In battle of upwardly mobile, baseball wins
Shrewd long-term planning, foresight built division winners
No matter which of these two teams wins, the game of baseball cannot lose.
The National League Division Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers that begins Saturday at Miller Park provides all kinds of testimony on behalf of the notion of upward mobility in Major League Baseball.
Obviously, neither of these franchises can produce anything like the revenues of the Yankees or the Red Sox. But baseball's economic playing field has been leveled to the point where shrewd decision-making, astute scouting and diligent player development can transform a losing team into a division winner.
And in the case of these two franchises, this can happen, if not overnight, certainly in the space of one season.
The D-backs transformed their pitching staff, which was 15th in the NL in earned run average in 2010. Arizona allowed pitchers such as Ian Kennedy, now a genuine Cy Young contender, and 16-game-winner Daniel Hudson, to mature. The free-agent signing of closer J.J. Putz was another masterstroke. The D-backs' improvement has been dramatic, all the way from worst to first.
The D-backs lost 92 games in 2009, then 97 games in 2010. They weren't seen as a particular threat coming into this season, but the pitching improved dramatically, and on offense, they demonstrated a winning blend of power and speed. Manager Kirk Gibson has his club playing an aggressive brand of baseball. There should be little doubt that Gibson will be the 2011 National League Manager of the Year. He has changed the culture, the expectations, the results, for that matter.
So this is a success story of a club not automatically blessed with an abundance of financial resources rising through the standings with astonishing speed. It is a good story for baseball, in much the same way that the Tampa Bay Rays reaching the World Series in 2008 was beneficial for the game.
On the Milwaukee side of this pleasant equation, we have the smallest media market in the Major Leagues. There isn't anything the Brewers can do about that, bounded as the market is by Chicago on the south and Lake Michigan to the east.
The difficulties of competing in this environment are illustrated clearly by the fact that the Brewers went 26 years between postseason appearances and 29 years between division championships. What they had to do was provide a fan-friendly environment and a highly competitive team. They did both, first with the building of Miller Park, with its retractable roof that keeps the customers from the Wisconsin chill in both early and late-season games. And then they built a productive farm system that could make a winner in even the smallest of small markets.
Thus, the Brewers drew more than 3 million people in three of the last four seasons, in a small market, in a difficult economy. Their prospects turned out to be players such as Most Valuable Player candidates Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and emerging ace Yovani Gallardo.
And their prospects turned out to the lures that would bring them starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and reliever Francisco Rodriguez. The Brewers ranked 14th in the NL in ERA last season. But by using their wealth of prospects as trade bait, they managed to make their own giant strides in pitching improvement.
So this is another story that is all positive for the game. With the advent of greater revenue sharing and the luxury tax, the revenues haven't been anything like equalized among the 30 franchises, but there has been a trend toward greater competitive balance, greater parity.
This is both good for the game as a competitive endeavor and good for the business side, because it broadens the opportunities for success, thus drawing more fans to more franchises.
So the D-backs and the Brewers become doubly good. They are worthy postseason teams. There was six months' worth of baseball to demonstrate that. Both became division winners, and the verdict wasn't particularly close in either case.
These clubs also fit in a symbolic way. They represent the notion that by making the right decisions and staying the course, you can rise up off the deck and succeed on your own terms. And you don't have to be one of the financial giants of the game to do it.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.