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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

A's, Twins Again? There Goes Mr. Selig's Neighborhood

September 29, 2003|Ross Newhan

There is no overwhelming favorite or sure thing in the baseball playoffs.

The possibility that the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs could even meet in a Colossal Battle of World Series Curses is a measure of this postseason free-for-all.

The one -- and maybe only -- certainty is that the return of the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins means they should no longer be considered the standard bearers for aberration.

That was the label Commissioner Bud Selig used to illustrate how rare it was for the comparatively small-market, low-payroll teams to even reach, let alone win, the playoffs amid the bleak economic portrait he frequently painted in lobbying for a labor agreement that would help change the system.

For the A's, Twins and teams of their revenue ilk -- such as the Florida Marlins -- to move into the upscale neighborhood of the playoffs on a regular basis?

The suggestion seemed to be that it was comparable to "The Beverly Hillbillies."

"I understood why he said it and why he thought it," Oakland General Manager Billy Beane said, "but I always viewed the term 'aberration' as being equated to lucky and I always bristled a bit when I heard it.

"I thought it took away from what we had accomplished as an organization and we certainly didn't think we had been lucky. We've averaged 96 wins for five years and won more games than any team in baseball since 2000. This is the fourth year in a row we've gone to the playoffs, the third year we've won the division.

"If we haven't done away with that term by now, I don't know what we have to do."

While the A's were winning the American League West again, the Twins repeated in the AL Central.

Wasn't it only five minutes ago they were sentenced to the contraction guillotine?

"The A's are certainly not an aberration, and I'd like to think we aren't either," Twin General Manager Terry Ryan said. "The A's have proven for five or six years that regardless of who they add or subtract each winter or what their payroll is, they can make it work.

"I don't think we're in the A's class yet, but I also don't think there's any excuses out there. When people talk about the small-market issues, I don't want to hear it.

"I mean, our situation with broadcast, attendance and stadium revenue is what it is. They've been talking about a new stadium here since 1994. At this rate we might not get one until 2009. What do we do, pack it in until then?"

The landscape is changing. Beverly Hills isn't quite so exclusive. The A's and Twins even may be having an impact on the way other clubs are operating.

There's more efficiency and less inefficiency, Beane said of the general pattern. There is an improved focus now on development from within, cautious signings and trades, better overall management.

According to July 15 figures compiled by the commissioner's office using the new luxury-tax formula for 40-man rosters, three teams from the bottom half of the payroll rankings -- Minnesota, Florida and Oakland -- have qualified for the playoffs compared with a modest five from the top half: the New York Yankees, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago.

If efficiency is replacing inefficiency, there also has been a modest compression in the overall disparity, if you eliminate the No. 1 Yankees at $180 million and No. 30 Tampa Bay Devil Rays at $31 million.

The top is coming down some, the bottom coming up, and some of that, of course, is the result of a revenue-sharing program that began in 1996 and was stepped up in the new labor agreement -- in addition to the payroll tax that 29 of the 30 clubs made a successful effort to avoid.

"There's no question, the system is changing," Selig said from Milwaukee. "My hope is that each year it will get better and better. The A's and Twins have done a marvelous job with their limitations, but without the changes in the system their ability to reach and succeed in the playoffs would have continued to represent an aberration, although what I said about that initially was misunderstood."

Selig said he wasn't implying that the A's or any other small-market team was lucky in reaching the playoffs. He said he was only speaking of facts such as these: from 1995 through 2001 only five clubs from the lower half of the payroll rankings qualified for the playoffs, winning only five of the 224 postseason games.

He reiterated that the Angels, winning last year's World Series with a mid-level payroll of $62 million, were the shining and first example of how an improved system can benefit the industry in that the Angels couldn't have maintained their core without revenue sharing.

It's still not easy, however.

"It takes creativity and sometimes guts too," Beane said of the necessary tough decisions in the Oakland environment. The A's, under the tax formula, rank 26th at $56 million and there's little room for error.

"You have to make sure you're right," Beane said. "You have to prove you know how to reduce your payroll and still win games or people will assume you're simply holding a fire sale."

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