In the early 1980s, NFL clubs began chasing the Dallas Cowboys, and to do so, GMs began stacking their rosters with stout defensive lines, power runners and a quarterback that could stand in the pocket and deliver the deep ball.
By the middle of the decade, the mold for success had changed, and changed dramatically. After winning the Super Bowl in January of 1982 and 1985, the San Francisco 49ers began setting the tone for the entire league. Not only were their schemes and style copied by more than half the league, their coordinators and assistant coaches were spread all over the NFL, running their own show.
The Niners’ reign over the NFL lasted about 10 years or so, with their last Super Bowl coming after the 1994 season. But the West Coast Offense is still very prominent in the game today. The offense perfected by offensive guru Bill Walsh, is used by as many as 15 teams at a given time. The 49ers’ recipe for success was a good one that every team wanted in on.
In the NBA, teams tried to copy the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, drafting big man after big man and looking for the next oversized point guard or multi-talented point forward.
Few were successful at acquiring their own facsimile of the Lakers’ superstars and the Celtics’ legends, but the formula was set and it stands in today’s game where the power forwards and centers have the chance at the biggest impact on any contest.
In baseball, this was not the case. With so many differences in the financial structure of the sport, Major League Baseball’s best teams are not typically ones to be copied and used as a model of how to build a winner.
Not many franchises can afford the payroll of the most successful team in baseball, the New York Yankees. And let’s be honest, the Yankees’ success was very much centered around the fact that they spent more money than any other club and could add to it at any point to fill any hole.
Sure, many of their core players in the mid-to-late 90s run came up through the farm system, but by 1999 or 2000, those players were due big raises through free agency or contract extensions, avoiding arbitration. If the Yankee money wasn’t there, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada may not have been around for half the five-year run in New York.
The Bronx Bombers won the World Series in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 and lost in game 7 in both 2001 and 2003. But you don’t see any other organizations rushing out to duplicate the Yankees’ blueprint for winning, unlike the NFL and the NBA, where the type of play and schemes of offense and defense were copied more than a bare rear-end in a counselor-less Student Center at the local high school.
But baseball’s identity, as a whole, has gone through its share of changes. From 1970- through 1992, the league’s home run leader finished with less than 40 home runs 22 times, 11 in each league. That’s half the seasons.
From 1993 through 2004, it didn’t happen once.
The game went from the speed, pitching and defensive minded Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers and the 70s versions of the Oakland Athletics to the powerful lineups of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and the late-80s Athletics teams.
The three-peat champs in Oakland in 1972-74, the A’s averaged 138 home runs per season, never hitting more than the 147 in ’74.
For all the hype of the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, they hit 124 home runs in 1975 and 141 in 1976. Clubs weren’t bashing 200 home runs per year and slugging their way to World Series titles.
This year’s eight postseason contestants averaged 178 home runs per team. In 1975, the average postseason club averaged 123 home runs – a difference of 55 roundtrippers.
In 1985, the average postseason roster tallied 139 home runs per team, and in 1995, that numbers sat at 149.
The game changed, and the players changed a long with it. But since quite a bit of that metamorphosis may have been artificially attained through performance enhancing substances, things are bound to start heading back in the other direction.
Of course, the athlete today has changed, as has the size of the new ballparks and the depth of the quality pitching, so the long ball is going to remain extremely prevalent.
But is the game taking a much-needed step back? Back to, say, 1995, when teams still liked to occasionally steal bases, hit and run, rely on pitching, defense and taking the extra base, even in the American League?
The game just might be headed in the right direction this time. No, not financially, the game was never in as much trouble as the owners would have the fan think. But the roots of the game are shoving their way to the forefront more often than in years past.
Thank the steroid testing program, which clearly still needs to be adjusted, for the potential return of real baseball.
Since the current program began in 2004, the league has seen the power numbers take a slight drop for two consecutive seasons, going from 1.071 long balls per game in 2003, to 1.032 this past regular season. That is only about six home runs less per team, per season, and the doubles rate went up by a few small decimal points.
The overall slugging percentage, however, did slide from .428 to .419 from ’04 to ’05, and this is just year two of drug testing program.
This year’s American League Champions are just one example of how clubs are beginning to build their rosters. Sure, the White Sox hit 200 home runs this season, but they hit 242 last season and finished 16 games worse than the 99 victories in 2005.
For all the differences in their pitching staff, you can point out two changes offensively that aimed the Pale Hose in the right direction.
In 2004, the Sox stole just 78 bases. This year, they swiped 137 on their way to changing the dynamics in which the club attempts to win games. In return for 68 extra-base hits and 99 RBI from Carlos Lee, GM Ken Williams got speed and defense in Scott Podsednik, and used the money saved from Lee’s $8 million contract to sign Jermaine Dye, who nearly matched Lee’s ’04 output by himself, and to keep right-hander Jose Contreras.
Williams believed it was better for his club that they kept Contreras and added Podsednik’s speed and catcher A.J. Pierzynski’s solid all-around game then hang onto a slugger in which they had at least one duplicate.
Skipper Ozzie Guillen claims that the speedy leadoff hitter is going to become more and more important as the game continues to change. He may be right. Seven of the eight teams in the postseason had a solid, if unspectacular leadoff hitter. Podsednik, Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Chone Figgins, David Eckstein, Craig Biggio, and Rafael Furcal charged their clubs’ offense by getting on base, making a difference on the base paths and scoring runs.
Does the success of these types of talents make the job of Mariners GM Bill Bavasi a little bit easier, since he has his own share of the on-base, speedy types?
Does Jeremy Reed's presence start becoming less of a burden to a power-starved lineup, and more of a positive?
Does this make Ichiro Suzuki even more valuable to the potential success of the Seattle Mariners than previously deemed?
Quite possibly, as long as the trend of traditional baseball continues its comeback.