As a foreword, I would like to present these two facts: New York Yankees' third baseman Alex Rodriguez ($22 million) out-earned the entire Tampa Bay Devil Rays' roster ($19.6 million) in 2003. The New York Yankees team payroll that year was $100 million dollars higher than that of the lowly Florida Marlins.
Ah yes, 2003 was the beginning of a new dynasty for the New York Yankees, one that would feature superstar Alex Rodriguez as the young icon of a team filled with past MVPs, hall of fame pitchers, and a legendary manager; or at least that's what the entire baseball world believed heading into the 2003 World Series. The Florida Marlins' run through the playoffs that year was cute, but now they were facing the big boys, the behemoths with the contracts to match.
Outmatched, out-manned and out-cashed, the Marlins headed into legendary Yankee stadium for game one of what was assumed to be a ceremonious reinvention of one of the most powerful dynasties in the history of baseball. I believe that game one was perhaps the most meaningful game in baseball's long history. Forget Boston's game seven win in the 2004 ALCS against the same Yankees to finish the epic 3-0 comeback. Forget the shot heard round the world, Willie Mays' over the shoulder grab or Joe Carter's World Series walk-off. The Marlins' game one victory over the almighty Yankees was a symbol of hope to all Major League organizations as well as every fan of the game that a single organization could no longer buy its way to a championship.
Sure, there were other memorable moments in that series, Alex Gonzalez's walk-off home run in game four and Beckett's toss from the mound to first for the final out of the series, but the game one victory meant that there would be no sweep as predicted by many. Instead, these scrappy Marlins were going to fight with the Yankees for the entire series, play (the very cliche) David role against the New York Goliath's. Although the 2003 Series seemed to be no more than an aberration, it opened the door for teams like the 2007 Rockies and the 2008 Rays to succeed in the 'money talks' business that is Major League Baseball.
With the next year came the spread of Red Sox nation across the entire country. Soon the Sox also became a giant on the payroll list, losing their status as the underdog that had followed them since the Curse of the Bambino. For the next several years, the Yankees and Red Sox battled for supremacy of not only the AL East, but also for the attention of the baseball world. At the bottom of the East sat the Devil Rays, a franchised doomed to cellar-dwelling, a failed endeavor in all respects.
What the baseball world did not realize was the wealth of talent that the Rays (formerly 'Devil' Rays) were masterfully developing from within their own organization, making the right moves in the minor leagues while making all the wrong ones at the 'Big Show.' I believe that the farm system is one of the things that makes baseball the greatest game on Earth. No other sport has such an extensive minor league system, and this system allows for smaller market teams to stay afloat on the raging cash current that would otherwise engulf them into bankruptcy (metaphorically that is).
The 2008 Rays should be the beacon that all small market teams in all sports aspire to emulate, and they should be the envy of larger market teams who lack the team chemistry to succeed. Watching the Rays this year, I see a spirit that I didn't see once all year in the Yankees, Mets, or even the Boston Red Sox. All of the fat contracts, the superstars and the publicity don't change the fact that every night, two teams of nine human beings face each other in a battle of wills and skill (not money and publicity). This year, the Rays have found ways to be the better group of nine, whether it's by pitching and defense, hitting or by miracle late-game heroics.
Baseball inevitable has parity within it because a successful hitter in baseball fails six or seven times out of ten. No other sport has a ratio like this, and it creates a lot of big moments which define the character of each player. Baseball is the sport where producing when it counts matters the most. Players with big-dollar contracts and sponsorship deals aren't exempt from this immense pressure.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that baseball is so great because its worth as a game is proven by the fact that it isn't predictable. The big money teams don't always win, and in the end, 162 games separate the real ball players from the overpaid show ponies. I'd rather have a team of ball players as opposed to a group of show ponies any day.
Former Yankee great Yogi Berra said it best: "It ain't over til' it's over."