Every day this spring a battalion of protein drinks spiked with the muscle-enhancing supplement creatine awaited the New York Yankees after they ended their workouts in Tampa. The white Styrofoam cups with red straws poking through the lids were lined up on a table in the clubhouse like soldiers awaiting inspection. One afternoon, as his players snatched up all the cups, the most powerful of Yankees sucked on his shake while admonishing a clubhouse attendant. "Next time make sure you have a few more made up," said owner George Steinbrenner, dressed in his own uniform of blue blazer and white turtle-neck. "Better to have too much than not enough."
So there you have it. The perfect metaphor (albeit a mixed one) for what has happened to baseball near the end of this millennium: The owner of the game's richest team is downing souped-up shakes that promise to make him even bigger. Steinbrenner knows that baseball has become a big man's game-as surely as it belongs to men named Piazza (240 pounds), McGwire (250 pounds), Bichette (260 pounds) and Thomas (270 pounds), it belongs to men named Jacobs ($62 million payroll), Turner ($65 million), Angelos ($67 million) and, yes, Steinbrenner (more than $70 million). Like never before, baseball is about being buff. Anybody hoping to get to the World Series had better come to play with plenty of muscle and plenty of money. Better to have too much than not enough.
Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza gained 20 pounds over the winter lifting weights at a gym in Venice Beach, Calif. Baltimore Orioles DH Harold Baines added creatine to his diet as well as a supplement containing fish oil to lubricate his creaking 39-year-old knees. Tampa Bay Devil Rays third baseman Wade Boggs, who turns 40 in June, took creatine while bulking up with heavy weights for the first time in his career. (Yep, Wade Boggs, the slap hitter who's done more for singles than any man except Chuck Woolery.)
This is an awful time for a team to be short on pitching. We are in the greatest home run era in history—the last four years are among the top five seasons for home runs per game. (The other, second on the list, was the freakish '87 season.) This year holds the promise of breaking more records than were shattered on Bill Veeck's Disco Demolition Night, because it's also an expansion year, and the arrival of the Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks has forced into service 22 pitchers who should be either retired or in the minors.
The impact is predictable. In each of the past five expansion years, there were nearly uniform increases in home runs, batting average, walks and ERA, with dingers going up the most on average. The results will be even more dramatic this season, not only because this is the second expansion within six years but also because hitters have never been stronger or more power-conscious. Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, who slugged 44 home runs last year, spent November chugging creatine and lifting weights. He added 12 pounds in a month and now looks more like a blacksmith than a baseball player.
The season's defining moment will take place in Denver on July 6, when the home run hitting contest will be held in conjunction with the All-Star Game at Coors Field, the most homer-happy park in baseball. Unless the rules are changed—say, the ball must land in the upper deck to be counted as a home run-that baseball show might drag on longer than Titanic.
Coors Field is the perfect backdrop for such excess, because a select group of high-revenue-producing stadiums like it have stratified baseball like never before. What division you're in doesn't matter much anymore, not with wild cards creating open competition for playoff spots and three rounds of postseason play guaranteeing the occasional Cinderella team a date with a big, ugly large-revenue club. All that matters is a team's willingness to spend money, which, as you'll find in the scouting reports that follow, is what really separates the contenders from the rest of the pack. Talk about radical realignment: Forget, as we did, about East, Central and West, and check out the payrolls instead.
The five biggest spenders last year all made the postseason, leaving just three playoff spots for the remaining 23 teams. The three clubs who got those spots each spent at least $33 million—and each was gone from the postseason quicker than footprints in the sand at high tide. The exemplar of this trend is Wayne Huizenga, the owner of the Florida Marlins, who bought himself a world championship last year and then decided that he'd paid too high a price.
"It may not seem that long ago that Oakland, Minnesota and Kansas City were World Series teams," says Athletics president Sandy Alderson. "But that's ancient history. The dynamics of the game are drastically different from what they were 10 years ago—even five years ago. The change is easily explained: It was the construction of stadiums with public money coupled with the drop in TV money after the last CBS contract." Almost overnight, the poor got poorer, and the rich got a lot richer.
As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, those clubs in between are the most foolhardy. They are the ones spending enough money to dream of a pennant but not enough to compete with the big-revenue clubs. They might as well drop the money on lottery tickets. "If you're not spending $50 million, then you probably ought to cut way back," says Montreal Expos general manager Jim Beattie. "That middle ground is quicksand. I'm not sure why anyone would want to be there."