The level of paranoia over the payroll advantage and success enjoyed by the New York Yankees could not have been higher by rivals and baseball fans a decade ago.
The 2004 All-Star Game was played in Houston. The Yankees had played in six of the previous eight World Series, winning in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The fact Arizona (2001) and Florida (2003) had managed to prevent two more Yankees titles were seen as a triumph for all, including American League fans.
In December 2002, the Yankees had signed outfielder Hideki Matsui from Japan and pitcher Jose Contreras from Cuba for a combined $53 million, causing Red Sox president Larry Lucchino to utter his comment:
“The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.’’
The Yankees were 55-31 and eight games better than the next-best in AL when the all-stars arrived in Houston in July 2004.
There were 34 players listed as AL All-Stars and eight were Yankees, including starters Alex Rodriguez at third, Derek Jeter at shortstop and Jason Giambi at first base.
At that moment, there seemed little chance the reverse the cynicism that this country’s sporting public felt about baseball’s competitive situation. The idea that as long as the Yankees lost somewhere along the line that the season was successful wasn’t a healthy sales pitch.
On Tuesday night, the 85th All-Star Game was played at Target Field. There were two Yankees among the 34 AL All-Stars: Jeter, starting at shortstop as a tribute to his career rather than current performance, and young set-up reliever Dellin Betances.
The Oakland A’s were the team with the most players in the All-Star Game with six. There was a good reason for this: the A’s carried baseball’s best record into the break at 59-36.
The A’s occupy the most-dreadful stadium in the major leagues. Not only are they stuck in that coliseum … the A’s are the only big-league team to share a facility with an NFL team.
Oakland has hit on outstanding young pitching and put together a lineup with a number of spare parts. And now the A’s were going to have to ride it out with what they had because of limited financial resources, right?
There has been one major move by a contender this month. It came on July 4, with the A’s acquiring prized starter Jeff Samardzija, plus starter Jason Hammel, from the Cubs – mainly for shortstop Addison Russell, Oakland’s best prospect.
This is a wonderful turn of events: Oakland, second banana in its market, occupant of the last vestige of those dreadful, multi-team circle stadiums, going for it. And the A’s doing so while the Yankees wallow at 47-47, with nothing to celebrate other than Jeter’s final season.
Something grand has happened with baseball in the past decade. Some credit goes to Commissioner Bud Selig’s aggressive push for sizable revenue sharing. Some credit goes to the ability to find players in more places – be it increased emphasis on the Caribbean, or increased accuracy in selecting prime draftees, or finding 26-year-olds who can contribute under a rock.
There’s another theory I can embrace that was offered during a conversation with ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian on Tuesday.
“The general managers and scouts I talk to say the same thing: ‘It’s a young man’s game,’ ‘’ Kurkjian said. “The athletes coming into the game are more advanced than ever.’’
There was tremendous hope on the field for numerous teams in Sunday’s Futures Game. The Cubs, America’s sad sacks, had Javier Baez – a middle infielder – thumping a ball to Target Field’s mammoth right-center field and quickly going into a home run jog (he was right). The Texas Rangers, with the worst record in baseball at the break, had Joey Gallo win the game for the U.S. team with a long home run.
More young men of huge potential, power hitters and power pitchers, are on the way … and there’s enough testing being done to make the game’s followers confident that 95 percent of what you see is real and not artificially created.
The old method, signing successful 30-year-olds to big contracts and perhaps with PED regimens in their past, worked very well. But now there’s testing, and huge consequences when caught, and the vets are finding the young men of baseball tough to contain.