October 5, 2000

A Season of Surprises

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Even before the 2000 baseball season began it received bad press. The national pastime turned into the national joke. It was too predictable, the same teams win every year, the players are too greedy, the owners are too greedy, there are too many home runs, too little good pitching. Baseball disintegrated into a pasteurized, uninteresting compilation of stats.

The most troublesome ailment seems to be the growing disparity between the rich teams and the poor teams, hurting the sport more than any conspiracy of a juiced ball, inflated ticket prices or the amount of sluggers gulping hormone-infused shakes.

Everyone operated on the same formula for a championship team. The same teams always make the playoffs. Every sports journalist had a definitive list of who would surely advance into the postseason. The big question was whether the Red Sox would dethrone the Yankees in the AL championship. We had even planned out the division series.

The NL outlook was not much better. The Braves, Mets, Diamondbacks and Cardinals were going to the playoffs. Period.

This would all be capped by the annual meeting of Yankees and Braves in the World Series.

The season would be a season of predictions — it would have more homeruns, more strikeouts, a higher combined ERA and the same division leaders. About as exciting as an episode of Full House.

Well guess what, we were all wrong.

Now that we’re in October, this season has restored the faith of every sports cynic out there. Could it have been more exciting?

That money equals championship rings is no longer a guarantee.

Parity was abundant. The .198 winning difference between the league-leading Giants’ and the cellar-dweller Chicago Cubs was the lowest ever.

The Giants became the Cinderella story in the West. San Francisco christened its new palace, PacBell Park, with an unbelievable second half. Being 18th overall in payroll, no one believed that the Giants could have a better record than the second costliest team, the Braves.

Rather than an exception, the Giants’ story became common as many teams followed their example. This season sees many of the poorer teams marching into October.

The Oakland Athletics won the West for the first time since 1992. So much for high payrolls, Oakland has the 25th highest payroll of 30 professional teams. The A’s have a good chance of knocking the Yankees out of the AL Championship Series for the first time in four years.

The Chicago White Sox started this season full blast, but critics said that the young team would not maintain its American League leading record.

Guess what? It did. The team comprised of virtual unknowns (and Frank Thomas) sailed into the postseason.

This was a season of underdogs. Heading into the postseason all the former truisms no longer stand.

Without a doubt, however, the biggest surprise in baseball this season came a week ago. . . in Australia.

While the “real” American baseball players collected their eight-figure paychecks, a collection of minor leaguers set off for Sydney under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Tom Lasorda. These kids and has-beens were to be humiliated on the world stage against the Japanese and the infamous Cubans, commonly known as the other Big Red Machine. They were supposed to be a joke, a sacrificial lamb.

But team USA refused to be overlooked.

The US outlasted Japan to a 4-2 victory in 13 innings. The Americans were surprisingly undefeated when they faced Cuba in the last game of preliminaries.

Cuba is undoubtedly the powerhouse of world baseball, even though many of its more enterprising athletes have sought compensation for their talents in the US. Baseball is as close to a religion as there is on the island. The Cuban team has a combined .344 batting average.

As expected, the Cubans dismantled the USA 6-1.

But the Americans refused to let the loss dissuade their purpose at the Olympic Games.

Lasorda led his team into the medal rounds where the Americans slipped by Italy and South Korea, earning themselves a ticket to the gold medal game. No they would not be watching but playing arch-rivals, Cuba. The world stage was set for a rematch.

In true David versus Goliath fashion, the Americans rose to the challenge. Hurler Ben Sheets threw a three-hitter in shutting out the Cubans 4-0 for the gold.

The US baseball team truly brought the excitement back to the national pastime. As with the miracle on ice, this was the miracle on the diamond. Not only did the Americans come away with the gold, they did it convincingly. And gave hope to every lesser salaried team in the Major League.

Archived article by Amanda Angel