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Examining competitive balance

Examining competitive balance

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In Commissioner Bud Selig's perfect world, each year when a new baseball season arrives, fans in every Major League city should have hope -- hope that their team has a chance to contend, if not win it all.

I've always argued this is an impossible dream. No matter how much parity the Commissioner's revenue-sharing plan and luxury tax on payrolls and other initiatives have created, there are still teams that will open the season with little hope.

As we prepare for Sunday's first pitch of 2009, there admittedly are a handful of teams that have no chance of reaching the postseason. Blame it on poor management, rebuilding -- you name it. Their seasons will end before they should.

This year, add another factor: The economy will impact on many of the teams and their ability to remain in contention -- or better put, compete with the richest franchises.

The Yankees, for instance, are moving into a new stadium which will generate even more revenue for the richest franchise in the Majors. Those deep pockets enabled them to go out and spend a staggering $423.5 million during the offseason on pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

That spending shocked many owners, some who might be forced to unload high-salary players if the economic times take a toll on their operation.

"We're living in very tough economic times, obviously -- the toughest economic environment I think since the Great Depression," Selig told MLB.com on Monday.

Major League Baseball's revenues in 2008 were a record $6.5 billion. I remember sitting in a New York hotel room a decade ago when the Yankees were winning World Series after World Series and listening to Selig talk about how important it is that fans have something to look forward to on Opening Day.

I bring this up because he was dwelling on this subject during the period when the Yankees were winning the title four out of five years. And it looked like there was no stopping them in sight.

I don't know what kind of crystal ball the Commissioner was using, but I'd like to have one.

Since the Yankees defeated the Mets in the 2000 Fall Classic, no team has repeated and there have been seven different champions in the eight years. Only the Boston Red Sox (2004 and '07) have won more than once.

The Yankees missed the postseason last year for the first time since 1993.

"Our job is to give hope and faith to as many franchises as possible on April 1," Selig said. "That's the intent.

"There's more competitive balance than ever in the history of baseball. The reason you've seen small-market teams do better is because the economic system allows them to do better."

The yearly outlook for small-market teams is much brighter than it's ever been. The Tampa Bay Rays went to their first World Series last year with a $43.8 million payroll. Only the Florida Marlins spent less ($21.8 million).

In 2007, three of the four teams in the League Championship Series were in the bottom third in payroll -- Cleveland (23rd), Arizona (25th) and Colorado (26th).

"I feel good about this season," Selig said. "As I break the divisions down, I feel better about [competitive balance] than I have for a long time. In a couple of the divisions, you cannot rule out any team.

"I repeat: Our job is to provide hope and faith in as many places as possible and I think this year we're doing just that. People call it parity; I call it competitive balance. All you have to do is go division-by-division and you'll be impressed."

Season ticket sales are down in several markets and as I traveled to many Spring Training camps, it was easy to sense concern. You also have to wonder if some of the major corporate sponsors may be forced to reduce their spending.

To some extent, baseball is insulated from the economic meltdown.

"I'm guardedly optimistic," said Selig. "Only time will tell."

But, Selig added, "Whatever anybody else says or thinks, baseball is related to the environment we live in. And, therefore, I don't sense anything but the same concern that I hear everywhere I go, from people in every business, including the other sports."

A week before Spring Training opened, the news broke that Alex Rodriguez, baseball's highest-paid player, had used steroids.

My immediate thought was that this would be another dark cloud hovering over the game, a huge distraction.

Then, Rodriguez was forced to have hip surgery and is out of action until May. I'm sure the Yankees and A-Rod won't agree, but this could have been a blessing.

With Rodriguez away from the Yankees, attention turned to pure baseball. What could have been a major distraction was virtually eliminated.

Spring Training, not to mention the World Baseball Classic, went smoothly, paving the way for Opening Day.

"I think this year will be extraordinary," said Selig. "Our business is good, everything is in place, the MLB Network is doing great, but my only concern is the economy."

As an afterthought, he added: "We'll just have to fight our way through it, like everybody else."

Selig admitted that when his family owned the Milwaukee Brewers, because of the size of the market, "We couldn't say it, but we really didn't have much of a chance then."

Last year, the Brewers were in the postseason for the first time since 1982, when they lost the World Series to the Cardinals.

Today, Selig said, there's "hope and faith" in the most unlikely cities.

Just ask Tampa Bay.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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