There is no guesswork involved in establishing the identity of the 30th team. The Yankees are still the Yankees; nine straight division titles and a payroll crowding $200 million. They have not won the World Series since 2000, but they are the closest thing baseball has to a constant, particularly now with the postseason disappearance of the Atlanta Braves.
Gone are the days, though, when you could take roughly the top 12 teams in payroll and automatically find all of the postseason qualifiers in that group. In the current field, there are the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland Athletics, franchises not even in the top half of the player payroll rankings, but franchises known for solid player development and astute personnel decisions.
Their presence here is good for baseball, whether one of them wins everything this October, or neither wins a game this October. They are living proof that mere wealth is not the sole determining factor in achieving baseball success. They are to be applauded, or cherished, or both.
But there are also surprises here that have to do with competition, not with economics. The Detroit Tigers, losers of 91 games last year, losers of 119 games just three years ago, are making their first postseason appearance in 19 years. They reached the postseason with a blend of strong pitching, timely hitting and solid defense -- the classic mix for baseball success -- from April into autumn.
They are good for the game, too, because they prove that some astute acquisitions, an injection of savvy leadership (manager Jim Leyland) and a collective, unselfish drive to excel, can turn what looks like a gloomy situation into an October situation.
The New York Mets were the other most notable breakthrough team of 2006. Not only did they end the Atlanta Braves' record of 14 straight division titles, they became hands down the best team in the National League. They put a wonderful lineup on the field; both powerful and versatile, able to score runs in bunches or manufacture runs one at a time with speed and craft.
The Mets' success, not completely unexpected when you consider the star power they amassed, still represented a change in baseball's pecking order.
The Yankees' presence is the given in the October baseball equation. But ultimate success has eluded them in the last five postseasons. They have one of the best everyday lineups in recorded history. They may be the favorites to regain the World Series championship this October. But the thing is, they will not be prohibitive favorites. You can make a rational case for or against all eight teams who have been good enough to reach baseball's October.
Baseball has evolved some. It is still evolving. Its economic structure is a work in progress. But some of the primary changes that have occurred can be seen in the very makeup of the 2006 postseason field.
On the field itself, what you know for sure about October is that something wonderful, maybe something completely unexpected, will happen. Two years ago, it was the Red Sox, coming from a three-game deficit to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and then sweeping the Cardinals, winners of 105 regular-season games, in the World Series.
Last October, it was the White Sox, riding a run of magnificent starting pitching to an 11-1 postseason record and their first World Series championship in 88 years.
One of the compelling factors about October baseball is that it is the culmination of the season, but it is also a new season. At the end comes a beginning.
"Everybody has a fresh slate," says Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Diego Padres. "The playoffs are a crapshoot. The best teams don't always win. It's whoever is playing the best."
On an annual basis, postseason baseball provides the possibility for the creation of moments that will live forever in memory. These moments may be unique, unanticipated or historic, but they occur. This is the beauty of the game in its ultimate month. And in that way, it may be more beautiful than ever.