Baseball fans are the last loyalists on earth, and that is an unspeakable burden. There are so many teams out there that don't deserve fans, that spend their money stupidly, and that don't honor the traditions of baseball. Rooting for one of these teams just because you always have is like sticking it out in a bad marriage: Nobody is impressed anymore, so why make yourself miserable? And if you're a Yankees fan, well, it really is time to give that a rest. This is the season to break out and shop for a new team—to discover the joys of fan free agency. This could be a serendipitous exercise, or you could be methodical about selecting your new club. Here's one way to go about it:
1. It must be a smart team, and by smart, I mean a team that spends its money wisely. Particularly in this pre-recession moment, you want to be able to respect the general manager as a businessperson. You want him to get the most bang for his buck. Anybody can buy a pennant.
So let's start our search by narrowing it down to the teams who understand thrift and value. These are the ones whose total payroll worked out to less than $500,000 for every game they won in the 2000 season (in other words, payroll divided by wins):
1. Minnesota Twins, $229,304
2. Kansas City Royals, $321,953
3. Florida Marlins, $327,401
4. Oakland Athletics, $359,272
5. Chicago White Sox, $384,836
6. Cincinnati Reds, $408,538
7. Montreal Expos, $417,466
8. Pittsburgh Pirates, $456,276
9. Milwaukee Brewers, $462, 539
(The Yankees, by the way, spent $1.3 million per victory last year. The Dodgers and the Red Sox were the only other teams to spend more than $1 million per win.)
2. There's no sense in rooting for a total loser, so let's cross the Twins right off the list. If you already are a Twins fan, well, that's your cross to bear, and you can't expect the rest of us to join your lonely crusade. Yes, the Twins have a handful of halfway decent young players, and there is a miracle scenario in which they eke out a .500 record, possibly within the next decade or so. However, it's just as likely that the Twin Cities will wind up in Triple A.
3. No jumping on any bandwagons. As a fan, you live for the illusion that your support actually makes a difference. Teams that are already on top clearly don't need you. For example, this would be a great season to be an A's fan, but if you aren't one already, too late. Same goes for the White Sox, although I have a feeling they'll struggle to do as well as they did last season. So keep them in mind for next year.
4. No AstroTurf. Aesthetics are essential in baseball, and though you may never actually set foot in your new team's park, you want be able to picture a pastoral scene. You certainly won't want to pollute your mind with images of the abominable Olympic Stadium. So say goodbye to the Expos. And while we're at it, let's delete the Reds. They may have ripped out the plastic turf at Cinergy Field, but that is still one of the unsightliest parks in the league, to say nothing of the name.
5. The team should have relative unknowns about to burst into stardom—which means cutting the Pirates from our list. Their two best players are Jason Kendall and Brian Giles, who are perfectly good but nothing to get all that jazzed about, and there is zip, zero, nada, nothing coming up through the farm system. The Pirates aren't as miserly as the Twins, but their management has proved itself to be talent-blind, which is a more serious offense.
6. Favor old, cold-weather industrial cities teetering on the edge of obsolescence. You're not just rooting for a team, after all, you're rooting for an entire city, and some cities could really use the support. A sun-drenched place like Miami, on the other hand, does not—and that's a shame because the Marlins sure have a promising young pitching staff. (If they'd only move to Buffalo, they'd be perfect.)
That leaves us with the Brewers and the Royals—Kansas City isn't quite teetering on the edge of obsolescence, but it's not Phoenix, either. And the Royals nicely satisfy the rest of these requirements. It's a shame they gave up Johnny Damon for the rusty old closer Roberto Hernandez, but in Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney they have good young hitters, and last year they ran off a string of wild, exhilarating rallies. My "Sports Nut" colleague Jeremy Derfner bravely picked them to finish second in the AL Central, ahead of the White Sox. If they have a chance of pulling that off, they'll need your support. As will the Brewers, who have bad catching, not much pitching, and an injured shortstop. But here's what they've got that's worth rooting for: a fancy new stadium and a hard-hitting outfield, plus U.S. Olympic team hero Ben Sheets on the mound. So go ahead, be courageous, root for an epic, small-market World Series—the Brewers vs. the Royals. Network executives will scream bloody murder, but it'll be good for baseball and good for free-agent fans everywhere.