Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson celebraties the team's clinching… (Rick Scuteri / Reuters )
The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies are in the playoffs, again. The Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates are not, again.
Same teams, same big money, same October story?
Not so fast.
The Arizona Diamondbacks just went from last to first. The Detroit Tigers won a division championship for the first time in 24 years, the Milwaukee Brewers for the first time in 29 years.
This is a big deal to the fans of those teams, perhaps a bigger deal to a commissioner who has worked toward weakening the correlation between player payroll and postseason participation.
Of the nine teams with the highest payrolls this season, six will sit home in October, and the collapsing Boston Red Sox could make it seven. Of the nine teams with the highest payrolls last season, seven are not in the playoffs.
"That could not have happened in the '90s," Commissioner Bud Selig said.
In the first five years of the wild-card era (1995-99), one of the 40 playoff spots was won by a team in the bottom half of player payroll. That team, the 1997 Houston Astros, was swept in the first round.
In the five years preceding this one, 12 of the 40 playoff spots were won by a team in the bottom half of player payroll, with the Brewers and Diamondbacks ranking in the bottom half this season.
In three of the four most recent World Series, one of the entrants was a team that ranked among the bottom five in payroll — the Texas Rangers last year, the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and the Colorado Rockies in 2007.
"I used to say, my job is to try to make the dollar less important than good management," Selig said. "I think we have done that."
Selig isn't senile. The Yankees always will have an economic advantage, and a huge one.
But the New York Mets share the largest market in the major leagues with the Yankees, and the Mets have been out of the playoffs for five consecutive years, despite never ranking lower than seventh in the league in payroll.
And the Rays, perhaps the most disadvantaged team in the majors, remain alive for what would be their third playoff berth in four years.
The Rays offer Selig the perfect response to cries of economic unfairness from any other precinct in the majors.
The Rays and Oakland Athletics are the only teams in ballpark purgatory — and the A's have a solution upon which Selig refuses to act. The Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are the only teams that must beat out the Yankees or Red Sox to qualify for the playoffs.
The Yankees, blessed with the most resources in baseball, have won the American League East twice in four years.
The Rays, cursed with the worst resources in baseball, also have won the AL East twice in four years.
"What the Rays have done is nothing short of extraordinary," Selig said. "They've played in the World Series. They're battling for the playoffs. They lost a bunch of players [last winter]. Everybody thought they were going to have a bad year, and here they are.
"They are a dramatic manifestation of what good management can do."
Selig recites the words "hope and faith" almost as a mantra. He believes increased revenue sharing has increased the hope and faith of fans whose team is not a big spender.
"We have provided hope and faith in enough places," he said.
In 2002, the last year in which baseball was seriously threatened by a strike or lockout, major league teams shared $169 million in revenue. The teams shared $425 million last year, nearly three times as much over an era in which total revenue nearly doubled.
Still, shared revenue accounted for only 6% of total revenue last year.
"There are more things we can do," Selig said. "That's why I want slotting so badly. That's why I want a worldwide draft. Those are important factors in leveling the playing field."
The players' union is not opposed to a worldwide draft, although the logistics of implementing one would be enormously complex. The union is adamantly opposed to slotting — paying each draft pick a predetermined amount — in keeping with the principle that players and owners should be free to negotiate.
Even slotting and a worldwide draft would represent a relatively small tilt toward leveling the playing field. Then again, Selig is not displeased with a system in which teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox are annual contenders, fueling television ratings and filling ballparks across America with teams fans love, or love to hate.
"You'll always have high-profile teams," Selig said. "That certainly hasn't hurt us. As we have had more competitive balance, what have we had? The last seven years have been the greatest seven years in attendance in baseball history."
The alternative — to give each team a more equal chance to make the playoffs by equalizing spending among teams — usually manifests itself as a salary cap.
The NBA has a salary cap, and a 16-team playoff field. Baseball expanded its playoff field to eight teams with the introduction of the wild card in 1995.
Since 1995, the Lakers have made the playoffs 16 of 17 times. The Clippers have qualified twice, the Golden State Warriors once.
The NBA also has a lockout. Baseball's system is far from perfect, but the sport has enjoyed labor peace since owners gave up on a salary cap and boosted revenue sharing.
The sport also goes in cycles. This story would not have appeared two years ago, when the playoff field included five teams among the nine biggest spenders.
The bigger spenders always will have a better chance. The lesser spenders have a chance, and that might be as good as it gets for this commissioner.
"We have reduced the disparity," Selig said. "We have come a long way."