They had the two highest payrolls entering the season, they accumulated the most victories in their respective leagues throughout the season, and they were heavily favored to win yet another postseason title just two and three years removed from their previous championships, respectively. Yet despite all the money, time, and effort invested in the 2011 season, the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies were sent packing before the second round of the playoffs.
Cue the sirens in Bud Selig’s office.
Whether it’s an “East-coast bias” or something else entirely, it is clear that the MLB spotlight shines brightest in the Northeastern United States. From the yearly off-season arms (and bats) race between the affluent Yankees and Boston Red Sox to the four-headed pitching monster residing in Philadelphia, the East is truly a beast to be reckoned with. And the sports media often dares reckon (perhaps too much so).
Take, for instance, Oct. 4, when all eight playoff contenders were in play in what was truly a baseball fan’s dream day.
In the day’s early game it was the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers attempting to close out the pesky Tampa Bay Rays. The Rangers succeeded, but only after star third basemen Adrian Beltre became just the sixth player ever to hit three solo home runs in a postseason game.
In the primetime game, it was the Yankees against the Detroit Tigers. Similar to their AL East rivals, the Yankees were on the verge of elimination and were relying on notoriously underachieving starting pitcher A.J. Burnett to keep their hopes alive. Perhaps just as shocking as Beltre’s three homers, Burnett delivered with 5.2 innings of one-run ball to help the Yankees cruise past the Tigers, 10-1, and force a Game 5 (that they would eventually lose) in the Bronx.
Each were great individual accomplishments and significant wins for the victorious parties, yet everyone would agree that Beltre’s three-homer game was the more impressive of the two.
Well, not quite everyone.
During ESPN’s SportsCenter following the full slate of games, the “Highlight of the Night” segment was awarded not to Beltre, or the Rangers for that matter — the only team to clinch a spot in the championship round that day — but was instead devoted to Burnett and his shaky five-plus innings of work. Such is life away from the East Coast, where the spotlight is not as bright and the wallets significantly more light.
So, when the Yankees and Phillies were bounced from postseason play last weekend — assuring a World Series hosted in the heart of the Midwest — fears of a ratings drop undoubtedly spread among MLB and its partners. But before baseball fans give up on a postseason now void of the Evil Empire and its National League counterpart, there are many storylines yet to unfold and reasons to continue watching deep into October.
The Texas Rangers
Although the Rangers represented the American League in last year’s World Series, this year’s Texas squad was no shoe-in to return this time around. Beginning with Cliff Lee’s departure for the Phillies during the off-season — another example of the rich getting richer — and reaching a low point with the tragic death of fan Shannon Stone — who perished shortly after falling over a railing and injuring his head in an attempt to catch a ball tossed by Rangers left fielder, Josh Hamilton — the Rangers faced their fair share of adversity in 2011. Yet despite this, the Rangers find themselves in familiar position thanks to a powerful offense and an efficient pitching staff that boasted a lower ERA than the group led by Cliff Lee did a season ago. With all that this team has been through, it would be quite an accomplishment if the Rangers could earn their first ever Commissioner’s Trophy later this month.
The Detroit Tigers
Despite failing to make the playoffs since winning the 2006 American League pennant, the Detroit Tigers represent a formidable foe for the Rangers and either National League squad that could be waiting in the World Series. Led by American League Cy Young favorite, Justin Verlander — whose 24 wins and 2.40 ERA were AL bests — the Tigers ran away with the American League Central in 2011, finishing 15 games ahead of the second place Cleveland Indians in the standings. While a title would be a nice achievement for this balanced squad and would help solidify Verlander as one of the game’s best, it would do even more for the city itself. Manager Jim Leyland has repeatedly acknowledged Detroit’s misfortune as an inspiration for his team’s on-the-field success, and a win would go a long way in helping to raise the spirits of the city’s troubled residents. Throw in the $74 million dollars that a World Series run would provide the city of Detroit with, according to Bloomberg News, and the Tigers have a real chance to transcend the sport and become true heroes this fall.
The Milwaukee Brewers
While on the topic of money, be sure to speak softly in the presence of the Brewers, who boast the lowest payroll of the remaining playoff teams. In fact, at $85,497,333, Milwaukee’s 2011 payroll represents just over 42 percent of the Yankees over-$200 million budget. The Brewers have no such shortage of talent, however, featuring a lineup of rising stars and veteran leaders highlighted by MVP candidates Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. This duo has taken the National League by storm in 2011, but the pair may be playing its final few games together before Fielder enters free agency in the off-season. Such is life for Milwaukee, which often develops and obtains talent only to see it poached by richer teams when the price tag gets too high. With perhaps just one shot at winning with its current roster, the Brewers are desperate to bring home the title, and desperate teams are always fun to watch.
The St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have been a staple in the playoffs over the years and have the second-most World Series titles to show for it, but 2011 was supposed to represent a drop-off from years past. A season ending injury to ace Adam Wainwright and failed contract negotiations with superstar Albert Pujols were just a few of the distractions facing the Cardinals at the season’s start, providing fans and experts with reason for doubt. The only ones not in doubt may have been the Cardinals players themselves, in fact. They didn’t give up when Pujols broke his wrist in June. They didn’t give up when they entered the last month of the season 8.5 games back of the NL Wild Card leading Atlanta Braves. And they didn’t give up when they faced the daunting task of playing the Phillies in the divisional round last week. So definitely don’t expect the Cardinals to give up now, just three games away from yet another World Series appearance. With Pujols’ future with the team in doubt and the roster aging, now might be as good a time as any for St. Louis to win title No. 11.
While Cliff Lee trades his glove for a rifle and takes to the woods to hunt and Derek Jeter sets off to find a girl that somehow tops Minka Kelly, let’s make sure not to follow in their footsteps (except Jeter’s, of course) and forget about the three weeks of baseball yet to be played. After all, there is a lot of intrigue remaining in the 2011 MLB Postseason and multiple ways in which it can all play out.