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BASEBALL 2007: Parity reigns

Barry Zito thought about the San Francisco Giants' chances and was pretty pleased. Payroll no longer is supreme when it comes to World Series titles.

"In 2002, the wild card won. In '03 the wild card won. And in '04, Boston was the wild card and won," he said. "That's what's great about baseball."

Parity reigns in the major leagues, where there have been six World Series champions in six seasons for the first time since the late 1980s. So while watching the expected — Barry Bonds' home runs, Dice-K hoopla and New York Yankees turmoil — look for surprise teams to emerge.

Last spring, who expected St. Louis to win the World Series? How many people thought the Cardinals had a chance after they finished the regular season 83-78?

"There's no division today that you can say, 'This team is going to win for sure,'" commissioner Bud Selig said. "I can see in some of the divisions three or four teams competing right to the end. In every division there's enormous competition."

There's no shortage of teams hoping for big turnarounds.

The rebuilt Chicago Cubs, who hope to keep their Series title drought from reaching a century, brought in Lou Piniella to set off sparks from the manager's office, then committed $272 million to Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.

Philadelphia, building a team around Ryan Howard, added pitchers Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton.

"There are more teams with high expectations because of what's transpired in recent years," Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. "Ownerships with $60-to-70 million payrolls are saying, 'Why can't we do it?' "

Need more examples?

Milwaukee, trying to push ahead in a weak NL Central, signed St. Louis postseason star Jeff Suppan to a $42 million deal.

Toronto added two-time AL MVP Frank Thomas in an effort to break the New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox hegemony in the AL East.

"There is so much parity that you don't go into a three-, six-, nine-game stretch where you're playing any patsies anymore," Boston pitcher Curt Schilling said.

Across the major leagues, there are story lines large and small.

Much attention will be focused on Bonds — on and off the field.

He enters with 734 homers, 21 shy of Hank Aaron's record. In addition, the 42-year-old left fielder needs 159 hits to reach 3,000, 70 RBIs to get to 2,000 and 143 runs to reach Rickey Henderson's record of 2,295.

He also takes the field with a unique clause in his $15.8 million, one-year contract. With Bonds under investigation by a grand jury for possible perjury in his 2003 testimony on steroids, the San Francisco Giants insisted on a provision that states the team can terminate the agreement if he's indicted.

Tom Glavine, the ace of the New York Mets' staff while Pedro Martinez recovers from rotator cuff surgery, needs 10 wins to reach 300 and will get going right away in the major league season opener at St. Louis today. Randy Johnson, back with the Arizona Diamondbacks after snarling through two unsuccessful seasons with the New York Yankees, starts the season with 280 wins.

San Diego's Trevor Hoffman is 18 saves shy of 500. Sammy Sosa, trying to restart his career with the Texas Rangers after a year off from the game, needs 12 homers to reach 600. Houston's Craig Biggio is 70 hits shy of the 3,000 club.

Boston made the biggest offseason splash, bidding $51,111,111 for the rights to Japanese star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, then signed him to a $52 million deal. Even if he doesn't throw a gyroball — a pitch that appears to be more fiction than fact — Dice-K looked dominating at times during spring training.

"He's not from this planet. He's coming from somewhere else. He's awesome," Baltimore's Melvin Mora said after twice taking called third strikes against Dice-K.

Pittsburgh enters with 14 straight losing seasons, two shy of the record set by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48, and is one of the few teams with virtually no title hopes. Atlanta, which dropped to 79-83 after 14 consecutive division titles, also wants to climb back above .500.

Quick bursts are the key for many. Piniella is among seven new managers, joined by Florida's Fredi Gonzalez, Oakland's Bob Geren, San Diego's Bud Black, San Francisco's Bruce Bochy, Texas' Ron Washington and Washington's Manny Acta.

"It's important for every team, including ours, to get off to a fast start," Piniella said. "It really buoys confidence and can propel you to a really good season."

Some teams spent lavishly to fill holes. The Los Angeles Angels brought in outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. for $50 million, then fretted when his name came up in a human growth hormone case that's ongoing. San Francisco gave Zito $126 million, the richest contract for a pitcher, and even lowly Kansas City parted with money, giving Gil Meche $55 million.

Others already are looking ahead to potential holes next winter, when Atlanta's Andruw Jones, Minnesota's Torii Hunter and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki can become free agents.

For the Nationals, one of the few teams with no playoff hopes, it will be their last season at RFK Stadium before moving to their new ballpark rising along the Anacostia River, south of the Capitol. It will be the next to last seasons for Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York.

While there isn't any international play planned — there may be a Beijing opener in 2008, 2009 and 2010 — there's a new look, with different material for caps and a changed style for batting practice jerseys. For the first time, all teams will store baseballs in temperature-controlled rooms.

And there's a new postseason schedule, with three additional off-days that push the start of the World Series to a Tuesday, a requirement in baseball's new television contract.

"It's not about money in the playoffs," said Hall of Famer Willie Mays, Bonds' godfather. "It's about getting lucky."