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The last World Series, though a sweep, was the most watched Fall Classic since 1995, including a 44% jump in teenage male viewers from the previous year. XM Satellite radio is paying Major League Baseball $650 million over the next 11 years to broadcast games.
Baseball is enjoying the rare synchronicity of its three most storied franchises--the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox--winning at the same time. Each has won at least 88 games in the same back-to-back years for the first time ever. They finished one-three-four last year as the game's top road attractions, with Bonds's Giants second.
The Yankees' largesse is enriching other clubs as well as their own players. One out of every 10 fans who purchased a major league baseball ticket last year watched the Bronx Bombers play. The Yankees spent about $88 million in revenue-sharing and luxury-tax payments to be shared by the other 29 teams in '04.
The system even put the brakes on the Yankees' spending, though it took a $195 million payroll for owner George Steinbrenner to put away his checkbook. New York decided it could not afford ace lefthander Randy Johnson and centerfielder Carlos Beltran last winter, so the Yankees traded for Johnson and watched Beltran sign across town with the Mets for $119 million, though Beltran offered to take $19 million less to come to the Bronx.
"Pitching wins championships," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says. "And looking at Beltran, $100 million became $140 million because of the [40%] luxury tax. We'll pay Randy Johnson about as much over the next three years as the tax alone on Beltran would have been."
Awash with new cash from revenue sharing, satellite radio and, for many clubs, new ballparks, owners jumped off their fiscal diet of the last two winters and went on an old-fashioned spending spree. Contracts of at least four years were given to 15 players--up from five the previous winter. Shaken Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, whose biggest off-season signing was outfielder Ben Grieve to a minor league contract, wondered if his brethren had consumed "some funny water."
Prohibition is over. The owners shelled out more than $1 billion on free agents, including $491 million by four teams that each lost at least 90 games last year: the Mets, Diamondbacks, Tigers and Mariners. They can dream, can't they? More than one fourth (21 of 80) of the postseason teams since the wild-card system debuted in 1995 had a losing record the previous year, though only five went from 90 losses to the playoffs.
Yes, the Yankees and the Red Sox are still the axis of power, but the rest of baseball, particularly the National League, is balkanized. The league has sent a different team to the World Series seven years running; overall, 22 of the 30 clubs have made the playoffs in the 10-year history of the wild-card format.
"By any measure you choose," Selig says, "the game is more popular than it's ever been."
If, as Selig hopes, the focus remains on the field, the game will persevere. Roger Clemens needs two victories to surpass Steve Carlton as the winningest living pitcher. Former teammates Greg Maddux and Rafael Palmeiro could each answer to Mr. 3,000-- Maddux needing 84 strikeouts and Palmeiro 78 hits for the magic number. As many as five players could join the eight active sluggers in the 400-homer club; Andres Galarraga (399), Manny Ramirez (390), Alex Rodriguez (381), Mike Piazza (378) and Larry Walker (368) are all within striking distance. Sammy Sosa needs 26 homers for 600 and, having worn out his welcome with the Cubs, will attempt to hit them as a Baltimore Oriole.