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The Life

The Year of Retribution
ESPN The Magazine

I know Ted Williams, and Robert Fick is no Ted Williams. Kazuhisa Ishii may be 4-0 now, but we are not seeing the second coming of Warren Spahn. (Warren Brusstar would be more like it.) As for that World Series in the Big O, well, Id wait a few more weeks before booking rooms at the Montreal Ritz-Carlton for October.

But three weeks into the season, I have this feeling that we are going to taste some delicious irony in 2002. What with Kenny Lofton batting .400 and leading the AL in stolen bases after virtually begging for a job, triple reject Paul Byrd staking early claim to the AL Cy Young, and 36th-round draft pick Junior Spivey elbowing his way into the D-Back lineup and the NL's top 10 hitters, were looking at the blooming of the Year of Retribution.

Let's start at the top -- of the standings. Of the seven division leaders (the White Sox and Twins are tied), three are flying on supersaver coupons (Twins, Expos, Pirates), three are in coach (White Sox, Giants, Mariners) and only one (Red Sox) gets that nice set of headphones.

The standings, at least temporarily, are making liars out of those who think only large-market, huge-payroll franchises can be competitive. The race goes not to the rich, but to the resourceful, and while it has taken a few years for the have-nots to figure out a way to compete, they are clearly on to something: Young, hungry ballplayers who are fundamentally schooled are a match for veteran, Ferrari-driving ballplayers who like to watch as their home run ball no, wait, it hit the top of the wall.

Even the Yankees, who are both rich and resourceful, are having a little trouble getting their footing. You know and I know that eventually they will overtake the Red Sox, but still, its nice to see Yankee fans sweat a little in the chilly Bronx weather, nicer still to see them sweat over which Giambi brother would have been a better fit.

Nicest is the notion that this dream season is Bud Seligs nightmare. The two teams he targeted for contraction, Minnesota and Montreal, are in first place. The Expos -- abandoned by Jeffrey Loria, who absconded with all the front-office personnel -- are winning with temps supplied by the Commissioner, while the Brewers -- actually owned by the Commissioner -- are so bad that baseball people feel less sorry for Davey Lopes, who got fired, than for Jerry Royster, who replaced him. And Bud keeps saying the Twins have to build a new ballpark to survive. You know, just like the Tigers and Brewers did.

The Lords of Baseball should glory in this rejiggering of the status quo. After all, if teams with smaller payrolls can compete, that means owners wont feel the need to overpay for free agents, and the labor problem would become less of one. The lawyers would stand down, and we wouldnt have to worry that this enticing season, or any other, will go up in smoke.

Unfortunately, I like the chances of Robert Fick hitting .400 better than I like the chances of the owners getting the message.

Steve Wulf is executive editor of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at steve.wulf@espnmag.com.



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