops."

On the road the Yankees are worth about 13,000 extra fans per
game. That translates into an average bonus of $1.3 million for
clubs that host New York for a three-game series. This year the
Yankees also will kick a record $81.5 million into baseball's
revenue-sharing pot, $17.2 million more than in 2003. And through
Sunday cable ratings for Yankees games carried on the team-owned
YES network were up 21% from last season.

4
The Devil Rays suddenly are the game's hottest team.

At the time it sounded foolish, even slightly delusional. "We're
not going to finish last in our division," Tampa Bay manager Lou
Piniella guaranteed in February. For any other team that would be
a modest goal, but since their inaugural season in 1998 the Devil
Rays have had two homes: Tropicana Field and the cellar of the AL
East. Even as recently as May 19, when his club was 10-28,
Piniella's declaration was good for a laugh.

But over the last six weeks Tampa Bay, in a feel-good story that
should give every struggling small market team hope, has put
together baseball's most stunning turnaround. Boosted by a
12-game winning streak--the longest in the big leagues this
season--the Devil Rays had the majors' best record from May 20
through Sunday (26-8). During that run they swept series from the
Indians, Rockies, Padres and Diamondbacks. When Tampa Bay
improved to 36-35 with a 6-4 victory over Florida last Saturday,
it became the first team in history to have a winning record
after being as many as 18 games below .500 in the same season.
Led by a strong bullpen (a 3.02 ERA since May 20) and a resilient
offense (15 come-from-behind wins during that stretch), the Devil
Rays have blown past the Orioles and the Blue Jays into third
place in the division.

In its ignominious seven-year history Tampa Bay has never won
more than 69 games; it was 63-99 last year, Piniella's first as
the team's manager. The D-Rays have a payroll that is perennially
ranked among the lowest ($29.5 million on Opening Day, the AL's
cheapest) and had the league's worst attendance in the last three
years. Last weekend, though, Tampa Bay had its best draw for a
three-day set against one team--average crowds of 25,653--to bump
Tropicana's average attendance 43.7% ahead of last year's at this
time.

The Devil Rays' best player has been leadoff hitter Carl
Crawford, a speedy, free-swinging, 22-year-old leftfielder. At
week's end he led the team in hitting (.311) and runs (54) and
had an AL-best 33 stolen bases. During his senior year at
Houston's Davis High, in 1998-99, Crawford signed a letter of
intent with Nebraska to play quarterback, but then he became the
second-round draft pick of the Devil Rays, and he accepted a $1.3
million signing bonus.

Tampa Bay, which trailed the first-place Yankees by 10 1/2 games
and the Red Sox by five, has little chance of overtaking both
teams. Last week Piniella called for the front office to increase
the payroll and be more aggressive in signing players. "Let's
just not sit on the streak," Piniella said. "Now that we've
gained momentum, let's build on it." --Albert Chen

5
Relocation of the Expos will soon be resolved.

Major league baseball's ownership of the Expos, a ball club based
in Montreal, exported occasionally to Puerto Rico and irrelevant
everywhere in between, has been an embarrassment in three
languages. After three years as proprietor, a botched contraction
scheme, a shameless conflict of interest and countless empty
seats, MLB at last may be only weeks away from improving its
weakest link. The Expos will be sold to an ownership group in a
locale that actually wants them and that will build one of those
spanking new stadiums that seem to be in every big city's
driveway.

"What has been a drag on the game the last several years will be
a positive," says baseball chief operating officer Bob DuPuy, one
of nine members of the relocation committee. Las Vegas; Portland;
Norfolk, Va.; and Monterrey, Mexico, have kicked the Expos'
tires, but the favorites are Washington, D.C., which would build
a ballpark on the urban site of RFK Stadium, the proposed
temporary home for the team, and northern Virginia's suburban
Loudoun County, which would build a stadium for the Expos without
raising taxes. (The D.C. group has been vague on the tax issue.)
Improving attendance won't be difficult; the team has averaged
9,269 fans for home games in Montreal and San Juan this season.

Burned in 1993 when it gave South Florida a team without ballpark
funding in place, baseball has delayed the Expos' sale with a
show-me-the-money attitude. The "preferred location" should be
decided around the All-Star break and announced in August,
according to one high-ranking source. The source estimated the
chance of the Expos returning to Montreal next season at "less
than 10 percent."

6
San Diego has playoff fever.

What's the worst team in the National League last year doing in
the thick of the NL West race this year? Thanks to revenue
sharing and the requisite cash-generating postmodern ballpark,
the Padres are the latest club to prove how quickly a baseball
team can turn around these days.

After losing 98 games in 2003, San Diego was three games behind
the first-place Giants at week's end. They're attempting to
become the 11th team in history, including the sixth in the past
eight years, to reach the postseason after a 90-loss season (box,
right). What's more, six other teams coming off 90-loss
years--the Rangers (leading the AL West), Indians, Devil Rays,
Reds, Brewers and Mets--all were within five games of a playoff
spot.

"It's good for the fans," Padres general manager Kevin Towers
says of the increased frequency of bounce-back teams. His club's
revival began last Aug. 26, when he traded a second-year starting
pitcher and two prospects to the Pirates for All-Star outfielder
Brian Giles, who was in the fourth year of a six-year, $42.5
million contract extension. "People were asking, 'Why take on
payroll for a team that's on pace to lose 100 games?'" Towers
says. "We needed to show our fans that we were serious about
2004."

Translation: San Diego had to sell tickets for its new stadium,
Petco Park, which opened this season. As a team bringing in less
than the industry revenue average, the Padres were bolstered by a
revenue-sharing check of about $12.7 million received for the
2003 season. Giles, a San Diego-area native, cost them about $1.4
million for the final 29 games.

Unable to afford top-tier free agents in the off-season because
of debt on loans for purchasing the team and building the
stadium--the interest alone, according to Towers, is $14 million
annually--the Padres signed low-price pitchers David Wells,
Ismael Valdez, Antonia Osuna and Akinori Otsuka and traded for
All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez. Shortstop Khalil Greene, called
up last September, has joined three fellow homegrown products:
third baseman Sean Burroughs and pitchers Brian Lawrence and Jake
Peavy. Assuming Wells earns near his maximum of $5.75 million in
performance bonuses, Towers improved the team while raising the
payroll by only $10 million, to $62 million. No player is signed
past 2006.

People in San Diego took to the new Padres and their
fan-friendly, downtown ballpark. The season-ticket base jumped
from 11,000 to 20,000; attendance will improve from two million
to about three million; and revenues will jump from $85 million
to $150 million--enough that San Diego may become a payer in the
revenue-sharing system.

Towers may even have the cash to add a frontline player, such as
Diamondbacks centerfielder Steve Finley, before the July 31 trade
deadline. San Diego ranked second in the league in ERA through
Sunday but was 27th in runs, partly because spacious Petco Park
has played bigger than anticipated.

"We budgeted for 2.85 million fans and are on pace for 2.95,"
Towers says. "With a September race we have a shot at three
million. When all is said and done, we could even make a little
money this year."

7
Three Hall of Fame-bound pitchers are as dominant as ever.

Call them the ageless aces. The Astros' Roger Clemens, the Mets'
Tom Glavine and the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson--all 38 or
older--are proving they're as good as ever in the twilight of
their careers. In his first season with Houston, the 41-year-old
Clemens (10-2, 2.73 ERA through Sunday) has performed like a
touring Bruce Springsteen, entering and leaving most of his
starts to standing ovations, even on the road. Glavine, 38, is on
pace to set career bests in ERA (2.11) and opponents' batting
average (.200). But of the overachieving old-timers, no one has
been more surprising than the 40-year-old Johnson, who on May 18
became the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game. In 2003 he
looked as if he were done, going 6-8 with a 4.26 ERA in 18 starts
and spending 14 weeks on the disabled list because of an injured
right knee that required surgery. "Last year I was pitching on
one leg," says Johnson, who has virtually no cartilage in his
right knee and takes injections to lubricate the joint.

Johnson was 9-5 with a 3.10 ERA, led the majors in strikeouts
(121), ranked second among starters in opponents' batting average
(.188) and was eight strikeouts shy of 4,000. In his 17th season
the five-time Cy Young Award winner has expanded his pitching
repertoire to compensate for the velocity he's lost on his
fastball. "He's a much different pitcher than he was two or three
years ago," says Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly. "He's
incorporated a two-seam fastball, throws a few more splitters,
and has some off-speed pitches to complement his fastball and
slider."

Glavine has bounced back from a subpar 2003 (9-14 with a 4.52
ERA) by slightly altering his delivery, which has helped him gain
nearly 5 mph on his fastball and improve his command. Clemens has
lost little velocity on his fastball, and his dipping
split-finger has baffled hitters.

In the second half of the season the biggest challenge the three
pitchers face is making sure that they don't break down. "I've
been backing off some stuff I've been doing [in the weight room]
so I have more energy on the diamond," says Clemens. "This is the
time of year when I really need to monitor my workouts. You don't
want to leave too much of it in the gym."

For these golden oldies, leaving it all on the field has never
been less of a problem. --A.C.

8
Barry Bonds is making history.

There are grandchildren yet to be born who will look at you aglow
with wonder and gasp, You saw Barry Bonds play? Only a few who
saw Babe Ruth swing a bat still walk the earth, and the legions
who caught the prime of Ted Williams dwindle with every sunset.
To watch Bonds now is your privilege--nay, your duty--as a
baseball fan and, in the grand tradition of the game, as an oral
historian.

You will recount how Bonds made hitting a baseball--what Williams
called the toughest feat in sports--look so easy that teams went
to unprecedented lengths to keep him from swinging at all. You
will say that back in 2004 (assuming his stats through Sunday
hold up for the rest of the season), he was walked in almost 40%
of his plate appearances and had a .612 on-base percentage--13%
greater than any other player's in history. And you saw him
interrupt the tedium of intentional walks just often enough to
chase Ruth and Hank Aaron for the alltime home run record.

You must add that Bonds commanded your eyes but not your heart.
You winced when he told The Boston Globe that Boston was a
"racist" city, though he'd never played there, and that
"they"--presumably the white establishment--do not build
monuments to blacks, when a giant statue of his godfather, Willie
Mays, stands outside his home ballpark at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

You will note, too, that Bonds had never slugged better than .700
until he did so at ages 37, 38, 39 and, as of this month, 40--a
freakish, actuarial-table-busting phenomenon that, along with the
indictment of his personal trainer in a steroid distribution
investigation, threw a shadow of suspicion over his greatness.

The sum of it all was impossible to ignore. Tyson grew tiresome,
Michael retired and Tiger slumped, leaving baseball with the
single most compelling person in sports. You watched. You had to.

9
The hardball World Cup debuts next spring.

In a best-case scenario for the international baseball tournament
planned in March, righthander Mark Prior of Team USA will take on
a Dominican Republic lineup that includes Sammy Sosa, Vladimir
Guerrero and Miguel Tejada in the prime-time championship game at
a sold-out, flag-festooned Dodger Stadium. Dominican Republic
starter Pedro Martinez will challenge a U.S. lineup with Barry
Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Every four years the
combination of star power and nationalism will give baseball the
spotlight in an otherwise low-wattage time on the sports calendar
(before the NCAA tournament heats up). Fox is interested in
carrying at least the championship game of the tournament, a
16-team, four-pool event spread over 18 days, with early-round
games likely headed to cable. Those early games will be held at
spring training venues, with later games possibly played in major
league stadiums in Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego.

"The Major League Baseball Players Association is optimistic that
we will be able to put together an A-list of players," MLB chief
operating officer Bob DuPuy says. A successful international
tournament, baseball officials believe, can promote growth of the
game internationally. Some stars, such as the Cardinals' Albert
Pujols, a Dominican, and the Tigers' Ivan Rodriguez, from Puerto
Rico, have expressed great enthusiasm for the tournament and have
promised to play. Most are at least willing to keep an open mind.
"I'm definitely interested in it at this point," the Yankees'
Rodriguez says. "We'll see."

10
Eric Gagne can't be beat.

With his performance over the last 22 months, elite relief
pitching has evolved into its highest form. What was once the
fireman (e.g. Rollie Fingers, whose job was to douse rallies at
any time) then became the closer (e.g. Bruce Sutter, who was used
to protect leads) then became the one-inning closer (e.g. Dennis
Eckersley, who typically started the ninth) has become the
automatic closer, the rarest genus yet. There's Gagne, and
there's no one else even close.

At week's end the Dodgers' righthander had converted a major
league-record 81 consecutive save situations since Aug. 26, 2002,
including 18 this year. Gagne has obliterated the previous record
of 54 consecutive saves by Tom Gordon, then with the Red Sox, in
1998 and '99. Says Eckersley, "It is ridiculous that anyone can
be that good for so long. What I don't get is, why didn't he get
people out as a starter?"

Gagne was such a mediocre starting pitcher for the Dodgers that
after the 2001 season the Blue Jays chose to take minor league
righty Luke Prokopec in a trade with Los Angeles rather than
Gagne. When the Dodgers bought out closer Jeff Shaw's contract
that winter after a 43-save season, L.A. tried Gagne in that
role. As a former standout hockey player in his native Canada,
Gagne relished the job.

"I like to go 100 percent all the time," he says. "[As a starter]
I felt I had to plan too far ahead. I like to live each second
all out. That's the way hockey is: You go all out for 30 seconds
to a minute at a time, come back to the bench and then you go all
out again."

Gagne has fiendishly wicked stuff, including a 99-mph fastball, a
nasty curveball and a freakish changeup that seems to fall off
the side of a cliff. As a prolific strikeout pitcher--he whiffed
a record 14.98 batters per nine innings last season--Gagne
heightens the excitement of any game he enters. Because of the
enormity of his streak, however, each one of his save appearances
boils with the tension of history about to be written. The sight
of the 6'2", 234-pound begoggled Gagne entering from the bullpen
is akin to that of an undefeated heavyweight making his way into
the ring. Is this the night he goes down? Lengthy streaks raise
interest in the game on a daily basis. Gagne's streak commands
attention in the late innings of every close Dodgers game.

Gagne has blown four saves in his career (129 chances). While
going 81 for 81 he allowed eight earned runs in 84 2/3 innings
(0.85 ERA) and struck out 133. "I want to be the best closer
ever," he says. "Whether I get there or not, that's another
thing. But I want to try."

For nearly two years he's been the perfect man for the job.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES WILD WEST Energized by the big crowds at their new ballpark, the Padres are chasing the Giants, who are getting another huge season from Bonds (25). COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO TEXAS STRANGERS Spurred by players like Michael Young, hitting .327 through Sunday, the Rangers were unexpectedly leading the AL West. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO MAIN EVENT Rodriguez and the Yankees are on pace to become the most watched team in baseball history. COLOR PHOTO: LINDA KAYE/AP ON THE MOVE Eighteen games under .500 on May 19, Crawford and the Devil Rays reeled off a historic 26-8 stretch. COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES HAPPINESS ... for Burroughs and Co. is playing in San Diego COLOR PHOTO: LISA BLUMENFIELD/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) K RATION Neither age nor injury will stop Johnson from reaching 4,000 strikeouts. COLOR PHOTO: TOM SILKNITTER COLOR PHOTO: PHIL ELLSWORTH CLOSING TIME Gagne's record streak puts him a notch above other elite finishers.

WILD RACE TO BE FIRST

At week's end 17 teams were within five games of first place--the
most clubs in that position this far into a season in the 11
years of the wild-card era. Here's the number of teams within
five games of a playoff spot (and other teams within five games
of a wild-card spot) on June 27 in each year since baseball went
to the six-division format.

WITHIN FIVE GAMES OF

First Wild
Year Place Card Total

2004 17 4 21
2003 14 3 17
2002 12 1 13
2001 11 4 15
2000 13 2 15
1999 12 2 14
1998 8 3 11
1997 14 3 17
1996 15 2 17
1995 14 2 16
1994 16 1 17

A SUNNY REPORT
This year the best teams in terms of improved over-the-air
(noncable) local TV ratings are in Florida, where both clubs have
topped 2003 numbers at the same point of the season by more than
60%. Here are the top five.

Team Increase

1. Devil Rays 64%
2. Marlins 61%
3. Astros 43%
4. Red Sox 36%
5. Cubs 35%

Source: Major League Baseball

QUICK TURNAROUNDS
Until the six-division, wild-card format was implemented in 1994,
only five teams in major league history had reached the
postseason the year after losing 90 or more games--a feat that
the Padres are trying to accomplish this season. Five more have
done it under the new system.

Playoff Team W-L Previous Year

1967 Red Sox 92-70 72-90
1984 Cubs 96-65 71-91
1987 Twins 85-77 71-91
1991 Braves 94-68 65-97
1993 Phillies 97-65 70-92
1997 Giants 90-72 68-94
1998 Cubs* 90-73 68-94
1999 Diamondbacks 100-62 65-97
2001 Astros 93-69 72-90
2003 Cubs 88-74 67-95

*wild-card team

GAGNE'S FEAT BY THE NUMBERS*

81 Consecutive saves, dating to Aug. 26, 2002

14.1 Strikeouts per nine innings during the streak

17 Next longest current saves streak (by the Pirates' Jose Mesa)

941 Total blown saves in the majors since Gagne last blew one

4 Career blown saves for Gagne in 129 chances

* Through Sunday

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)