When we last saw baseball count, the Yankees were rushing onto the field and celebrating their 27th World Series championship. At that time, some groused that the summer game does not belong in November; others complained that, even though the core and soul of the team had mostly been together since the Clinton Midterm, this outcome seemed as inevitable as Wall Street vs. the family businesses.
On Sunday, 151 days later, Derek Jeter steps into the batter's box to begin again. For many of those five months, the people who run baseball tried to find ways to level the economic playing field; to better officiate the sport; to further try to assure its public that performances are human, not chemical. After all that debate, fool that I am, I'll do it all over again. I'll do it because it's April and Jason Heyward has come up out of Florida. We're debating Troy Tulowitzki v. Justin Upton v. Matt Kemp v. Andre Ethier for National League MVP. And there are 24 sets of fans who have some hope that their teams will play in October.
No one is foolish enough to suggest that market revenues aren't a significant part of the baseball landscape; the next labor negotiation now clearly will not be simply owners versus players but as much about owners achieving consensus among themselves. This is the treacherous line Commissioner Bud Selig walks, one few would ever want to attempt to traverse. Big-market owners like John Henry and Arte Moreno think they are providing welfare MetroJet service for many small-market owners, while the latter believe they are simply fattening frogs for the snakes of the big markets.
Of course, the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies are the logical favorites because of past performance and their ability to absorb contractual miscues, but our fathers and grandfathers like to incant "give us back our game" when, in reality, their good ol' days saw the Yankees play in the World Series 14 times from 1949-64; in 2010, the Yankees' rotation makes $63.2 million, the Rays' rotation makes $9.5 million and almost everyone who scouted the West Coast of Florida had a hard time trying to decide who will be out of the playoffs between New York, Tampa Bay and Boston.
Tampa Bay is the team photo for the life-is-unfair billboard. The Rays won the pennant in 2008, revenues did not increase, Yankees games are aired on a Tampa, Fla., radio station and this spring there was as much speculation about the July whereabouts of potential free agents Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena as there was about the emergences of B.J. Upton, Sean Rodriguez, Wade Davis, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Yes, there is concern about the future of the Tampa Bay franchise if it cannot get a legitimate ballpark in a reachable area. There is the same concern about the future of the Oakland Athletics if they cannot get a San Jose stadium deal, and, like the Rays, it has nothing to do with creativity or competence. There is legitimate concern about the Indians, with the fraying demographics of Greater Cleveland, just as there has to be concern about the future of the Tigers if the Illitch family decides to sell.
Yet many of us can see the Rays finishing ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox, the Athletics chasing the Angels, the Indians resurging and the Tigers again going to the final days of the season with the playoffs in reach. We can surmise that, in reality, the Orioles don't have a chance at October, but they have Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones. We can opine that the Blue Jays will lead the Majors in losses because they play New York, Boston and Tampa 54 times, but we can also see Kyle Drabek and J.P. Arencibia as rising stars in August. We figure the Nationals have no chance, but they are waiting for the hope that is Stephen Strasburg, and what they might become in September if Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang are all in their rotation.
The reality of the economic landscape is that small markets have a very small window in which to compete, which is what has Rays owner Stuart Sternberg scratching his head trying to figure where his team will be three years from now. Ask the Indians: They were up, 3-1, on Boston in the 2007 ALCS but never did make the World Series, and in less than two years traded CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee.
That said, if one defines contending as being within hailing range on Labor Day, one can see every team in the AL West in that position; every team in the AL Central, save Kansas City, in that position; the Big Three in the AL East; three or four teams in the NL East; everyone but Houston and Pittsburgh in the NL Central and everyone in the NL West, even the Padres, with enough pitching to hang in when no one in the division has a payroll over $83 million. San Diego has only $15.4 million invested in its starting rotation, but that's only $6.3 million less than the Dodgers, and the only team in the division with more than $23.5 million tied up in starting pitchers is the $33.9 million of the Giants, $18.5 million of which belongs to Barry Zito.
Joe Mauer turns 27 this month, he's a franchise star and person, and instead of focusing on a potential November bidding war between the Yankees and Red Sox, he signed with the Twins, his hometown team. The $184 million deal he signed reflected not only Mauer's affinity for his state, but also how baseball economics can change, as Target Field, their new television deal and the Minnesota economy have taken the Twins from contraction to a top-eight revenues franchise.
Look at the star-quality players under the age of 26: The Brothers Upton, Tulowitzki, Kemp, Evan Longoria, Wieters, Tommy Hanson, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Brett Anderson, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Gordon Beckham.
Who were among the biggest stories this spring? Heyward, Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Iglesias and Mike Stanton. We never lose our fascination with the next generation.
Somehow, no matter what leaks out about the steroids era or what lives the misspoken words may take, every April baseball renews itself. Jeter vs. Josh Beckett. Again.
We all think we know what each season will bring. Many of us had the Cubs in the World Series one of the past two years. PECOTA last year had the Mets winning 90-plus games. Someone out there may have known the Marlins would win more games than the Braves the past two seasons, and more games than the Mets the past seven years, or that Andrew Bailey would be the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year.
PECOTA can only predict injuries based on history. One cannot accurately predict the aging process. One sage scout advancing the Yankees last September said, "What's so interesting about them is that their older players haven't gotten old." But, at 40, can Mariano Rivera again save 44 games? As he turns 38, can Jorge Posada again bat .285? As he also turns 38, can Andy Pettitte win 14 games and close out another World Series? As he turns 36, can Jeter remain an above-average defensive shortstop who bangs out 212 hits? As he turns 34, can Alex Rodriguez remain a superstar?
They are who they are because of character, work ethic and their commitment to winning. But the road doesn't go on forever.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.