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Series reflects baseball's era of hope

Series reflects baseball's era of hope

ST. PETERSBURG -- If the 1990s was the decade of dynasties in Major League baseball, the current decade is shaping up as the era of October unpredictability.

The Philadelphia Phillies are the 10th different National League champion in 11 years, with only St. Louis winning more than once in that span. And the Tampa Bay Rays are the sixth American League champion in seven years.

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So America is being introduced to two new pennant winners -- one that has never been to the Fall Classic and one that has ended a 14-season drought.

The question is, what's going on?

The answer is, quite a lot. From economic shifts in the game to smarter front offices to a simple case of fighting fire with fire, the game has changed since the turn of the century. And fans are reaping the benefits.

"When we designed this thing in the '90s and we went through all this heartache, as you know, in January 2000 the clubs gave me unprecedented power to fix the competitive balance problem," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Well, it's years later and I think we can say we have dealt with it. And the sport has never been better as a result. [All of the different World Series winners] are a remarkable manifestation of it. It's been great. There's no doubt we have dealt with what was, in the late 1990s, a very difficult problem."

From 1995, the start of the Wild Card era, through 2001, two teams won the AL pennant -- the Yankees won five and the Indians won two. Five different clubs reigned over the NL, but the Braves won three times. Now it's a post-Yankees, post-Braves period, as both teams fell short of even playing in October this year.

That's exemplified by the fact that the champions of those two teams' divisions are meeting in the World Series. Tampa Bay didn't sneak in a back door. The Rays won the AL East, baseball's best division, with a roster built to have staying power. The Phillies won their second straight NL East crown and appear to be well-positioned to stay at or near the top.

The Phillies are the 10th different National League champion in 11 years, with only the Cardinals winning more than once in that span. And the Rays are the sixth American League champion in seven years.
Year AL champs NL champs
2008 Rays Phillies
2007 Red Sox Rockies
2006 Tigers Cardinals
2005 White Sox Astros
2004 Red Sox Cardinals
2003 Yankees Marlins
2002 Angels Giants
2001 Yankees Diamondbacks
2000 Yankees Mets
1999 Yankees Braves
1998 Yankees Padres

Still, there may be a Yankees effect at play in the run of different AL pennant winners. New York's aggressive spending and acquisitions spurred other AL teams to match the Bombers. The Angels and Red Sox became serious players, and later even Central teams like the White Sox and Tigers took aim at the big time.

To respond, the smaller-budget teams like Oakland, Minnesota and, of course, Tampa Bay had to get smarter. The A's and Twins put out blueprints, and the Rays took from both of them. Draft well, develop well, scout well and use sophisticated analysis. Be patient, and aim for greatness rather than settling for being good. That way, when you do make the postseason, it's as a power, and with designs on getting back.

The combination has led to postseasons full of dangerous teams in the AL. You rarely see an 83-, 84-, 85-win team make the AL playoffs, meaning that there are no easy series. Not that any series is easy -- a 100-win team isn't that big a favorite over an 83-win team in a short series -- but the road for any given top-flight team is especially rugged.

On the NL side, it looks somewhat like the opposite. The Senior Circuit hasn't seen a dominating franchise since the sun began setting on the Braves' empire. The Mets, Cubs and Dodgers all have the financial wherewithal, and all three have made serious attempts to build elite teams.

But overall, the National League has something of a Wild West feel since the Braves' dynasty ended. Every year brings multiteam shootouts for the Wild Card, and sometimes for division titles as well. Yet the Phils have emerged in the regular season twice in a row, and now they're playing for the big prize.

Like most successful teams these days, the Phillies have used a number of different assets. They have money, and they're willing to spend. But they've also developed an impressive homegrown core, a core that includes two MVPs (Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard), a Game 1-caliber starter (Cole Hamels) and another slugger who looks like an MVP-in-waiting (Chase Utley).

The message seems to be, you can get there. You have to have a plan, you have to be smart and it helps to have money. But well-run teams can compete and win.

There's no 800-pound gorilla in either league at the moment. That doesn't mean the Phillies or Rays -- or Red Sox or Dodgers -- won't become that gorilla. But right now, it's a wide-open era.

"We have more competitive balance than we've ever had," Selig said. "The attendance numbers, the interest in the sport, the revenue figures all say that it's been very good for baseball. No question about it."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Barry M. Bloom contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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