Tony Gwynn & Jeff Passan: World Series viewer's guide
Curtis Granderson: Tigers' star living a dream
DETROIT – Jim Leyland bristled at the question, and for good reason.
A couple weeks ago, his Detroit Tigers, after 12 consecutive losing seasons, were about to start their American League Division Series with the mighty New York Yankees, who were making their 12th consecutive playoffs.
It was expected to be a mismatch because, as the oft-repeated theory goes, winning a World Series is a hopeless pursuit unless you are a big-market, big-money club. Since the Yankees' payroll is about $112.1 million more than the Tigers', this was supposed to be a mismatch.
But Leyland knows as well as anyone that the conventional wisdom doesn't stand up to reality. He knows baseball is far too complex a game for success to be purchased, especially in the playoffs, where it's been proven that payroll means nothing.
"I am not really sure we're the underdog," said Leyland. "I believe that when you get down to the final eight teams, whoever plays good at that particular time has a chance to win."
Eight games and seven victories later (including three over those big-money Yankees), the Tigers are set to host Game 1 of the World Series on Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
In doing so, the Tigers have proven once again that, salary cap or not, baseball's parity – at least at the championship level – is as good, if not better, than the other major sports.
MLB will crown its seventh different World Series champion in seven years, either Detroit or St. Louis joining the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Florida Marlins, (then) Anaheim Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks and Yankees as winners this decade.
Even more telling, the Tigers are the 11th different team (out of a possible 14) to reach the World Series during that time.
In comparison, the NFL, with its hard salary cap and "any given Sunday" motto, has crowned just five different champions the past seven years and also seen 11 different teams reach the Super Bowl.
The NBA, which also boasts the kind of salary cap seemingly everyone claims baseball desperately needs, has seen just four teams win the title in the past seven years. Just eight teams have reached the NBA Finals during that stretch.
Making the MLB numbers even more impressive is the fact that baseball invites just eight of its 30 teams (26.6 percent) to the postseason. The NFL lets in 12 of 32 (37.5 percent) and the NBA goes with 16 of 30 (53.3 percent), which increases the likelihood of upset-driven diversity in the late rounds.
There is little question that big-market teams with big payrolls have an advantage in fielding a championship-caliber club; obviously, the Yankees have a better chance than the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
But baseball is a different kind of game, and stockpiling talent isn't enough – as the Yankees' six-year World Series drought has proven.
Detroit's $82.6 million payroll ranks a humble 14th in the majors, while the Cardinals' $88.9 million payroll ranks 11th.
While St. Louis is in the Series for the second time in three seasons, the Tigers hadn't even reached the playoffs since 1987 and just three years ago lost a near-record 119 games. But Detroit built through the draft, stockpiled young pitchers, added a couple veterans and here they are.
And this is no fluke. The Oakland Athletics, which had the 21st-ranked payroll at $62.2 million, reached the ALCS this year. Last year the Chicago White Sox (12th in 2005) defeated the Houston Astros (13th) in the World Series.
All of this is quite reasonable. All of this is quite possible.
In most cases, you can't just buy a title in baseball, one reason why establishing a salary cap is not essential to the health of the sport, as so many believe it is.
Baseball is a game where the highest-paid player, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez ($25 million in 2006), can bat .071 against the Tigers. It is a sport where even the best player only gets up every few innings and the top starting pitcher can only go every fourth day, at best.
It is basketball where a player can have an effect at both ends of the court on every single play. It is football where a player can impact at least half of the action.
In baseball, you can't win without a team – a deep, clutch, close-knit, total team.
And you just can't buy that.
As October keeps proving and proving and proving.