September 4, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Jerry Green

Baseball hits the September Stretch

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, center, loses his facemask and helmet as Matt Joyce, left, scores on a double in the fourth inning of the Rays' win Friday. The Rays have the 19th-highest payroll in baseball. (Associated Press)

Baseball rumbles onward now, in the time frame known as the September Stretch -- the best, most captivating period of the entire season. It is the month when pennant races historically have been settled, so frequently in melodrama, so often in rude disappointment.

It is the time when the winter wisdom of the general managers and their machinations at the various summer trade deadlines turn into dividends. Or disasters.

The Labor Day weekend is an annual milepost.

The Tigers, for example, were breezing with a seven-game lead in the American League East on Sept. 6 a year ago.

What followed was one of the greatest -- worst -- collapses in the history of major-league races. At the bitter climax, the anticipated "clinch day!" never materialized.

After September turned October, the Tigers had lost again. They lost the divisional race, in a playoff game with Minnesota, and with defeat, their dignity.

It is the common belief in baseball, and among the savvy media attached to the sport, that the freely spending franchises dominate the races.

Not by the book

Early in this September's Stretch, I offer the Rays, the Rangers, the Reds and the Padres as examples of the inaccuracies of this concept. All are aimed toward the postseason with comparatively stingy payrolls. The more affluent Red Sox, Angels, Mets, Cubs and Dodgers are not.

"Moneyball," was the title of a best-selling book that detailed the sport and the flaws of overspending. It turned out to be an artful work, soon to be recreated as a motion picture, although the cash-trapped Athletics, centerpiece of the book, seldom win anything.

Actually, it is no simple matter to buy pennants. Extravagant cash outflows seldom buy tickets to the playoffs; they rarely buy championships.

Baseball, according to compiled data, has some wild spendthrift owners and general managers. Sad to say, the Tigers' Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski are among the heaviest spenders who have suffered with the most meager of results.

The Yankees are the lone exception to my theory. They always are different. No other club matches their free spending. They are the best with their ability to buy up the most talented -- and expensive -- free agents to mix with the best -- and expensive -- of the athletes from their farm system.

CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira plus trade acquisition Alex Rodriguez blending with homegrown Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and now Robinson Cano.

And with the largest payroll among MLB's 30 clubs, the Yankees are the wise man's choice to win the World Series again.

But their business first is to win their AL East Division. And they are challenged not by the Red Sox -- the club with the second-heaviest payroll according USA Today -- but the bargain-basement Rays.

Tampa Bay exists in a pennant race on a shoestring. Their payroll is No. 19, based on the figures compiled by USA Today's money jugglers. The Rays are headed toward the playoffs either as divisional winners or the wildcard entry.

The Yankees' 2010 payroll amounted to $206,333,389. The Rays' payroll: $71,923,471.

The disparity represented here is reflected through the major leagues at the start of the September Stretch. With the Yankees, only one other first-place club rates in the top ten in USA Today's payroll math. The Twins, leading the AL Central, are No. 10.

Dominant underdogs

To me, the most compelling teams this September are the Rangers, Reds and Padres. The Rangers have never won a pennant. It has been 21 years since the Reds' last pennant. The Padres' last pennant was in 1998.

None of these clubs was expected to be a contender this season.

Yet the Rangers and Reds have dominated their divisions all summer despite comparatively skimpy payrolls. And the Padres spent most of the season in first place, but now require a stretch run to stay there.

The Padres and Rangers just happen to prove this theory of mine. They are the finest bargains in baseball.

San Diego has been ahead in the National League West with the second smallest payroll in the major leagues. The Padres are No. 29, with only the hapless Pirates below them.

And Texas has been rolling along unexpectedly in the AL West with the No. 27 payroll.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox, destroyed by their multitude of injuries, are far behind in their wildcard race with their No. 2 payroll. The Cubs, with their No. 3 payroll, have been a dysfunctional team all season. The No. 4 Phillies are in a September race with the No. 15 Braves, in first place throughout the season, in the NL East. The No. 5 Mets are struggling to finish the season at .500.

Again proving the theory that it takes more than crazy spending payrolls to fuel winning ballclubs.

And thus we have reached the team with the No. 6 payroll on USA Today's 2010 list:

The affluent Detroit Tigers -- with a listed payroll of $122,864,928.

The ballclub that flopped last year in September has flopped more seriously this year after some flourishes prior to the All-Star break. I question the scouting, drafting and farm system -- not the willingness of Ilitch/Dombrowski to spend.

It's a cockeyed game, this baseball, as the Rangers, Padres, Reds, Braves and Rays -- relative tightwads -- roll through September toward October.