WHEN MAJOR LEAGUE owners met in Milwaukee last week, ostensibly to rubber-stamp yet another incremental improvement to the sport's drug policy, commissioner Bud Selig noticed something remarkably different about the barons of baseball. ¶ "I didn't meet an unhappy one," he says. "This was one of those rare meetings.... This was a love-in for two days. No complaining. I'll tell you this was ... it was great." ¶ The collective happiness of the owners being directly proportional to the thickness of their wallets, the owners should be feeling chipper these days. Attendance is up for the fifth straight season, and with two new stadiums being built in New York and a new Baseball-owned network debuting next year, their pipeline of shared cash figures to keep coursing steadily. But the good times include an on-field benefit as well: the best competitive balance most of them have seen during their tenure as owners.
Fourteen years after owners canceled the World Series because the players didn't buy their need for a salary cap and seven years after the owners threatened to eliminate the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos because they believed too many teams had no chance to contend, baseball is enjoying an egalitarianism not seen since the 1980s. The morning standings last Saturday, more than a quarter of the way through the season, went down for most owners as sweetly as their mimosas. The difference between the fourth-winningest team (the Los Angeles Angels) and the 23rd (the Pittsburgh Pirates) was only four games. None of the teams with the five highest payrolls held first place. Instead, four of the six first-place teams—Cleveland (No. 16 on the money list), Arizona (23rd), Tampa Bay (29th) and Florida (30th)—were spending about as much money combined as the Yankees are for a last-place team ($209 million). "This is one time I can say," Selig boasts of the parity, "that this is exactly what we tried to do. I think we have more parity than any [sport]."
The Rays and the Marlins in first place in mid-May? Looking at the standings too long these days can induce vertigo. The American League East particularly seems to have confused down with up. Not only did the Yankees bottom out in last place this deep into a season for the first time since 1990, but they were also exhorted by the boss's son, team cochairman Hank Steinbrenner, to play more like ... well, like the Rays, owners of nine last-place finishes in their 10-year history.
Welcome to baseball's Bizarro World.
LED BY a bespectacled oenophile who works his sorcery beneath a framed quote from Dr. Seuss, Tampa Bay is winning with pitching, defense and young players, the sometimes forgotten commodities of the power-obsessed Steroid Era from which baseball is trying to escape. "Maybe," says manager Joe Maddon, the cat in the Rays' hat, "we're the right team at the right time."
"Oh, they're legit," says Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, whose team lost three of four in St. Petersburg last week. "The way they pitch and they play, they're not going away."
The Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Minnesota Twins, which according to baseballreference.com are the three youngest teams in baseball when it comes to position players, were a combined 74--57 (.565) through Sunday, with a total payroll cost of $167 million. The three oldest clubs, the Blue Jays, Yankees and Tigers, were a combined 60--74 (.448) at a cost of $445 million.
Teams have embraced a new paradigm: The young player is more important than ever before. The success of every-day players from the 2005 draft (Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury, for example) and pitchers from the '06 draft (Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Joba Chamberlain, Luke Hochevar) has persuaded front offices to give opportunities to their youngsters. And teams now love to dole out multiyear contracts—as long as they go to young players who tend to stay off the disabled list and have their best years ahead of them.
Small- and mid-market teams are gleefully signing their young stars to long-term deals that preempt salary arbitration and free agency, a trend that will continue to render the ever-thinning free-agent market even more inefficient. That market increasingly is left with fewer—and older—players who are given exorbitant salaries just as many of them are entering their thirtysomething decline phase. Of the 42 players at week's end with at least eight home runs, only seven were older than 31.
Just last week the Milwaukee Brewers locked up leftfielder Braun, 24 (eight years, $45 million); the Marlins secured the services of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, 24 (six years, $70 million); and the Rays locked up pitcher Scott Kazmir, 24 (three years, $28.5 million with a club option for another year). In each case the club bought out at least two potential free-agent years from the player. The Rays had already given like-minded extensions to starting pitcher James Shields, 26; first baseman Carlos Pena, 30; and rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, 22. Other young stars who have postponed their shot at free agency include Justin Morneau of Minnesota, Alex Rios of Toronto, Tulowitzki of Colorado and Grady Sizemore of Cleveland.