MINNEAPOLIS -- If the 88th World Series is proof of anything, it is that the gloomy forecasts that accompanied the advent of baseball free agency 15 years ago were somewhat exaggerated.
The rich didn't get richer. The poor didn't get poorer -- except in Cleveland, of course. The strongest teams did not sign all the best players and dominate the game. The Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins, divisional cellar-dwellers only a year ago, are in the Fall Classic. How much more proof do you need?
Never in the history of the game had one team gone from last place one year to the World Series the next. This year, there are two.
Twins manager Tom Kelly is not given to humorous asides, but even he was tuned in to the irony of it all when someone asked him yesterday what impressed him most about the Braves.
"Going from last to first," he said. "That hasn't been done since we did it."
Is this parity or parody? Has the quality of baseball declined so dramatically that the very worst teams are only one year away from being the best, or has the free movement of quality players evened the playing field for all?
The Twins and Braves made important acquisitions last winter. The Twins signed new-look free agents Chili Davis and Jack Morris. The Braves signed free-agent third baseman Terry Pendleton, who promptly won the National League batting title. No one seriously believes either team would be here if not for the free-agent market.
"We had a decent nucleus of players, we added some players in key spots and everything fell into place," Kelly said. "It can happen. The Braves made a lot of similar moves."
The Braves improved by 29 games this year, thanks to the continuing growth of their young pitching staff and a significant upturn in offensive production. The Twins improved by 21 victories, thanks largely to a vastly improved starting rotation.
Morris, who turned down a three-year, $9.3 million contract offer from the Detroit Tigers to come home to Minnesota, will take the mound for the Twins tonight. Left-hander Charlie Leibrandt is a surprise Game 1 starter for the Braves.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox has raised some eyebrows with his pitching alignment for the Series. He was expected to start 20-game winner Tom Glavine in the opener, but he chose to send Leibrandt against Morris and bring Glavine back on extended rest to match up with Twins right-hander Kevin Tapani.
Leibrandt probably is the weakest member of the Braves' postseason rotation. He has not won since Sept. 12, though he pitched well in his only start in the National League Championship Series.
Glavine would have been working on normal (four days) rest if he had gotten the Game 1 assignment, but Cox decided that his winningest pitcher could use another day off after a season in which he ranked second in the National League with 246 2/3 innings pitched. Glavine, who has had occasional episodes of arm tiredness this year, was not particularly sharp in his two playoff starts.
By holding Glavine back, Cox has eliminated the possibility of using his Cy Young candidate three times, but he said that was never a consideration.
"I saw no reason not to pitch Charlie," Cox said. "We're going to use four guys. We felt he threw well against Pittsburgh. He should have won that game, 2-1. He's a 15-game winner. We like him. He was going to pitch Game 1 or 2 no matter what."
Leibrandt is the only Braves starter with World Series experience. He pitched twice for the Kansas City Royals in the 1985 Series, giving up five runs over 16 1/3 innings against the St. Louis Cardinals. But his postseason experience, and his experience pitching in the Metrodome, apparently had no bearing on the decision to send him to the mound in Game 1. Cox simply wanted to make sure he had all his pitchers working on sufficient rest.
"I wasn't really that surprised," Leibrandt said. "I knew that I was going to pitch Game 1 or 2. It's really an honor. I appreciate Bobby giving me a chance to come through."
Left-hander Steve Avery, who dominated the Pirates in the NLCS, will face Twins' 20-game winner Scott Erickson in Game 3. John Smoltz, who won the final game of the playoffs on Thursday night, will go against Morris in Game 4.
The Twins should be rested and ready. They won the American League pennant in short order, taking the Toronto Blue Jays in five games and taking five days to prepare for the World Series. But a year ago, the Oakland Athletics entered the World Series after a similar layoff and were swept in four games by the Cincinnati Reds.
The Braves had to win the final two games in Pittsburgh to capture their first NL pennant since 1958, then fly into Minneapolis in the wee hours of Friday morning. Will they be battle-weary or battle-hardened?
"I don't think it will make any difference," Cox said. "I'm sure he [Tom Kelly] has got his team prepared, and our team, naturally, is game-hardened right now."