Commentary: The Unwanted of October

The pitching may be lacking, but there has been no shortage of irony in baseball's postseason. In Anaheim, Calif., on Oct. 5, a bunch of scrappy but largely unknown Angels shocked the shoes off New York's millionaires-in-pinstripes to advance to the American League Championship Series. Angel Shawn Wooten, whose fifth-inning homer ignited the rally that doomed the Yankees, gets $250,000 a year. Winning pitcher Jarrod Washburn makes $350,000 a year--about what losing pitcher David Wells takes home every two months.

And there's more. The gold-plated Yanks got had by a club whose owner, Walt Disney Co., would be in Fantasyland if a buyer made an offer for all the bats, balls, and players.

In Minnesota, where not so long ago baseball was being talked of in the past tense, the Twins took a shovelful of irony and force-fed it to Commissioner Bud Selig. At the end of last season, you may recall, the Twins were one of the teams targeted by the Commish in his aborted plan to shut down two clubs. Fired up by enraged fans, the Twins dominated their division and earned a spot in the ALCS by besting Oakland.

And isn't it ironic that one of the two teams heading for the World Series will be from the have-not camp, whose supposed financial inability to compete almost shut down the season? The Angels have a $62 million payroll and Minnesota $40 million--less than a third what the Yankees pay for players.

It's not just the Yankees, though, that crashed to earth. The Diamondbacks, which also sport a payroll north of $100 million, made a hasty exit from the playoffs. And like a lot of free-spending teams, Arizona needed postseason play to break even or make a small profit. The D-backs' edge-of-your-seat Series win over the Yanks last year meant $20 million in added attendance, corporate sponsorship, and merchandise. Without that hit this year, the team will post an operating loss of about $30 million.

Despite a $94 million payroll, the Los Angeles Dodgers will likely lose more than $30 million this year, too. In the National League, Atlanta had to make it to the Series simply to break even. "For brand awareness alone, getting to the postseason is everything," says sports-marketing consultant David Carter.

If nothing else, the Angels and Twins demonstrated that there is another way to win besides overspending for talent and then praying for a postseason bailout. The trick is to find up-and-coming players who are hungry to win but don't cost too much--and then "suffer through the indignity of losing seasons" as they learn the game, says former Twins Executive Vice President Clark Griffith.

It probably doesn't hurt if the team builds a little fire in the belly by being put on the block or threatened with extinction. For one shining moment this season, that's the story of the Angels and the Twins--bargains with more heart than payroll.

By Ronald Grover

With Ciro Scotti

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