Column: Small market playoffs a tough sell
It's hard to think of the Milwaukee Brewers as a small-market team, not when they're on the hook to Ryan Braun for $141.5 million over the next nine years.
Small market they are, though, which makes this run through the playoffs so critical. The Brewers understand their place in the baseball hierarchy, just as they understand that Prince Fielder will be entertaining offers elsewhere once the final out of this season is made.
Probably just as well. The Minnesota Twins got so carried away with their success in the first year at Target Field that they became small-market high rollers, only to find that money doesn't necessarily buy happiness in the AL Central.
It hasn't bought happiness in the postseason for baseball's top spenders, either. The nine biggest spending teams are all gone, giving hope to long suffering fans everywhere that their team can be like the Yankees, too, if just for a year.
The flip side? Television sets being turned off across the country at the mere thought of a Milwaukee-Texas World Series.
No Yankees. No Red Sox. No Phillies, either, with what was supposed to be the best postseason rotation ever.
Too bad, because they were teams you could cheer for. They were also teams most of us love to cheer against.
Instead, baseball's flirtation with parity gives us Milwaukee and St. Louis in a rematch of the 1982 World Series remembered by no one outside those two cities. And, instead of the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League, we get Detroit against Texas in what, at least on a rainy opening night Saturday, was a very tough matchup to sit through.
Not that those still in it really care. Let Fox worry about ratings that could conceivably sink to an all-time low.
''I think if you're in uniform, you can't get caught up in what the ratings are going to be if this club or that club would draw more TV ratings or more interest,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ''It's a competition, if you're good enough to win you move on. And I think MLB wins any way you go.''
The problem is, baseball isn't winning. Outside of its core cities the game struggles to find a national audience. And, with the biggest cities out, that struggle gets even harder.
Last year, a regular season NFL game between the Saints and Steelers outdrew Game 4 of the World Series between Texas and San Francisco. World Series games that just 25 years ago might draw 40 to 50 million viewers a night now struggle to draw a third of that.
What was once a celebration of the national pasttime has become almost an afterthought in a season that lasts way too long. Baseball has no one to blame but itself, turning off viewers over the years with late starts, marathon games and cable television that makes it impossible for some homes to watch even if they were so inclined.
That's not to say the final night of the regular season wasn't a magical one for anyone who loves the game. The first round of the playoffs was equally as good, with three of the four matchups going to Game 5 and one of those going into extra innings.
Pitching duels have returned and they can be exciting, as evidenced by Chris Carpenter's 1-0 gem that knocked Roy Halladay and the Phillies out of the playoffs. Even better, they played the game in 2 hours and 29 minutes, or about half the length of a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Those who tuned in to the Cardinals-Phillies saw manager La Russa badmouth the plate umpire during the middle of a game, the first time in television history that an in-game interview has been even remotely interesting. And who couldn't appreciate the sight of Alex Rodriguez striking out to end the Yankees' season for the second year in a row?
With the Yankees went the ratings, but baseball purists at least have reason to still cheer.
''I think what's happened with the wild card races and now with the playoffs like it is, I think it's been extremely good for baseball,'' Texas owner Nolan Ryan said Sunday. ''It has put us on the forefront on the sports page with a lot of people talking about the games that have been played and scattered around the country like it is.''
Maybe, but will people still be talking after a World Series between small market teams that won't end until nearly Halloween? Can baseball deliver must-see TV with Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium already dark for the season?
Probably not, but who knows? In a postseason full of surprises there may just be room for one more.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg