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Associated Press/Photo by John Froschauer

Poor man's playoffs

Sports | The three teams with the highest payrolls are watching at home

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

As Major League Baseball's postseason moves through October, the story of those teams absent from the playoff bracket is almost as compelling as the on-field action. What baseball analyst could have guessed last spring that the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, and New York Mets, the three teams with the highest payrolls in the game, would be among those left out?

For the Yankees, the final season in their storied stadium proved a dramatic disappointment due to erratic starting pitching and significant injuries. Despite a roster with 12 players making at least $11 million per year, the pinstriped machine finished eight games back of the division-winning Tampa Bay Rays, a team whose highest-paid player made just $6 million.

In Detroit, a high-powered and very well-paid offensive lineup failed to outscore its opponents on the season, as a team some predicted to win the World Series languished to a last-place finish. Slugger Gary Sheffield, who collected more than $13 million for his efforts, batted just .225.

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The Mets watched their season end earlier than anticipated for the second consecutive year, blowing a 3 1/2 game division lead over the final 17 games and losing out to a Philadelphia Phillies team with $40 million less in payroll. The collapse provided a sad end to the life of Shea Stadium.

Along came a Spider-Man

News of Tiger Woods electing to undergo season-ending surgery to repair his left knee in June sent the golf world into a minor panic. Could the sport still thrive without its best player hunting greens on Sundays? Would millions tune in to watch Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson?

In a word: no.

Television ratings for the weekend rounds of the Tour Championship last month were less than half the levels of a year ago, despite an exhilarating finish that included four well-known players. Numbers for the two Majors held since Woods had to sit out were comparably disastrous.

But such rough is not without diamonds, one in particular of extraordinary luster. Columbian player Camilo Villegas has taken advantage of the game's unclogged winner's circle to capture the first two PGA victories of his young career. With back-to-back titles in the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship, Golf Digest's most ripped man on tour emerged as the seventh-ranked player in the world.

Spider-Man, as Villegas is known for his spider-like crouch when reading the break of greens, has all the makings of a golf superstar: model good looks, engaging personality, and a deadly putting stroke. In the final round of the Tour Championship Sept. 28, he rolled in eight birdies, including one from 42 feet, to rally from five shots back. Just three weeks earlier in the final round of the BMW, clutch putting on the back nine turned a shot lead into a two-shot victory.

Already a superstar in Columbia, Villegas, 26, seems destined for U.S. stardom something along the order of tennis' Andre Agassi or soccer's David Beckham-that is, as much for persona as for talent.

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