Hope now a widespread reality

"At the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half of our 30 clubs."

-- Bud Selig, to his good friends in Congress, November 2000

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Planet of the Hopeless is a lot smaller than it used to be.

Once, according to our favorite commissioner, two-thirds of the teams in baseball used to head for spring training, knowing they had no hope, no chance, no reason to exist – except possibly to give the Braves and Yankees someone to beat.

We're not sure we ever quite agreed with that back then. But it doesn't much matter now, because we've noticed something in our travels this spring:

In baseball, hope is back.

And not even in the way you might think – i.e., "I sure do hope I don't get subpoenaed by Congress."

No, we mean actual hope. Of contending. Of making the playoffs. Of having your team's nightly SportsCenter highlight last longer than seven seconds.

Look around the sport, and consider this: How many teams are truly hopeless? It's a list that's shorter than David Eckstein.

It could be as few as four teams. It might be as many as eight. But six is more like it. And that's a long ways from two-thirds, in anybody's math book.

To get a clearer picture, we did a recent scout-and-GM survey on this. Shockingly, only four teams – the Rockies, Royals, Pirates and Devil Rays – got a vote from all six of the people we polled.

The Orioles and Blue Jays would be included if the definition of hopeless was "can't make the playoffs." But by any other definition – or in any other division – they wouldn't be in this discussion.

The Orioles have one of the great lineups in the sport. The Blue Jays have as many high-ceiling young players as any team in the sport. So "hopeless" doesn't seem like a fair label to hang around their necks. Consult your local dictionary for details.

The Brewers were named by five of the six voters, possibly out of force of habit. But even that team is making progress. And the Nationals were named by four voters. But that, too, is a club that's better – with big upside potential if it ever gets an owner.

So there are more hopeless romantics in baseball than hopeless baseball teams. And even the commish has noticed. Which is why, with less than two years remaining in this labor deal, you no longer hear him beating the competitive-balance drum he was already pounding relentlessly at the same stage of the last labor era.

"I really believe that everything we've done – revenue sharing, luxury tax, new stadiums, a myriad of factors – has worked," Selig says. "We have teams that are competitive today that couldn't have been competitive five or six years ago. I don't think people understand how we've changed the landscape of our sport."

So it's time to stop the whining about how baseball needs to be more like the NFL. Hey, no thanks. We'll take a sport that has produced a different champion in five straight seasons over a sport that has produced the same champion in three of the last four seasons. That, friends, is competitive balance.

Why have things improved? Why were 16 teams within five games of a playoff spot last Aug. 15? Here are the big reasons:

Revenue Sharing
Unlike the NFL, baseball might not share all of its revenue. But the 300 million bucks a year it does share now are having a major effect.

Anybody think the Marlins would be a prospective NL East favorite without the $27 million in revenue-sharing dollars they'll get this year? Think the Twins would be the AL Central favorites without the $21 million they'll get?

The A's, according to sources, will get about $19 million. The Tigers: $17 million. The Reds: $15 million. The Padres: $8 million. The Rangers: $8 million.

And that doesn't even include the $20 million or so each team collects in national TV money. Or the $4 million they're about to get from the new XM radio deal. Or the $6 million to $8 million each team gets from the swelling central fund.

So you have some clubs taking in close to $50 million these days before they ever sell a ticket. And the only teams that are really hopeless are the clubs that won't plow all their MLB welfare money into payroll. The Devil Rays, for instance, are believed to be receiving $30 million in revenue sharing alone – and will barely even use all of that on their major-league salaries. That's their fault, not the system's fault.

Sharper General Managers
"The big thing is better management," says Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "I think a lot of small-market clubs understand now how to make the system work to be more competitive. They haven't tried to play the same game as the big-market teams."

Even more encouraging, though, is that they haven't even tried to play the same game as each other.

"There's still a wide range of philosophies," Shapiro says. "You've got Oakland at one end of the philosophical spectrum and Minnesota at the other end. That's two very good teams managed with totally different philosophies. You've got two really smart operators in Terry Ryan and Billy Beane in small markets who are both finding ways to win and be competitive."

We've also seen a wave of smarter contracts, fewer wasted dollars and more midseason creativity within the small and middle markets – led by the likes of Florida's Larry Beinfest, St. Louis' Walt Jocketty and former Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker.

"I think people are much more analytical, much brighter, more diversified and making wiser, sounder decisions," says one prominent agent. "Look around. You see that everywhere."

Luxury Tax
You don't need to be a CPA to know the luxury tax hasn't stopped everybody from spending money. But if you've been too busy grumbling about the Yankees' payroll to notice what's happened in most places, you've missed an innovation that has had a definite impact.

Of the teams with the top 10 payrolls in 2002 (the last season before this labor deal), five have actually lowered their payrolls since then – and by an average of about $26 million per team. Three of the other five are at virtually the same payroll. So only the Red Sox and Yankees have increased their shopping budgets by more than pocket change.

"Budget considerations play a part now with a lot of clubs," says Dodgers manager Jim Tracy. "Say you've got three things you'd like to address in the offseason, and you only have the money to do two. Now you only do two. And other teams are in the same boat. There's only one exception to that rule – and we know who that is."

Yep. Sure do. But even the Evil Empire punted on Carlos Beltran this winter. So maybe this system has finally even worked its way to the Yankees' floor of the skyscraper.

But the Yankees – and, to a lesser degree, the Red Sox – are still the flaw in the system. Of the half-dozen teams on Planet Hopeless, half of them are there, at least in some part, because they play in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.

"We need a balanced schedule that gives us a chance to play the other teams more, something that's more fair," says Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. "Right now, we have to play those two teams 38 times. Because of that, our kids are not afraid to go play in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. And that's good. We just wish we didn't have to go as much."

But Selig loves that unbalanced schedule. And he sounds like a man in no frenzy to dump – or even modify – it.

"Other than the American League East, I've never had a complaint about this," the commish says. "I know some people think we have to have a more modified balanced schedule. But I'm just not convinced of that yet. I like it the way it is."

So what's more likely is a new assault on the Yankees' spending habits in the next labor deal. But that's a battle for another day. For the moment, even Bud Selig is in no mood to launch grenades.

There may be no hope to avoid dodging more steroid mud on his wall. But there has never been more hope in spring-training camps everywhere. And for Bud Selig, one out of two has never looked better in baseball's land of hopes and dreams.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.