Baseball: The American dream thrives on a level paying field - Others - More Sports - The Independent

Baseball: The American dream thrives on a level paying field

Forget the Olympics, and forget the rumbles of distant thunder from the NFL. Gridiron may be America's sport of the 21st century, but right now it is still confined to the training camps as teams prepare in the scorching summer heat for the new season a month away. Basketball and hockey too are dormant. Here in the United States this is baseball's unshared moment. And 2008 is a year to be savoured.

Across the leagues attendances are soaring – even here in Washington, where an average of 30,000 turn out to watch the pitiful Nationals, current owners of the worst record in baseball. No longer does the sport labour under the incubus of Barry Bonds, the steroid-fuelled home-run king. The San Francisco Giants refused to re-sign him for 2008, and no one else was interested. This year fewer home runs are being hit, suggesting that baseball's drug problem has been contained, if not eradicated. Best of all, the pennant races are upending predictions.

Thus far the teams have been playing for show. But now, in the two-month push to make the October play-offs and the World Series, every game matters. Usually the script can be written in advance: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox continue their private duel in the American League East; in the rival National League, Atlanta, St Louis and Los Angeles will be there or thereabouts. Not necessarily this year.

In the AL East, the upstart Tampa Bay Rays sit on top of the heap, relegating New York and Boston to an unaccustomed contest for second place. This from a franchise founded only in 1998 and which has finished last in the division every year but one thereafter. Imagine Wigan or West Bromwich leaving Manchester United and Chelsea in their wake.

But that pales beside developments in the National League. Not since 1908 have the Chicago Cubs won the Series ("Anyone can have a bad century," one recent manager lamented). But at the time of writing they lead the NL Central by five games. Part of the reason, beyond doubt, is the redoubtable Cubs manager "Sweet" Lou Piniella, who has no time for the sentimental mish-mash that accompanies baseball's most beloved bunch of losers.

You think a Sir Alex Ferguson meltdown is scary? Just watch the volcanic Lou, all six feet-something of him, smoking with fury, belly and head pushing into some wretched umpire he is berating for a bad call against the Cubs. No manager is thrown out of as many games as Piniella, but there is no doubting his all-consuming will to win.

The surprising Cubs and Rays are also proof of another of baseball's enduring charms – that so many teams can win. There are 30 teams in the AL and NL, whose respective champions take on each other in the World Series. This year half of them are within five games of the division lead, and thus with a legitimate shot at the play-offs. Such competitiveness is lost to the big European football leagues. To be sure, baseball and the other major US sports, with their strictly controlled total of franchises, do not have the knife-edged tension of promotion and relegation battles. In return, however, they offer equality and genuine uncertainty.

Just ask the Yankees, the richest franchise. Their 2008 players' payroll is $210m (£106m), about five times that of the Rays. Most years (though not this) they spend even more before the 31 July trading deadline. But money does not buy happiness. The last spell of supremacy for the franchise of Ruth and Di Maggio was the second half of the 1990s. Since 2001 six different teams have won the World Series, including the Florida Marlins, only in existence since 1993. The Rays or Cubs could provide a seventh.

True, anything can happen in a short best-of-five or best-of-seven play-off series. But that does not explain the equality and the unpredictability. To make the play-offs you first have to qualify via a six-month, 162-game regular season which permits of no flukes. The real reason is that, quite unlike the Premier League, baseball and the other US sports try to level the playing field.

One mechanism is the annual draft of college and high school players into the professional leagues, whereby the worst teams get the first picks, whom they can keep for several years before the selected players become eligible for free agency (transfer). The other is a system of revenue sharing that levies a payroll tax on big spenders like the Yankees, then redistributes it to poorer teams that lack the huge TV and merchandising revenues of the big boys. This is far from perfect. But it allows everyone to dream. And this year, a couple of very odd dreams might just come true.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are curr...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week