NL especially wide open

The NFL loves to trumpet the virtues of its parity, but the big leagues are every bit the land of opportunity.

Originally Published: January 29, 2004
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

It's Super Bowl week, which means the NFL and its dutiful chroniclers will spend a good portion of their time extolling the virtues of excess and reminding everyone how much parity exists in football.

Florida Marlins players
The Marlins gave their fans plenty to get excited about after their amazing run last season.

We'll be reminded -- again and again -- that no Super Bowl champion has repeated since 1994. It will be pointed out -- time after time -- that the last six teams making Super Bowl appearances have failed to even qualify for the playoffs the following season.

Whether all this minutia is actually meaningful is open to debate. It could be argued, after all, that there is something inherently wrong with a sport in which it's not only possible, but likely, to reach the championship game one year and fall under .500 the next (see: this year's Bucs and Raiders).

Interestingly, for the first time, there were recent signs that even the NFL was becoming a bit self-conscious about its "champs-one-year, bums-the next'' pattern, issuing a press release at its conference championship games that took pains to remind everyone that some teams actually qualify for the postseason in consecutive seasons!

If only baseball did a better job trumpeting up its parity. Because, believe it or not, the playing field is more even in baseball than you've been led to believe.

Consider:

  • Since 1998, covering the last six World Series, the National League has had six different representatives (pennant winners).

  • Over the last 10 World Series, the National League has been represented by seven different teams. Put another way, almost half of NL teams have visited the World Series in the last 10 Fall Classics.

    Back up a step and focus on the LCS, the baseball equivalent of the NFL's conference championship games:

  • In the NLCS, seven different teams have occupied the eight slots in the last four meetings for the pennant: Arizona, Florida Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Atlanta and New York. Only St. Louis has made multiple appearances.

    In the American League, the picture is admittedly different, with the New York Yankees serving as the AL standard-bearer in six of the last eight seasons.

    But go back to, say, 1991 -- hardly a lifetime ago in the bigger scheme of things -- and the AL has had six different champions, or again, nearly half of its membership.

    Playoff teams since 1998
    1998
    AL: x-Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Rangers
    NL: x-Padres, Braves, Astros, Cubs

    1999
    AL: x-Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Rangers
    NL: x-Braves, Mets, D-Backs, Astros

    2000
    AL: x-Yankees, Mariners, A's, White Sox
    NL: x-Mets, Cardinals, Giants, Braves

    2001
    AL: x-Yankees, Mariners, A's, Indians
    NL: x-D-Backs, Cardinals, Braves, Astros

    2002
    AL: x-Angels, Twins, Yankees, A's
    NL: x-Giants, Cardinals, Braves, D-Backs

    2003
    AL: x-Yankees, Red Sox, A's, Twins
    NL: x-Marlins, Cubs, Braves, Giants

    x- teams advanced to the World Series

    Indeed, while the Yankees have clearly dominated the American League over the last eight seasons -- though they haven't won a World Series since 2000 -- there's been widespread representation in the ALCS.

    Since 1997, a total of seven teams have reached the ALCS: Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Boston, Anaheim, Minnesota and Seattle.

    Translation: In the last seven seasons, exactly half of the AL's teams have played for the pennant.

    Baseball's spread-the-wealth nature is even more evident in playoff appearances.

    Again, using 1998 as the cutoff point, 10 American League teams have made at least one trip to the postseason in the last six Octobers: Baltimore, Boston, New York, Minnesota, Chicago, Cleveland, Anaheim, Texas, Oakland and Seattle. Only Tampa Bay (an expansion franchise), Toronto, Detroit and Kansas City have finished out of the running. Toronto, though, has finished with a winning record in four of the six seasons and Kansas City was in first place in the AL Central as late as last September.

    Detroit (10 consecutive losing seasons and counting) and Tampa Bay look truly hapless. But is that so much different than such perennial NFL losers as Arizona, Detroit, and, until this past season, Cincinnati?

    It's much the same picture in the National League, where since 1998, nine teams (or 56 percent) have been to the playoffs at least once: Atlanta, Florida, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego and Arizona. Of those nine, every one but San Diego has made multiple appearances.

    Go back just three more seasons to 1995, and add three more participants: Cincinnati, Colorado and Los Angeles. That means in the last nine seasons, only four NL teams have failed to qualify for at least a Division Series appearance: Montreal, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

    Nineteen of baseball's teams, then -- or one team shy of two-thirds -- have made it to the postseason since 1998.

    How does this compare to the on-any-given-Sunday NFL? Very favorably.

    Over that same time span, just three teams have failed to qualify for the NFL postseason tournament, and one is an expansion franchise (Houston).

    But it's important to remember several important distinctions:

  • The NFL has six playoffs spots per conference, while baseball has just four (per league). Comparing the NL and the NFC -- each conference or league has 16 teams -- there are one-third again as many playoff berths to be had.

    It should follow -- and does -- that more spots means more appearances for more teams.

  • While only three NFL teams have failed to make the playoffs since 1998, another four -- Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and New Orleans -- have made just one appearance each in that six-year span.

    That's particularly unimpressive, especially considering ...

  • Unlike MLB, until recently, the NFL did a bit of social engineering with its schedule, where teams finishing with poor records were rewarded with easier schedules the following year. Conversely, successful teams were punished with more demanding schedules.

    The NFL purposely set its lesser clubs on an easier road to the postseason. By virtue of its schedule, MLB provided no such help, yet yielded parity anyway. To the contrary, in some divisions, the unbalanced schedule is a hindrance to poor teams trying to improve. The lowly Devil Rays must play nearly one-quarter of their games each season against the Red Sox and Yankees.

    None of which is meant to detract from the NFL's week of self-congratulatory hoo-hah.

    But the next time some football apologist begins spouting about the NFL's parity, remind him or her that baseball, all things considered, isn't very far behind.

    Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.