The following year, the Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series. As a small-market franchise, previously downtrodden in the standings, the Rays were a breakthrough for the entire concept of parity.
But 2009? It's somewhat more difficult to make the competitive balance argument when the Yankees win everything. The Yankees are the anti-parity franchise, and this is not said in a pejorative manner. They are the economic standard against which all other clubs must finish somewhere between second and 30th. And over time, the same thing can be said about the Yankees as a competitive standard. The Yankees act as an obstacle, a very large obstacle, in the path of parity, but they don't preclude the advance of parity.
In 2010, the Yankees might well win everything again. But as we speak, the competitive balance argument is getting a major push from other directions. In five of six divisions, a franchise other than the largest-market franchise holds first place. The exception is, of course, the American League East, where, entering play Wednesday night, the Yankees and the Rays shared first place.
The largest changes have arrived in both West divisions. In the National League, the San Diego Padres have replaced the Dodgers on top. The Padres are a classic example of doing a lot with a little, financially. They entered the season with a player payroll ranked 29th, higher only than the Pirates.
And yet, the Padres have the National League's best record. This is because they have baseball's best team earned run average. They have assembled a pitching staff that is the daily double -- simultaneously terrific and inexpensive. By building around player development and astute personnel moves, the Padres can continuously overcome opponents with larger bankrolls as a matter of course. Good for them.
In the AL West, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won five of the past six division titles, the Texas Rangers have emerged as the clear new leader. The Dallas/Ft. Worth area strikes the visitor as the antithesis of "small-market," but this franchise entered the season with the second-smallest player payroll in the league, and that was before the franchise entered bankruptcy court.
This was a franchise operating under some truly serious financial constraints, but, apart from that, the Rangers have succeeded at the time-tested means of building a successful franchise: scouting and player development. With new ownership, a fresh start and a ton of young talent, the Rangers' success this season should be just the beginning.
On the flip side, some of baseball's biggest spenders have also been some of the game's most disappointed franchises. The Cubs ranked third in player payroll. They would have to get hot in order to finish higher than fifth in the NL Central. The Mets, meanwhile, ranked fifth in payroll, and now they are a distant third in the NL East.
Reviewing the available evidence, to this point we're looking at the 2010 season as a very big year for parity. When the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, says: "Baseball has more competitive balance than ever before," 2010 offers more reasons to agree with that statement than 2009 did.
In fact, what has been known as "The Year of the Pitcher" could be subtitled: "And Not a Bad Season for the Little Guys, Either."
It is a good thing for the game when teams such as the Padres and Rangers succeed. It is an indication that mechanisms intended to partially level baseball's economic playing field, such as revenue sharing, have had some effect. And it demonstrates that money is not the sole determining factor in a baseball's team's success -- that there is room in the equation for diligence and astute decision-making.