The American League Is Superior Thanks to the Yanks

Midway through the baseball season, the American League's superiority in big league baseball persists with such radiance that The Wall Street Journal took a stab at explaining it, however feebly.

Jul 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Midway through the baseball season, the American League's superiority in big league baseball persists with such radiance that The Wall Street Journal took a stab at explaining it, however feebly. An article in the paper last week gave as reasons for AL superiority a list of facts basically amounting to an inventory of the differences between the two leagues.

Why is the American League better? Why is it that the AL won 59 percent of the interleague games for the second time in three years? Because the American League is different and therefore those differences are why the AL is better.

If The Journal leads the business community with such arguments, maybe that explains a lot.

Among the differences listed by The Journal were the influx of young stars in the AL from 1987 to 1993, along with the five new AL stadiums from 1989 to 1994, giving the league a head start at the cash mill. But it's 2008 now, the young players who came up 15-20 years ago aren't making the same difference and the National League has caught up in stadium building.

Nor does the designated hitter make the AL better, although it has influenced one good reason offered by The Journal: the AL has higher payrolls. Even if you throw out the New York Yankees, according to the paper the average AL payroll is $5.6 million higher than the NL average of $83 million.

One wants to say AL superiority is purely accidental, especially considering that the AL and NL no longer exist as they once did. The league offices have been boarded up, the two leagues share umpires and they even play each other way more often than they should.

But it's not accidental. The true reason for the AL's superiority, mysterious as it is, would be the same reason the AFC dominates the NFL, the Big Ten dominated college basketball in the 1970s and the SEC dominates college football always.

All it takes is one operation so coldly driven to win that those of us on the outside might think something is wrong. Remembering Bob Knight on top of his game at Indiana, seeing Bill Belichick win without apparent joy with the New England Patriots or knowing how college football marks life in the Deep South, one respects the achievements while stewing that such tactical intelligence, passion and discipline should be wasted on games.

But the people who are trying to beat Belichick in the AFC or the Big Ten teams that used to compete against Knight or the teams trying to win the SEC football race all know that if they don't match that tactical intelligence, passion and discipline they won't succeed. The competition makes everyone that much sharper and more committed.

It doesn't always work out this way, but often enough that bell cow operation forces the competition to greater ingenuity and intensity. The difference it makes is largely intangible, until we roll the ball out and see what happens.

In big league baseball, the organization setting that tone is the Yankees, and they're in the American League. Love the Yankees or hate them, call them the best or worst team money can buy, but don't question whether the Yankees are committed to winning.

Should you respond that the Boston Red Sox really set that tone, having won two of the last four World Series, remember that the Red Sox got that way because they had to finally beat the Yankees, and to this day the Yankees are their team to beat.

It's human nature to back off, work only as hard as necessary and risk as little money as possible. Humans who work beyond those measures are either exemplary or crazy, if not both.

The Yankees are both — when they win, they're exemplary, and when they don't, they're crazy. Indeed, when they don't win, they're not even the Yankees, and they know it.

In the NL, you put your club together, see how the ball bounces and hope it all works out. In the AL, you put your club together, see how the ball bounces and you still have to be good enough to beat the Yankees. That's the difference.

The Yankees will bear any burden, wisely or not, and pay any luxury tax — $121.6 million in the last five years. All other clubs combined (which includes only the Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels) have kicked in $14.8 million between them.

Lacking Yankee funds, the other AL contenders have made due with innovation and savvy management practices. The Oakland Athletics are famous for their use of quantitative analysis in putting together ball clubs, while the Red Sox combine such analysis with healthy funding to stake their high place in the game.

The Steinbrenners certainly spend a lot of money on players, but they also keep the heat on their players. They don't just pay the players and figure the players will take care of it. Those guys in the pinstripes play with their feet to the fire, always. The management sees to it, the media sees to it and the fans see to it.

When the Reds run out there and lose a few, oh, well, that's just the way it goes, and it shows up in how the Reds too often play the game. Flip back and forth between the Reds and the Yankees and you see that little edge in the Yankees. Yes, the Yankees are better player for player, but that edge is a big part of the difference.

And it does frustrate Reds fans to no end that their guys don't play more often like the group that went into Yankee Stadium and won two of three a few weekends ago. The Yankees even brought out the best in the Reds.

Indeed, the decline of the Reds this century is one of the NL's problems. Those Reds clubs of the early 1990s were fiercely dedicated to winning, all the way from Marge Schott on down. Other NL organizations that used to get it right a lot of the time have declined in recent years, like the Atlanta Braves (a run-down dynasty) and Los Angeles Dodgers (two changes of ownership). The New York Mets have never figured out how to contend consistently, even though they're competing with the Yankees for the back page of New York City's tabloids.

The best NL franchise of recent years, the St. Louis Cardinals, has taken its resources about as far as they can go. The Cards continue to contend with a surprisingly good club this year, but they're not the dominant operation of 2000-2006, when they won five divisions in seven years and took the World Series in their 2006 last gasp.

As the Cardinals fight to stay on top of the NL, the Chicago Cubs are becoming the new leader in that competition. Famous as he is for lighting up his players, Piniella is every bit as demanding of his upper management. Already sporting the NL's best starting staff, the Cubs quickly responded to the Milwaukee Brewers' acquisition of C.C. Sabathia last week by dealing for Rich Harden.

The Cubs, though, are only into the second year of Piniella and they have a reputation to create, let alone uphold. Someday perhaps the Cubs will become that NL club that makes the rest turn it up a notch. As of now, it has yet to happen.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]