Oh, Swell: New York Wins Again

Only in America. in a year in which presidential politics is a Horatio Alger story, proving that a Yale-educated son of a president can grow up to run for president against a Harvard-educated son of a senator, the national pastime is proving that two teams from New York, each with a payroll the size of the GDP of a medium-size Third World nation, can get to the World Series. Is this a great country or what?

Listen up, New York. Not that you, in your self-absorption, give a damn, but this is how the rest of us feel about your October party: A wit who disliked both Thomas Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle said that it was good of God to arrange for the two of them to marry so that only two people instead of four would be made miserable. For America west of the Hudson, the best thing about a Subway Series is that it guarantees that millions of New York baseball fans--the followers of whichever team loses--are going to be depressed.

A Subway Series is particularly galling to us geezers who were growing up embittered when, from 1949 through 1953, the Yankees won all five Series. In 1949, 1952 and 1953 they played the Dodgers. In 1951 they played the Giants, who played in the Polo Grounds, just across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. (In 1951 all three New York teams finished first: the Dodgers and Giants tied, and the Giants won the playoff on Bobby Thomson's home run.) What happened in 1950 that prevented every game of five consecutive Series being played in New York? This happened:

The Philadelphia Phillies, who had been in only one World Series (in 1915, which they lost), suffered a September swoon, shrinking their nine-game lead over the Dodgers, and they were limping. The Phillies lost seven of nine; the Dodgers won 12 of 15 and trailed the Phillies by just two with two games to play, in Brooklyn. The Phillies lost the first. If they lost the last one, they would face a three-game playoff against the sizzling Dodgers.

The score was 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Cal Abrams reached second with no one out. Robin Roberts pitched to Duke Snider, who scorched a single to centerfielder Richie Ashburn, like Roberts and Snider a future Hall of Famer. Ashburn could run like a whippet and played shallow. He fielded Snider's hit on the first bounce. The Dodgers' third-base coach waved Abrams around third. Abrams was out by a country mile. The Phillies won in the 10th. But had Abrams been held at third, with Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges due up, the Dodgers probably would have won, and probably would have whomped the sagging Phillies in the playoff. In the Series, the Yankees swept the Phillies.

But for that third-base coach's mistake (for which he was fired), no Series game after 1948 and before 1954 would have been played outside a circle with a seven-mile radius. In 1954 the Indians beat the Yankees by winning an American League record 111 games (in a 152-game season). If 103 wins (the 1954 Yankees total) had, as 103 almost always do, sufficed to earn a place in the Series, the Yankees would have been in six straight. Make that 10 straight: they were in the 1955, 1956, 1957 and 1958 Series. They were also there in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964.

In the 20th century's 95 Series, more than half--49--included at least one New York team, and 13 featured two. Thirty-three Series were won by New York teams--25 by the Yankees. So now a new century begins and... yet again both Series teams are from New York. As has been said, history isn't one damn thing after another; it's the same damn thing over and over.

This year Payroll Number 1 (the Yankees' $114 million) battles Payroll Number 3 (the Mets' $99.8 million). Somehow Payroll Number 2 (the Dodgers' $105 million) managed to miss the postseason. The Yankees and Mets would not be where they are if the people running them did not have tremendous baseball acumen. But they also have huge advantages in local broadcast revenues. There is something amiss in baseball when so much is predictable just by counting the number of television sets in each team's market.

A few weeks ago this column dealt with a report (submitted to Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig by Yale president Richard Levin, former senator George Mitchell, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker and this columnist) concerning Major League Baseball's revenue disparities and competitive balance. The report documented that today's gargantuan revenue disparities produce ludicrous payroll disparities and competitive imbalance. The report noted that in the five seasons since the 1994 strike, there had been 158 postseason games, all won by teams in the top two payroll quartiles. And all World Series games had been won by teams in the top quartile.

Critics of the report noted this year's successes of the A's (the 23rd largest payroll), White Sox (24th) and Giants (18th). Well. Their combined postseason record this year: three wins, nine losses. Depending on whether this year's Series goes four, five, six or seven games, teams in the top two quartiles will have won between 185 and 188 postseason games since 1994, those in the bottom two quartiles only three.

Now, one does not want to be a wet blanket at baseball's movable feast, the Series. Both the Yankees and Mets are gallant competitors, blending youth and age and featuring at least four probable future Hall of Famers (Mike Piazza, Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Joe Torre and perhaps John Franco, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, too). Arguably, the Yankee dynasty is, on balance, beneficial to baseball. If there's no Goliath, there is no way for Davids to prove their pluck. And the trains (yes, children, there were such things) that brought the Yankees to St. Louis brought a reason to buy a ticket to see the Browns (yes, children, there was such a team). Besides, the two best teams are supposed to get to the Series, and this year they seem to have.

One more thing: a Subway Series encourages New Yorkers to vent their native rudeness on each other rather than on the rest of us.