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Was it just us, or did baseball seem to be on the cusp of something–something grand but at the same time ominous– all through the postseason? Everything from the Roberto Alomar affair to the World Series to our local concern over the White Sox and their game of managerial musical chairs seemed refracted through the prism of the sport’s labor woes. And while that situation appeared on the verge of a breakthrough just as the series was ending, there was the threat of a return to the uneasy status quo.

That, in fact, turned out to be the scenario followed by the White Sox (no surprise there). After an 11th-hour courtship of manager Jim Leyland, late of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Sox lost him to the Florida Marlins, then–like a husband jilted by his mistress–returned home to make peace with Terry Bevington. The whole thing was yet another example of the karmic troubles afflicting the franchise. Leyland is an excellent manager who cut his teeth as a Sox coach under Tony La Russa, but he was also pals with Gene Lamont and took offense to the way Lamont was canned from his job managing the Sox last season. Lamont wound up coaching for Leyland and now has replaced him as the Bucs’ skipper. During Leyland’s negotiations with the Sox, Marlins, Boston Red Sox, and California Angels, Lamont went out of his way to insist that his experience with the Sox wouldn’t influence Leyland’s decision. And maybe it didn’t. Yet in hindsight it sure seemed that by saying so Lamont was carrying out his last orders as good soldier to Leyland, who had his mind made up to go to Florida all along and who used the Sox–if his talks with Jerry Reinsdorf served any purpose at all–to leverage a better deal out of the Marlins and their ultrarich owner Wayne Huizenga.

Pity poor Reinsdorf. The White Sox lost the American League wild-card playoff spot to the Baltimore Orioles, the Orioles’ beautiful ballpark, and their detested, dovish, prolabor owner, Peter Angelos. And it appears inevitable that a new labor settlement will grant players service time for the time they sat out during the 1994 strike, meaning that Reinsdorf loses not only Leyland to the Marlins but probably Alex Fernandez as well. Fernandez, a product of Cuba via Miami, has made it quite clear he would go to the Marlins if given the opportunity, and the added service time would make him just eligible for free agency.

So the Sox, who appeared so close to advancing their cause this season, instead slide back. Get used to it, Sox fans. The price of the sport moving forward appears to be that the Sox and their owner–like the losing side in a war–must suffer reparations.

Maybe it was the fact that this was an election year, but didn’t the two World Series teams, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees, give off the glow of two candidates offering vastly different futures to the sport? The Braves were a classic example of a top-flight organization built with a strong farm system that kept churning out talent long after the team became a perennial contender and gave up the annual top picks in the free-agent draft. That homegrown talent was augmented here and there by a high-priced star (Greg Maddux) brought in as a free agent, and by trade (Fred McGriff, Denny Neagle) in exchange for surplus prospects. The Yankees were an utterly contemporary team built largely with free agents, including a large-salary star (Cecil Fielder) and a slightly less talented and smaller-salary starter (Charlie Hayes) picked up from noncontenders for the stretch run, and two others (Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden) salvaged from the scrap heap of baseball’s substance-abuse policy.

Yet the differences between the two teams weren’t merely financial; they were philosophical in the dugout and stylistic on the field. The Braves were built slowly, by accumulation, and their youthful core of talent gave their play a patient feel. Having been to the World Series three times in this decade–and one other time to the National League Championship Series–and having won it all last year, they reflected a confident calm. Manager Bobby Cox adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward manufacturing runs, in the manner of an Earl Weaver. One got the feeling when the Braves fell behind in games 3-1 against the Saint Louis Cardinals in this year’s NLCS and 3-2 against the Yanks in the series that they felt, hey, if we don’t defend the title this season we’ll be back to reclaim it next year. They were willing to wait for their starting pitching, their power, and their lone bull pen ace to establish the team’s dominance over a seven-game series.

The Yanks had a more hurried, anxious feel about them. With ever-capricious owner George Steinbrenner paying the bills, no one figured the Yanks would remain intact to fight another day if they didn’t prevail now. Their squad was peopled by several star players nearing the ends of their careers, from tender-armed pitchers Jimmy Key and David Cone to Fielder and Strawberry and third baseman Wade Boggs. Still, the Yankees seemed contemporary not only in personnel but in how they played. Manager Joe Torre, who has been around in both the National League and the American, had an eclectic style he altered to suit each new situation. He could wait for the long ball or manufacture offense with the hit-and-run; he could stick with his starter or go early to the bull pen. It was in that bull pen, in fact, that the Yankees seemed most revolutionary. The New York bull pen was filled with top-flight talent most other teams would have deployed in the starting rotation. The New York starters were uneven but the bull pen was dependable–game in, game out–and in the end it was the difference in the season and in the series.

The Yankees put together the best bull pen since the Oakland A’s of the early 70s. The Cincinnati Reds’ “Nasty Boys” of 1990 and the Jesse Orosco-Roger McDowell Mets of 1986 don’t even compare, because those were bull pens organized horizontally, with lefties and righties deployed as circumstances would indicate. In fact, even the A’s of Rollie Fingers, Darold Knowles, and Bob Locker often played according to the lefty-righty percentages of manager Dick Williams. The Yanks had a vertical organization. John Wetteland would close in the ninth inning; the limber-armed, flame-throwing Mariano Rivera would pitch the seventh and eighth; and righty-lefty-righty specialists Jeff Nelson, Graeme Lloyd, and David Weathers would fill any space between the starters and the last three innings. Torre fit each into a distinct specialty role, and each performed spectacularly.

It has long been speculated that we are moving toward an era in which each pitcher goes only three innings and pitches every couple of days. The Yankees moved closer to that. Their bull pen was so dominant it made up for the areas where the Braves outclassed the Yanks. The Braves appeared to have more talent, and they certainly had more star quality, from the trio of Cy Young pitching aces–Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine–to closer Mark Wohlers to McGriff to upcoming young stars like Chipper Jones, Javier Lopez, and the stunning 19-year-old phenom Andruw Jones. (The two Joneses, young as they are, have a classic mien on the field, wearing their stirrup socks high and their caps tugged down low.) Yet the Braves did not play well as a team. They squandered opportunities offensively with poor execution and pissed away runs on defense. Manager Cox suffered the same fate Weaver often did in the series (where he, too, was 1-3 lifetime): the three-run homer one waits for sometimes never comes against top-echelon pitching talent. He brought Wohlers out of the bull pen too early in the pivotal fourth game, and Wohlers, trying to use his slider to get through an extra inning of work, allowed a game-tying three-run homer to catcher Jim Leyritz as the Braves blew a 6-0 lead.

If we’re not sure that the better team won, the team that played better clearly did. The Yankees’ defense toughened as the series progressed, as did their pitching, and offensively they succeeded in manufacturing runs while the Braves suffered a power outage. By the end of the series, the Yankees–the hated Yankees–had made themselves likable. As revolutionary as Torre’s pitching and offensive tactics were, the Yankees had the look of a classic team. There’s catcher Joe Girardi (this column is on the record from Girardi’s Cubs days as saying he looks like a throwback to the time when second-generation ethnic Europeans ruled the game; and let’s point out that Girardi has now made the playoffs two years in a row, winning it all this year, while the Cubs did not make the playoffs either season and the Colorado Rockies, who made the playoffs last year with Girardi, did not make them without him this year). There’s Wetteland and his well-worn baseball cap (as a kid we used to buy one baseball cap a year during the annual trip to the ballpark; by the end of the year ours looked every bit as salty as Wetteland’s). There’s the Roman profile of pitching ace Andy Pettitte. And that’s not even to mention the colorful New York coaching staff, which included the beetle-browed Torre and former Chicago fixtures Don Zimmer and–where did the Afro go?–Jose Cardenal.

What a likable bunch, and what a contrast from the public perception of Roberto Alomar, who opened the postseason with his Machiavellian surrender to next year’s suspension for spitting on an ump. First, however, a few words in Alomar’s defense. He’s an exceptional player with no history of anything like this in his past; he was called out on strikes on a pitch clearly wide of the plate in the first inning of a game the Orioles felt they had to win, with the White Sox close behind them in the wild-card race; he was thrown out by umpire John Hirschbeck after returning to the dugout (this was nothing like the incident that involved Boston pitcher Roger Clemens a few years ago, when Clemens stood on the mound and mouthed profanities at the ump during a playoff game); and finally, Baseball Weekly reported that Hirschbeck provoked the attack by calling Alomar “a fucking asshole,” and the less reliable New York Post offered the version that Hirschbeck called him “a fag.” Everyone’s reputation was muddied, especially the game’s at large, as what most annoyed all parties was the lack of a powerful, independent, and objective commissioner. The episode sullied baseball and cast its continued labor woes into high relief.

What a pleasure, then, to have the sport’s more pleasant aspects assert themselves in the end in the Yankees. This was a group that completely lacked the franchise’s traditional swagger, that simply played good solid baseball. Even Steinbrenner struck a humble pose on the locker room podium when the championship trophy was presented. As an avowed American League fan we should have been rooting for the Yankees all along, but we have to admit that the Braves’ star power and our fondness for Maddux and the Joneses had us behind the Braves until the very end. When the Yankees won, however, we found ourself somehow happy–unexpectedly pleased.

Through the years and the recent labor turbulence, baseball continues to change in unexpected ways on the field as well as off. The Yankees’ bull pen, and their way of building a ball team, will probably be emulated by several teams this off-season. Somehow, the Yankees carried out a silent revolution and left the game intact. With a labor agreement seemingly imminent, the sport suddenly moves forward with new champions emphasizing a deep and selfless style of play. The White Sox and Cubs aside, can the sport’s future really be so suddenly exciting? It sure is sweet to think so.