Baseball: Strike-free season to savour could see Oakland secure overdue Series

The Anaheim Angels have not even received their 2002 World Series rings, and their parent company, Walt Disney, is trying to sell the homespun team that provided one of baseball's biggest surprises in decades. On the other side of the continent, the New York Yankees have disdainfully greeted the new luxury tax that was supposed to even things out between the richest and poorest clubs – by raising their 2003 payroll to an all-time record $160m (£103m).

Welcome to America's national pastime on the eve of a new season, notable above all for what will not happen. The Yankees may climb to the top of the greasy pole again. Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, and Rafael Palmeiro, of the Texas Rangers, are sure to join the exclusive 500 club for career home runs. Barring injury, the Yankees' Roger Clemens should get the seven wins he needs to join the even more restricted group of 300 game winners.

But, to everyone's profound relief, there will not be a players' strike. That potentially mortal threat to the game's popularity was removed by the labour contract agreement in extremis last August, as both players' union and owners peered into the financial abyss and stepped back. So on Sunday night, the Angels will take on the Rangers in the opening game of a season that will culminate in the play-offs and World Series.

Baseball has suffered a financial implosion to rival that of English football – and for much the same reason: excessive salaries. Under the labour deal, no franchise will be eliminated. But most clubs lose money hand over fist (the Angels some $16m in 2002) and the terminally sickly Montreal Expos will almost certainly move – perhaps to Washington DC – later this year. None the less, on the field this may be a season to savour, when one of baseball's perennial underachievers finally delivers the goods.

The obligatory starting point, as usual, is New York. On paper the Yankees should win the American League East. But this may at last be the moment of their most bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox, without a World Series since Babe Ruth moved to New York in 1918.

Ditto in the National League, where the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros are favoured to win the Eastern and Central divisions respectively.

But maybe not. The long-mediocre Philadelphia Phillies have had a makeover, hiring Jim Thome, one of baseball's most feared sluggers, from Cleveland, and turning themselves into serious challengers to the Braves. In the Central, bold souls whisper that having acquired one of baseball's most esteemed managers in Dusty Baker, the Chicago Cubs could make the post-season.

The Cubs? They have not won a world championship since 1908 – a failure which prompted one long-suffering Cubs manager to take the long view, and muse that "Hey, any team can have a bad century".

Success, too, would traumatise their masochistic fans. But why not? In the end, however, the 2003 world championship may well end up on the West Coast, in the overdue possession of the Oakland Athletics. In the regular season, the A's topped the Angels last year in the AL West, thanks to ferocious pitching, and solid hitting through the order. The Angels may find it tougher to win their division than the Series itself.

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