Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Decade of Parity and History

In western historical terms, there was no year '0', so most people realize that an official decade truly runs from the year ending in '1' through the 10th year.

This means that 2001 opened the true first year, and the recent 2010 season ended the final year of the first decade of the 21st century.

For all of the talk about payrolls in baseball and a fear of competitive imbalance, here is the bottom line fact as it relates to that recently completed first decade: 9 different teams won the World Series.

The only franchise that was able to win multiple World Series titles was the one that opened the decade with a supposed jinx or curse, one that hadn't won in 90 years. That franchise was the Boston Red Sox, who won in 2004 and then again took the crown in 2007.

League or Divisional assignments didn't matter this past decade either. The two leagues evenly split the World Series victories at 5 apiece, and teams from every division won titles. The Phillies ('08) and Marlins ('03) from the N.L. East, the Cardinals ('06) from the N.L. Central, the Diamondbacks ('01) and Giants ('10) from the N.L. West gave the National League 5 titles. In addition to Boston's two titles, the Yankees ('09) joined from the A.L. East, the White Sox ('05) won from the A.L. Central, and the Angels ('02) from the A.L. West to give the American League 5 titles as well.


The Yankees did begin the decade by dominating their A.L. East division, winning the first 6 crowns. But Boston won in '07, and the Tampa Bay Rays have won 2 of the last 3 seasons. In the A.L. Central, the small-market Minnesota Twins won 6 of the 10 division titles, with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox winning twice each. In the A.L. West, the Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels won 5 crowns, the Oakland A's took 3, and both Seattle and Texas won once each. In addition, the Detroit Tigers made the playoffs as a Wildcard team during the decade.

In the N.L., the Phillies have won the last 4 straight titles, and the Atlanta Braves won the decade's first 5 crowns. In between, the New York Mets won once.
 The N.L. Central has seen the Saint Louis Cardinals take 5 titles, with the Chicago Cubs winning 3, and with Houston and Cincinnati each winning once. The N.L. West has been the definition of parity with the LA Dodgers (3), Arizona Diamondbacks (3), San Francisco Giants (2) and San Diego Padres (2) all taking titles. Add playoff Wildcard appearances by Florida, Colorado and Milwaukee, and the N.L. has been even more up for grabs than their A.L. counterparts.

The true bottom line for building and keeping a winning, title-contending team over the past decade has not so much been the 'bottom line' of finance, but the always decisive bottom line of talent evaluation and sound decision-making. A strong organization with responsible ownership, the right talent evaluators, skilled coaches, and fearless management makes the final difference almost every time. That was proven over the past decade, despite the varied revenue opportunities of baseball's franchises.

The decade brought us incredible, historical moments. In that first year, there was the response to the attacks on America on September 11th, 2001. Baseball rightly took a step back by cancelling all games for a week. It also came back at the correct time. On Monday night, September 17th, I was blessed and humbled to be in the stands at Veteran's Stadium in Philadelphia with my wife and a capacity crowd as the Phillies met the Atlanta Braves on that first night back. A night of flag-waving, tear-flowing patriotism that signalled we would not be beaten, would not be laid low. We would carry on, strongly and proudly. It was one of the most memorable evenings in my entire life.

The post-9/11 World Series that year featured the Yankees, carrying the prayers and hearts of not only New Yorkers but of many in America with them, against the Arizona Diamondbacks featuring the incredible 1-2 pitching punch of Curt Schilling and Randy 'The Big Unit' Johnson. The Yanks were ultimately beaten in one of the most memorable series of all-time when Arizona's Luis Gonzalez blooped a series-winning, bases loaded single off legendary closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game #7.

That 2001 baseball season was also highlighted by Barry Bonds record-setting 73 homeruns. In 2002, Bonds would be around for the Fall Classic when for the 2nd straight season the World Series went the full 7-game distance. And for the 2nd consecutive season it was a franchise winning it's first-ever championship as the Anaheim Angels, to the crack of their fans red 'boom sticks' and the antics of a scoreboard controlled 'Rally Monkey' rallied from a 3 games to 2 deficit, and a 5-0 deficit late in Game #6, to defeat Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.

Those would be the last two World Series of the decade that would go the distance. In fact, 6 of the last 7 World Series have been decided in 5 games or less. In 2003, the Florida Marlins won perhaps the decade's least likely title, upsetting the Yankees in 6 games behind the stellar pitching of young ace Josh Beckett.

The 2004 season provided true baseball history. First came the ALCS, where the Yankees bolted ahead of the Red Sox to a 3 games to none lead. The Bosox then began the greatest comeback in MLB history, taking a pair of extra-innings contests to get back into the series.

In Game #6, Curt Schilling miraculously took the mound, overcoming a serious ankle injury. He did so with guts, gumption, and some help from the medical staff in what would become known in baseball lore as the now-legendary "Bloody Sock" game (pictured.)

Schilling pitched them to the series tie, and the Bosox throttled the Yanks in the 7th game, completing baseball's first-ever and still only rally from an 0-3 series deficit. The Sox went on to sweep the World Series and put to rest the ghost of the 9-decades old "Curse of the Bambino".

In 2005 another long-running streak of futility came to an end as the Chicago White Sox would win their first World Series crown in a half-century. Led by colorful manager Ozzie Guillen, the Chisox swept the Houston Astros for the title. The Astros were participating in the first-ever World Series for the franchise. It remains their only appearance.

As of the end of the decade, neither the Seattle Mariners or Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) franchises have ever appeared in the World Series. In addition to Houston, Seattle and Washington, the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers have yet to win a World Series.

The Saint Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, led by Albert Pujols, who was perhaps the decade's greatest individual player. Pujols was the NL's Rookie of the Year in 2001 as the decade began. He was an All-Star every year except 2002. He was a 3-time NL MVP, 6-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award, 2-time Gold Glove Award winner, and won homerun, batting and rbi titles during the decade. He slugged 408 homeruns, ripped 1,900 total hits, and batted a lofty .331 over the totality of the decade. By decade's end, he would be selected by both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News as the sport's 'Player of the Decade' honoree.

After the Red Sox were led by manager Terry Francona to their 2nd World Series crown of the decade in 2007, it was Francona's old team, the Philadelphia Phillies, who would put an entire city's futility to an end in the 2008 World Series. With the weight of a quarter-century of pro sports teams not winning a league championship in any major sport, by far the longest such streak of futility in the nation, the Phillies used a homegrown core of players in Jimmy 'JRoll' Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, Pat Burrell, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Madson, and NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels to end the streak.

The Phillies had a 3 games to 1 lead on the young and talented Tampa Bay Rays heading into Game #5 at Citizens Bank Park. The game began under a threat of rain, and that threat turned to reality as the game got underway. By the middle innings the night had deteriorated into monsoon-like conditions. With the two teams tied and the field reduced to water and mud piles, the umpires finally called the proceedings off and delayed the game.

What then ensued was a 48-hour period where baseball waited out the suddenly rainy period that had deluged the Philly area. Finally, after that 2-day delay, the game was resumed as the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the 6th with the score tied at 1-1. The Phils retook the lead, Tampa tied it again, the Phils went ahead yet again and took a 3-2 lead into the top of the 9th. When Brad Lidge finally slipped a changeup past Tampa Bay's Eric Hinske and into Ruiz' glove for a final strike, the Phils closer sunk to his knees as legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas exulted: "The Philadelphia Phillies are 2010 world champions of baseball!"

The Phillies would return to the World Series the following year led by mostly the same group, but bolstered by a pair of big-game pitching pickups in Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. But there they met a formidable New York Yankees club that had been bolstered themselves by major free agent acquisitions Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia. Together with multi-talented and controversial 3rd baseman Alex 'ARod' Rodriguez, perhaps the decades 2nd greatest player behind only Albert Pujols, and their own homegrown core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano and Andy Pettitte, the Yanks took down the Phils in six tough games.

As the decade has come to a close over the past year, one thing that has stood out to many has been a clear changing of the guard. The decade began with players like Ken Griffey Jr., Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar and others dominating play. But most of those players were now either gone or on their way out.

The new guard of players making their debuts at the Major League level over the past few seasons is perhaps defined and highlighted right now by the smallish, mop-haired, snaggle-toothed pitcher with the funky delivery who starts every 5th game for the San Francisco Giants.

Righthander Tim 'the Freak' Lincecum won the National League Cy Young Award as the league's top pitcher in each of his first two seasons of 2008 and 2009. In 2010 he would take it a step further, leading his Giants to their first World Series championship in more than a half-century, the first ever in the 'City by the Bay' since the club moved from New York in the 1950's.

The past decade has brought us through many big stories and emotional moments. From New York and 9/11, to the controversy of Barry Bonds record-setting achievements. From the Congressional hearings on substance abuse in baseball at mid-decade, to a pair of World Baseball Classic tournaments that brought the best players from all over the planet together under the banners and for the glory of their individual nations, the game has rolled on and grown stronger. It is perhaps fitting that one of the decade's greatest stories, and greatest players, led his nation to victories in both of those WBC tournaments as Ichiro Suzuki and Japan took home both titles.

Ichiro was just one of the big stars of the decade that included the previously mentioned greatness of Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. There were so many others at the plate besides those already mentioned, from Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in Boston to the 'M & M Boys", Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, in Minnesota. The bats of Vlad Guerrero, Jeff Kent, Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, and others boomed.

Besides the previously noted, there were the arms of Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson, Jamey Moyer and Trevor Hoffman befuddling and blowing away the batters.

The beginning of the next decade looms off in the distance of the ending of the long winter ahead. Where will it lead us? Will phenoms like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper help Washington to finally get to the World Series at some point in the next ten years? Can the Mariners finally get there?

What kinds of numbers will Albert Pujols end up with? Will A-Rod break Bonds all-time homerun record, and will it be considered as tainted as Bonds own breaking of Hank Aaron's career record was by many? Will Bonds himself reach the Hall of Fame? All of these, and so many others that we can't now even imagine, await us in baseball's next decade.

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