To put it into ultra-simplistic terms, our economy is screwed because people have been spending far too much money. People were given home loans they could not possibly pay back, thus killing several lending giants. A few years ago was the first time in a hell of a long time that the average person was in debt instead of managing to save money. The gap between the wealthiest one percent and the lower 50% was nearly as big as it has been since feudalism. The ultra-rich have become ultra-rich-ier and the dollar the middle class earns just doesn’t go as far as it used to. We, as a nation, are spending too much and living beyond our means, and the playing field wasn’t level to begin with.
Turns out baseball truly is the national pastime because it has an eerily similar money problem. The richest teams are the only ones who can afford to compete every season. They have financial power with which the smaller teams simply cannot compete. But you knew that. The difference between the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox is minimal when it comes to money. But compare them to the A’s, Marlins, Rays, and even mid-level teams like the Padres and Brewers, and you see they’re a world away. But you knew that too.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I find most financial-parity-in-baseball arguments pretty damn boring. Yet, since my Padres are out of it (and have been for, oh, six months), I’ve had the luxury of thinking about the big picture in baseball instead of just enjoying the Tampa Bay Devil Rays beating the big boys. And, this being an election year and all, the economy has been, uh, “discussed” for an average of 23 hours out of every 24-hour news cycle*. It would have been fun to just root for the little guy in between football games, but I couldn’t watch a Tampa game without thinking the Rays making the World Series, or, should I say, another small-market team making the World Series, is bad for baseball.
Here’s why: It doesn’t prompt any changes to the financial structure that has quietly killed baseball over the last 20 years. Steroids and everything attached to it made a lot noise and generated a lot of media breathlessness, but nothing, nothing, has damaged the sport more steadily than the fiscal inequality between the teams in Major League Baseball.
With the Rays in the series, the rich teams can say they have no need to share their money with the poor teams because “hey, look, the Marlins, Rays, and Rockies have all made the series recently!” The Yankees can keep having $200 million failures, buy every free agent, pay them $20 million a year, keep jerking Joba Chamberlain’s role around and let the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the world keep developing players and being good once a decade while the big boys keep competing for the division pretty much yearly. Every mistake the big guys make (Carl Pavano and Darren Dreifort among many, many others) can be easily absorbed because teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have the good fortune of playing in huge media markets flush with advertising dollars and profit-generating opportunities. You think the Minnesota Twins could afford the Carl Pavano Disaster? Or to not have a real plan in regards to a prospect like Chamberlain? It would have set them back ten years financially and on the field. Another example: C.C. Sabathia is easily the most coveted free-agent pitcher out there. Watch, he’s going to lean toward signing with Milwaukee, but then the Yankees and all their money will make a Godfather-offer and that will be that. Unless the Dodgers slip in there with their own megabucks contract offer. Signing Sabathia won’t come down to anything but which rich team will be willing to spend more money.
Every team that spent $100 million this season now has a built-in excuse for not sharing money with the have-nots in baseball. And the owners and commissioner can drag their feet on this issue some more because they can just point to the Rays, Brewers and Twins. Look at the teams Tampa beat on the way to the series: the Chicago White Sox (big market, $121 mil payroll), and the Boston Red Sox (bigger market, $133 mil payroll). Another rich team, the Angels (huge market, extremely wealthy owner, $118 mil payroll), was the other AL team to make the playoffs. The Dodgers (big-ass market, $118 mil payroll), Cubs (big market, $117 mil payroll), and even Milwaukee ($74 mil payroll, despite not being a big market) all spent way more than the Rays ($43 mil payroll). Hell, $43 million is actually higher than the Rays have spent in the past. This is a big-spending year for them, and they were better than every one of the above teams.
This is a quality-of-play issue, not just a financial one. If baseball were fair, it would actually reward the well-run teams, which is how it should be. Having a rich owner and a lucrative television deal shouldn’t punch a team’s ticket to at least 85 wins automatically, but it often does. Those teams don’t have the pressure on them to maximize their draft picks and develop their players. Sure, the Rays and other teams are very well-run and do an excellent job scouting, drafting and developing players, but the rich teams don’t have to do that. They can afford to be badly run. The Yankees are terribly run, but they aren’t going to cry even though they spent $207 million in 2008. Why? Because they can afford it. They spend that every year without fail and are mocked by chuckling talking heads when they lose, but there are no real consequences for them. The Rays couldn’t even afford to lose $50 million, and there’s no chance in hell they even have $207 million. Hell, that might be the entire value of the franchise, and the Yankees spent it on payroll alone. And guess what? They sucked. If even one of Tampa’s investments for this season doesn’t pan out, they’re screwed. And it will stay that way as long as the rich teams are allowed to spend exorbitant amounts of money and not help out the poor teams. And no, the current revenue-sharing and luxury tax system doesn’t do nearly enough because you don’t see Oakland or Minnesota able to pony up the money to sign Sabathia.
For every 2008 Rays, there’s a 2008 Pirates, Nationals, A’s and Royals. For every Marlins series title, there has been a subsequent fire sale. The Padres were winning the NL West regularly a few years ago, but now it’s time to develop players again, so they suck and it’s time to cut payroll. They can’t just add an uber-prospect to the roster and keep right on winning. Thus, Jake Peavy is reportedly on the block. You didn’t see Johan Santana get dealt TO the Twins. You didn’t see Hudson, Zito, Mulder and Haren spend their whole careers with Oakland while getting lucrative extensions the whole time. No, the poor teams had to jettison their good players while they still could because they couldn’t afford them. Only the rich teams can afford to compete every year. So even if the poor teams beat them in the playoffs sometimes, even if they win the World Series sometimes, baseball is still not a fair sport and won’t be until the financial inequalities are fixed.
Look at how lovingly praise was piled on Billy Beane for creating a winner with no money back in the early 2000’s and look at that same A’s team now. Rebuilding once again. They lost every big-name player they produced and can’t afford to sign any big-money free agents. And the A’s and Twins are the very model of well-run small-market teams, so imagine what it’s like for the Kansas City’s and Pittsburgh’s of the world. They don’t stand a chance. Ever.
What’s amazing is everyone knows all this. Every fan, player, owner, and even the commissioner knows baseball is currently an uneven sport. Everyone except the owners and players seem to agree there needs to be a hard salary cap in baseball already, too. But that’s the key. The owners and players are the ones who sit down every few years to negotiate a new labor deal. Make no mistake, they couldn’t care less whether there is financial parity in baseball. Everyone in that area of the game is in it purely for profit, even the players. The only term that matters is “maximum value.” This is why it just so happens the Yankees are in the running for virtually every big-name free agent.
I would dearly love to blame Scott Boras, but he is simply a product of the system. Drew Rosenhaus is an ass, but he’s stuck trying to fit his players under the salary cap in the NFL. Boras doesn’t have to do that. He can demand $30 million a year for A-Rod, or an $11 million signing bonus for a kid who hasn’t even touched a professional baseball field yet. And he might even get it. That’s the system baseball exists in. And until that gets fixed, it’s Scott Boras’ world.
Look at the playoff field next year, and you’ll see mostly big-money franchises back in the mix for a title again. Remember the 2007 Rockies? You know, made the World Series before losing to big-money Boston? Yeah, they were awful this season. Beware, Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Enjoy it while you can, because next year the team may be toiling away again in front of 1,200 people at the Trop. The Yankees? They’ll be okay.
So how do we get real equality in baseball to happen? Whatever is done, it has to cost the owners and players money. That’s the only way to get their attention. To borrow from Senator Obama and the subsequent fear-mongering reaction to his comments, we need to “spread the wealth around” in baseball. Yankee fans, stop being OK with your team doubling the spending of every other team in baseball, not because they’re losing but because they are a poorly-run franchise and you deserve better. Same thing for you, Royals, Pirates, and Nationals fans. Demand your team be better run or you simply won’t show up. Owners, stop buying sports franchises and expecting to make a huge profit AND win. Everyone, stop watching the various television networks the MLB teams have bought for themselves. Stop being OK with spending $10 on a beer and paying $20 for the privilege of parking near the stadium. Stop spending the $300* it takes a family of four to go to a game. Fight public funding for team stadiums at every turn. It’s extortion and should be stopped. And do not accept a team into your town if a greedy owner takes his team away from another city. And small-market teams, for the love of God, STOP MAKING THE WORLD SERIES.
Hurt their money, and we will see that baseball can truly become the National Pastime instead of a simple metaphor for the flaws in today’s society.
*statistic made up roughly estimated by me.