Sharing the wealth

No salary cap means no competitive balance, right?

Isn't the problem with baseball that the same couple of teams, including the New York Yankees ($208 million payroll), keep on winning while others, such as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ($29 million), can only keep dreaming?

But here we are with the 2005 World Series set to begin Saturday and we are assured that a new champion will be crowned for the fifth consecutive year. Either the Houston Astros or Chicago White Sox will follow the lead of the Boston Red Sox, Florida Marlins, (then) Anaheim Angels and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Moreover, Chicago and Houston represent two new clubs in the World Series, just as there were two new ones last year with Boston and St. Louis.

An amazing 10 different teams have filled the 12 possible spots in the World Series since 2000, and 14 different clubs have taken 24 possible slots in the League Championship Series.

That is called spreading the success around.

Let's compare that to the other two major team sports in the United States (sorry NHL, but you have to earn your way back as one of the "Big Four"), both of which have tighter salary structures and better revenue sharing than Major League Baseball's meager luxury tax model.

The NFL is the most balanced league with its restrictive cap that makes keeping teams together for multiple seasons nearly impossible. Virtually all television revenue is split up equally, regardless if your market is New York (No. 1) or Green Bay (No. 69). The league prides itself on its "Any Given Sunday" motto.

When training camps break each August, just about all 32 NFL teams believe they have a realistic chance at making the playoffs. And because in-season moves are so rare, good teams can't make late-season trades to bolster rosters at the expense of bad teams.

Yet in the last six years, the NFL has produced just four different champions (New England, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and St. Louis) and nine Super Bowl teams. Just like baseball, 14 different teams have filled the 24 possible spots in the conference championship games.

The NBA has a more flexible salary cap than the NFL – you can exceed it to re-sign free agents – but there is no question that smaller markets such as San Antonio or Sacramento can field great teams.

But the NBA has produced just three different champions the last six years (L.A. Lakers, Detroit and San Antonio) and a mere six teams have even reached the NBA Finals. Fifteen different teams have reached the conference finals out of a possible 24.

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), increasing the likelihood of upset-driven diversity in the late rounds.

How baseball got so competitive despite a non-competitive salary structure is a testament to the game.

Houston ($76.8 million total payroll) and Chicago ($75.1 million) rank a reasonable 12th and 13th, respectively, league-wide in total salary. But this is a sport where big money free agents such as the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, the top-paid player in the game at $26 million this year, can annually gag under the stress of postseason play.

This is a sport where even the best player, San Francisco's Barry Bonds, only gets up every few innings. Meanwhile, a basketball player can have an effect at both ends of the court on every single play and a football player can impact at least half of the action.

This is a sport where young arms and timely hits and momentum and emotion and strategy and heart can play a huge role.

It is where the White Sox can lose $8 million slugger Frank Thomas to injury and ride such a good starting rotation that they hardly needed a bullpen to get to the Series. It's where the Astros can lose their best hitter to high-priced free agency (Carlos Beltran) and have a team, which critics called either too old or too young, somehow turn out just right.

It's where one team (Chicago) looks to end an 88-year futility streak, while the other (Houston) wants to lay a 43-year wait to rest – something no one thought either was capable of during spring training.

That's baseball.

The constant complaint is that the system isn't fair, that the playing field isn't level, that it isn't more like the NFL or NBA.

But another Fall Classic begins Saturday, once again with two new teams, two new cities, two new storylines and two rosters full of brand new stars.

Let Paul Tagliabue and David Stern be jealous for a change.