Most of the players get it—and get into it. In the homes of true zealots like Tom Lehman, children are taught essential history. It goes something like this: "The Ryder Cup is a biennial competition between American and European touring golf professionals. Because of the widespread availability of pasteurized milk in the U.S., the American team dominated the competition for decades. Since 1985, due to an improbable run of luck, the European team has won four times and tied once, while the Americans have triumphed only twice."
This week the three-day event comes to a place simply and grandly called the Country Club, in the leafy Boston suburb of Brookline, and the U.S. team is being deservedly exalted. Leading off for the Americans is the incomparable Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world. Among his 11 teammates are David Duval (No. 2), Davis Love (4), Payne Stewart (8), Mark O'Meara (11) and Justin Leonard (12). The European team includes Jean Van de Velde, the swinging Frenchman, his Irish buddy Padraig Harrington and a couple of Swedes with names you can only wish were approved Scrabble words. No wonder London oddsmakers have made the Americans 3-1 favorites.
But the rankings get spat out each Monday by a computer, while the Ryder Cup competitors are men with brains, lungs, stomachs, nervous systems, dry mouths, wet palms. In the weekly 72-hole stroke-play tournaments that decide the rankings, each player tries to kill par—first to 20-under wins. But Ryder Cup competition is a series of 18-hole match-play affairs, and in a mere 18 holes anything can happen. The better player doesn't always win. Neither does the better team. Ask any American who played on the last two Ryder Cup teams and he'll tell you the Euros can win this week.
Once upon a time the National League looked so disdainfully upon the American League that the N.L.-champ New York Giants refused to play the 1904 World Series. There was a time when American League people spoke angrily of a National League superiority complex; a time when the All-Star Game was a gauge for which league had the better talent; and a time when the leagues had different pitching styles and different strike zones.
Even today the two leagues have a few differences over rules, notably the designated hitter, but otherwise the American-National schism is all but over. It ended last week in Cooperstown, N.Y., where major league owners voted 30-0 to eliminate the positions of National and American League presidents. The brick and mortar at the Hall of Fame withstood the decision. "It's something that should have been done years ago," said commissioner Bud Selig, who calls separate but equal leagues "an anachronism."
It took a whole century—O.K., just the past six years—to complete the homogenization of the leagues. American League president Gene Budig, who accepted a golden-parachute position in the commissioner's office, and National League president Leonard Coleman, who quit rather than be stripped of his authority, were thrown overboard in baseball's quest to imitate the NBA and NFL. Whoever heard of an AFC president?
In voting to eliminate the league presidencies, major league owners continued the trend toward centralizing authority in the commissioner's office. Selig and his top lieutenants, Sandy Alderson and Paul Beeston, will oversee scheduling, umpiring and player discipline—matters formerly handled by the leagues. Umpires might soon be assigned to games in either league, and Selig's signature presumably will grace balls in both leagues. Most fans won't notice the difference.
Nostalgia aside, Selig made the right move. Even club executives Bill Giles of the Phillies and Andy MacPhail of the Cubs—sons of former league presidents—congratulated him in Cooperstown. But it's the right move only because owners have spent a decade emasculating the leagues through interleague play, realignment, rotisserie-style player movement and expansion.
Baseball will wisely continue to keep league records while working on a schedule for 2001 that will revitalize intradivisional rivalries. But this one-big-happy-world movement makes it all the more asinine for the leagues to play by different rules. (Flash: AFC to play 12 on 12!) Selig's work won't be done until he gets owners and players to agree to dump the DH, an experiment begun in 1973 because—get this—baseball needed more offense. What could be more anachronistic?