Small-Market Teams Leading MLB Standings

The baseball season heads into its home stretch, and it looks like the year of the little guy: The Pirates, Royals, Orioles and Tigers are contending for championship spots. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks to ESPN's Howard Bryant about Major League Baseball.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS THEME MUSIC)

HEADLEE: We are rounding the corner toward Major League Baseball's homestretch. Some surprising names are up near the top of the standings: Pirates, Royals, Orioles all contending this year. They have a collective zero World Series titles since 1985 and it's not really a surprise. But I can't get through a sports interview without mentioning, of course, the beloved Detroit Tigers. They're in first place in the American League.

As for why the little guys are back in this fight, for that answer we turn to Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. Good morning, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hi, Celeste. How are you doing?

HEADLEE: I'm doing well. Thanks for being with us. And we just got to start with the Pirates 'cause what an amazing story. Twenty consecutive losing seasons and now they're on top of their division. What's going on?

BRYANT: Well, that's a really good question. I think last year, everyone thought we were going to be having this conversation. I don't think anyone thought they were going to be the best team in baseball. But with Clint Hurdle as their manager they finally began to start, you know, showing some signs of becoming a pretty good team. And then the bottom fell out in August and September and they ended up under .500 again. They haven't been .500 since 1992 when Barry Bonds was there and they lost the last play of the game in the NLCS.

But they're a very, very good team. They've got a superstar in Andrew McCutcheon. They've got good pitching. They've got a great manager and it looks like they're not going to collapse this year. And I think it's a really great story for the city of Pittsburgh. They've got a fantastic stadium, PNC Park is probably - for my money - it's maybe the best stadium in baseball to watch a game. And the people there deserve a winner.

The team hasn't held up their end of the bargain management-wise, but I think that the city has a - they've suffered enough. I think it's time for some postseason baseball for them.

HEADLEE: I agree. Well, then let's go to another deserving team and that's the Kansas City Royals. They're a few games out of the wild card - definitely in the playoff hunt - and they have a recent history I would think it's fair to say of staggering mediocrity. Wouldn't you say?

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: I would say more than staggering. You know what? I have less sympathy for the Royals because...

HEADLEE: Aw, come on.

BRYANT: ...David Glass, owner of Wal-Mart, is one of the richest men in the world. They could have spent money. They've had great players. They've had better players than the Pirates have had for the past 15 years. A lot of their players ended up winning with other teams, whether it was Johnny Damon or Carlos Beltran or some of the other players. They've had good players and they haven't spent - obviously the economics of the game sort of hurt them. But when you look at what the Oakland A's are doing, they're in first place - they made the playoffs last year.

When you look at what Tampa Bay has done, they're in second place. They went to the World Series in 2008. Just because you don't have a $200 million payroll doesn't mean that you can't compete. It may mean that you can't for 10 straight years, but it doesn't mean that you should be in last place every single year.

I think that in the case of Pittsburgh and in the case of Kansas City, I think their managements have failed the fans. And this is the year where you've got a chance to do something and I think the fans deserve a little bit more action, let's say, from the front office.

HEADLEE: Well, before I let you go, Howard, we have to talk about the big story in baseball, which is the suspension of 13 players for performance-enhancing drug-related offenses. Is this going to affect the playoff hunt?

BRYANT: Sure, it's going to affect the pennant race. Your Tigers, they knew a suspension was coming...

HEADLEE: Yeah, I knew - bloody prepare for it.

BRYANT: ...with Johnny Peralta so they...

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: Exactly, they prepared for it, so they went and got a backup with Iglesias from the Red Sox. But Texas did not make a deal for Nelson Cruz. He ended up taking a 50-game suspension, so now they're scrambling. Maybe they're going to get Alex Rios from the White Sox. They're going to try to find another player to fill that void. But for some of those teams, that lost player, it's going to be very interesting to see how they fare in September. But at the same time, as one of the players told me, don't test positive and you won't have these problems.

HEADLEE: Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, he joined us from the studios of Vermont Public Radio in Norwich. Thanks , Howard.

BRYANT: Thank you.

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HEADLEE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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