Amid the final dog days of August, with more than half of the 30 teams still in playoff contention and set to begin a series of divisional showdowns over the season's final five weeks, baseball is about to reap the dramatic, full-blown benefit of the unbalanced schedule. Or as Bud Selig, the effusive commissioner, said:
"Combined with the wild card, it's worked out great. It's worked out better than anything we had put on paper and better than we dreamed.
"The only question is, what took us so long to go back to it?"
Selig referred to a schedule in which each team plays each team in its division 19 times rather than playing each team in its league 12 or 13 in the balanced format.
No team will play a full September slate within its division, but consider the Philadelphia Phillies, attempting to go from worst to first in the National League East and still alive in the division and wild-card races.
Under last year's balanced format, the Phillies were finished with the division rival Atlanta Braves on June 19. Now they have seven games left with the Braves--who they trail by two games--as well as a third round of home-and-road series with their other division rivals.
"We'd like to have the [Chicago] Cubs and West Coast teams come in more than once [during the season], but I prefer the idea of having a direct hand in our own fate over the way it was before," Philadelphia General Manager Ed Wade said. "As poorly as we've played recently, we're still only two games behind the Braves, and last year at this point we were finished with them. Not only would our fate have depended on how we did against other teams, but on how other teams did against the Braves on our behalf.
"There's always inconsistencies, but the head-to-head matchups have the potential for great fan interest, and I've always believed that a division race should be determined within the division."
Although purists continue to cringe, the wild card has enhanced that potential. Eight teams in each league continue to battle for four playoff berths in each league.
In the National League, the division-leading Braves, Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks have division and wild-card competition from the Phillies in the East, the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in the Central and the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the West.
In the American, the Seattle Mariners have had the West wrapped up since Memorial Day, but the Oakland Athletics and Angels remain in wild-card contention, while the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the East and the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox in the Central still have a division title at stake, as well as the wild card.
The depth of competition suggests that management's lament about the competitive and payroll disparities is not valid, but Selig disputed that, saying:
"If you look closely, each of the division leaders in the American League, the Yankees, Indians and Mariners, have the highest payrolls in their divisions by far.
"In the National League, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in the West are among the top three or four in all of baseball, the Astros, Cubs and Cardinals in the Central are all among the top 12 and the Braves in the East are among the top half dozen. I rest my case. I mean, we created the wild card to help with the disparity, and it has, but the playoffs are still payroll driven. There are occasional aberrations, but of the last 183 playoff games, only three were won by teams in the [bottom half of the payroll rankings]."
The case that management is in the process of presenting to the players' union as part of the collective bargaining negotiations can be found in last year's economic committee report.
The centerpiece of the wide-ranging series of proposals is enhanced revenue sharing among the clubs and a 50% tax on payroll above $84 million. In other words, if the Dodgers were to maintain a $110-million payroll, they would have to pay a tax of $13 million based on 50% of the $26 million they are over $84 million. The union will probably consider that too restrictive and the equivalent of a salary cap, but the labor storm is still only a blip on the horizon.
In the meantime, the potential for a sizzling September amid the unbalanced schedule doesn't have to wait on the calendar. It can be measured by Kevin Brown's return to the Dodger Stadium mound tonight against the division rival Colorado Rockies and a three-game series between the Giants and Diamondbacks beginning in Phoenix tonight.
Arizona and San Francisco play six times in the next nine days, while the Dodgers play 25 of their last 31 games in the division, including seven of their last 10 against the Diamondbacks.
In other highlights:
*NL Central: The Astros and Cubs play seven times in the last 10 days of the season, including a four-game, season-ending series in Chicago. The Cardinals finished with Chicago on Sunday but have six games left with the Astros.