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June 12, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

The Return of Races

by Joe Sheehan

Without getting into a diatribe about the post-1993 setup of major league baseball, it's not unreasonable to say that the seasons since the 1994 strike have lacked a certain tension. In most years, there have been just a few even moderately close races, and the wild-card berth has sapped the drama from a couple of battles that would have otherwise been very interesting.

This year, however, it looks like we could have some great drama right down to the end of the season. With the Yankees and Indians returning to mortal levels, and the improvement in their chief rivals (and, quietly, the team right behind that team) both the AL East and AL Central are hotly contested and should be right down the stretch. And as with the National League in 1999, the four teams are likely to be close enough in record that they will essentially be playing for three playoff spots among them.

Meanwhile, as we pointed out in last week's AL West Notebook, that division is separated by just a handful of games top to bottom. Even if the Angels and Rangers do begin to fall back, as expected, the A's and Mariners are evenly matched and could go down to the last week of the season--or later--before deciding the crown.

The National League hasn't had the lack of excitement we've seen in the AL the past few years, and 2000 shapes up as another good year. While the Braves are the class of the league again, the Central is a two-team race--two-and-a-half to those of us still waiting on an Astro renaissance--and the NL West has the makings of a three-team scramble. A three-team race is something we haven't seen in some time, and would add another element to a pennant race that is already a bit tweaked by the wild card.

One of the best things about baseball is that it goes through cycles, albeit irregular and unpredictable ones. Offense dominates, then pitching does. Power, then speed. Strategies evolve and then come back around. There is a period of parity, then one in which a few teams dominate.

For all the rantings of the Chicken Littles, the evidence that baseball was a sport to be inevitably dominated by the nominal large-market teams was a bit scanty: about six seasons, if you want to count 1994. For the 15 years prior, baseball had actually been a striking example of parity; almost random sequences of teams winning divisions and pennants and World Series titles. And this followed a stretch of dynasties and near-dynasties. The 1970s gave us the Big Red Machine and Charlie Finley's A's and George Steinbrenner's Yankees and Earl Weaver's Orioles.

Maybe, just maybe, it's time for the Indians and Yankees and Astros to be shoved aside in favor of the White Sox and Red Sox and Cardinals. And maybe in 2001, it will be the Royals and Blue Jays and Pirates. And before you know it, it will be like 1984 again. You remember 1984, don't you? That was the year in which none of the four teams in the playoffs had been there the year before. And of those four teams, only one made the playoffs in 1985.

Cycles. Not revenue streams, not new parks, not market size. I won't say it's the perfect explanation, but the argument has as much a place at the table as anything involving the sky falling.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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