While fans in places like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and St. Petersburg might have a problem buying into hope and faith, the participants in this year’s League Championship Series show that a large payroll does not automatically guarantee a team an invitation to October. In fact, three of the four teams still standing began the season with payrolls among the eight lowest in the major leagues. The Indians ranked 23rd among the 30 clubs at $62 million, while the Rockies were 25th at $54 million, and the Diamondbacks were 26th at $52 million. The Red Sox are the last of the big spenders still playing, as their Opening Day payroll of $143 million was second in the majors only to the $190 million spent by the Yankees, who have already been knocked off by the Indians in the ALDS.
So, what does it mean, with three low-payroll franchises making it to the final four? “That it can be done,” Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro said. “All three of those teams have done it the right way—with a solid organization and player development, good drafts, a presence in Latin America and the willingness to stick to their plan.” What Shapiro is too modest to say is that all three teams have GMs with ties to the Indians, as Colorado’s Dan O’Dowd and Arizona’s Josh Byrnes also worked for Cleveland. Even Boston manager Terry Francona has a Cleveland connection, as he spent a season working for the Indians as a special assistant to then-GM John Hart in 2001 after being fired as Philadelphia’s manager.
It does not surprise Francona to see the Indians make it this far with a low payroll and a strong Cleveland influence with the Rockies and Diamondbacks. “There have been a lot of good people come through that system in Cleveland,” Francona said. “They do things so well. Their foundation for what they do is based on a lot of intelligent people who care a lot about people. It’s a nice combination. They’re run a lot of good people through there. They’ve dispersed out through the league to a lot of different places and had a lot of success. What far outweighs everything else, though, is they’re really good people and that makes a difference.”
The Indians made the playoffs six times in a seven-year span from 1995-2001, at which point Hart stepped down and Shapiro was promoted from Assistant GM. Shapiro began a rebuilding program in 2002 that started with the highly unpopular trade in which he dealt ace pitcher Bartolo Colon to Montreal for a package of three young players that included center fielder Grady Sizemore, left-hander Cliff Lee, and middle infielder Brandon Phillips. “That’s what makes this so satisfying,” said Shapiro, “that all our guys have been through the pain of rebuilding together. They’ve grown and matured together. All of these players have been through a lot together.” However, Shapiro downplays the importance of the size of each team’s payroll during the playoffs. “Once you’re on the field playing the game payroll is not a factor. It’s just two teams playing baseball.”
However, the fact that so many smaller-revenue teams have made it this far brings a smile to Selig’s face as does the fact that the Yankees were only team to make the playoffs this year that also qualified last season. “The economic model we were using in the 1990s was broken,'” Selig told the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers. “I don't think we really realized how badly it was broken. The same with the labor fights every four years. I don't think we really knew how much we were hurting ourselves. Fans did not want to hear about that. They want to know about the sport on the field, and that has never been better. I watch every game I can at home, and in September there were a lot of nights I didn't know which ones to watch because so many of them carried a lot of importance.”