If the new millennium has taught baseball fans one thing, it’s that glory must be earned.
Whether it pertains to individual accolades achieved by individuals this decade (some of which are now scrutinized by steroids) or teams, everyone loves a winner. Baseball historically has showcased some of the greatest teams to walk the planet with the New York Yankees of the 1920s, Oakland Athletics in the early 1970s, the Toronto Blue Jays of the early 1990s, and the Yankees of 1998-2000 to name a few.
When generations down the road reflect upon the great teams they watched on sleek HDTV’s and YouTube videos when they were kids, who will be heralded as one of the greatest since baseball is inching closer to parody similar to the 1980’s?
The 2009 season is living proof that the word ‘repeat’ has become an obstacle. With the reigning champion Phillies, a cookie-jar selection of All Stars seems to strike fear into opponents. But mythic Supermen squads like the 1927 Yankees have eroded. Major League Baseball has expanded to 14 American League teams and 16 National League teams vying four playoff spots per league. Front-offices and team rosters are sporadic, free agency is tagged with Christmas bonuses, and the nature of the sport is changing with this ‘juiced’ era along with a dying breed of dominant starting pitching.
Greatness is valued top to bottom. There was a time when an ace (like Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer) would pitch 300 or more innings. Now teams rely on bullpens by committee. There was a time when just two teams faced off in the League Pennants. Now the playoffs consist of Wild Card teams (with no pushovers) hungry for a title. Before the hysteria of money-hungry agents and consumption, teams with venerable players would thrive consistently for at least five years straight, usually landing in the Championship series duel before 1995.
Prime examples of how greatness does not grow on paper can examined by a few teams such as the 2008 Yankees, Mets, and Tigers who were the top three in team payroll on Opening Day of that year. To spare the details, all three failed to make the playoffs.
With big names signing to different places and trade deadlines deals galore, the quest for division crowns becomes a real test this year. Currently, the Phillies, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, and Angels (from the 2008 playoffs) are hot for 2009 contention. Throw in other contenders like the Cardinals, Rockies, Giants, and Marlins—you have yourself a tough time deciding who’s better than who from the National League. In the American League, the Yankees and Tigers have picked themselves up while the Rays, White Sox, and Rangers are in a horse-race to knock off the Red Sox for the Wild Card.
It’s too early to tell if anyone of these teams can achieve repeats or a dynasty, but if a team can somehow emulate the Yankees’ formula from 1998-2000, there’s likely another team nearby kicking and scratching to do the same.