The Rays’ Success Is Bad For Baseball

October 22, 2008 – 12:01 am by McD

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.

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  1. 17 Responses to “The Rays’ Success Is Bad For Baseball”

  2. Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

    By Tom Humes on Oct 22, 2008

  3. My friends, if Joe the Plumber buys the Cubs, why should he be penalized for running a team that makes more money than than the others?

    John McCain

    By Hickey on Oct 22, 2008

  4. Yankees had made the playoffs every year since 1996, and most of those times by winning the AL East (consistently competitive), won the World Series 4 times (appeared six times), and have generated some of the best farm prospects playing in the MLB today. They would have won three other league divisions outright with their record this year. They’re actually quite a formidable team. How are they “poorly run?”

    There is an entirely different argument to be made against their profligate spending as an anti-competitive factor in league play. But it’s not the spending that’s anti-competitive, it’s the price of the players. Unproven or journeyman players are extra-cheap. Talented free agents are awfully expensive, and are subject to unrestricted bidding wars on the open market. How is this the fault of the winning bidders? Hell, you can spend $40 million and end up with four years of an injured Carl Pavano! That’s not at all unfair to the Royals. What’s unfair to the Royals is that all the good players want eight-figure yearly salaries, and the league includes rich owners who can spend any dollar amount building a team. Maybe that should or shouldn’t change. But what shouldn’t change are competitive owners like John Henry or Hank/Hal Steinbrenner doing what it takes (among what’s available) to have a great team.

    By Brian Van on Oct 22, 2008

  5. Your passion as a fan is admirable but you’re overlooking many facts. Firstly, your definition of market size really has nothing to do with market size, but rather payroll size (ahem, Detroit…and Minneapolis is in fact a huge market). Secondly, you make no reference to the huge sums being pocketed by the “small market” teams as a result of revenue sharing. Ask any Pittsburgh fan and they’ll tell you the ownership gladly pockets a tidy profit each year despite the awful team on the field. I think you’d be better served targetting cheap owners who use their sparse attendance as a crutch and an excuse to not open their wallets. Lastly, why is it so imperitive that each team has an equal shot each year? Just because fans won’t sell out gorgeous Petco park and don’t watch in large numbers on tv, doesn’t mean the passionate fans in Boston, NY and Chicago should have their teams handcuffed so the good people of San Diego or Kansas City or Pittsburgh can proudly support their heavily subsidized contending team each year. Your article is thought provoking, but I think it is based more on your passion and desire to root for a winner than on hard facts.

    By Will N on Oct 22, 2008

  6. This is absolutely ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that owning a major league baseball team is akin to owning a magic ATM that prints money whenever you want it.

    The dirty little secret that your small market owners do not want you to know is that they receive eight figure ($10M+, in some cases $20-40M) subsidies each year from all of that Red Sox, Yankee, Dodger gear/tickets/concessions sold. These teams, with the current luxury tax and shared revenue requirements, pay $50-60M each every year to subsidize smaller market teams.

    The real question to ask is what happens to this money? In most cases the owners just pocket it and continue to rail against the rich teams and the total unfairness of baseball.

    A salary cap would only hurt the players (who deserve every dollar they get) and not the owners. Not to mention that franchises like the Red Sox and Yankees would just make even more money under this situation and the inequity would go on to things like player development and scouting.

    The real solution to these problems is not a salary cap, but a salary minimum (just throwing a number out there, but $50M between draft signings and free agents sounds reasonable). Make the teams like the Royals, Twins, and Marlins use the money that MLB gives them each year to invest in player development and free agent signings. Make the owners stop bilking the fans in these cities by pretending that they are going broke. Give these fans the baseball teams that they deserve to see.

    By Tom A on Oct 22, 2008

  7. First I’ll address Brian Van,
    Great comment, but I think the Yankees have been poorly managed when you consider they’re top prospects haven’t quite panned out. Sure, injuries have played a role, but right now look at their roster. Most of the guys are incredibly expensive free agent pickups who have been decent but not worth their price tag.

    As for the players demanding too much money, well it’s the big market owners who pay those salaries when those guys are on the market. If they refused to pay those huge salaries, the players would have to lower their asking prices. Of course they won’t, because they want the top talent. It’s a two-way street but you do make a good point.

    Will N,
    Another fantastic comment. Yes it is a piece designed to make you think. And you’re right, what’s going on in Pittsburgh is a joke and again, you’re right that it’s about payroll size, not market size. But generally, the big market clubs are the big payroll clubs (not always but for the most part). And it is not imperative that each team have a shot each year, but they should have the opportunity – if run well – to compete every year. And as it stands now, it’s impossible for that to happen. Simply because contracts can go sky high and they don’t have equal revenue streams to compete with the unlimited resources of the big market/big payroll teams.

    There really is no silver bullet to the situation, but I think the point of the post is to make the reader think about this in a way they haven’t before.

    Again, you guys both made excellent points and these were two fantastic comments. Thanks.

    By Phillips on Oct 22, 2008

  8. A salary cap with a hard floor would deal with cheap owners. And if the cap and floor are set appropriately, the total salary of all players would stay the same. It might lower salaries on the best players and raise salaries for the rank-and-file, but the rank-and-file outnumber the superstars. They can make the players union do what they want.

    By Zac on Oct 22, 2008

  9. Boston is 12th in population by metro area in the US. San Diego is 18th. San Diego is closer to Bostons’ size than Boston is to 1/3 the size of NY or of LA. San Diego is larger than Tampa by about the same size as Boston is larger than San Diego.

    It ain’t the meat it’s the motion.

    Your team just sucks. They have a long and inglorious tradition of sucking, and they have you convinced they can’t do anything about it.

    Grow up and stop whining.

    By Tim Al Fayed on Oct 22, 2008

  10. Only creating a salary floor likely does nothing but cause the owners to abandon the smaller market teams. The money teams get from the MLB revenue sharing is still insignificant when compared to total payrolls, and teams budget around a specific targeted profit. If they are forced to spend more on players they likely cut down elsewhere, whether it be player development, coaching salaries, etc. Attacking the owners for pocketing money is a strange concept since that’s kind of the reason they own a team.

    By Steve M on Oct 22, 2008

  11. I’m going to have to throw my hat in with the “disagree” group.

    The Rays are good for baseball because, by being well run and locking up their young talent to extensions early, they are less likely to go the fire sale route when the series is done. If that’s the case and the majority of the team’s talent stays in Tampa, it provides even less of an excuse to ownership groups in Pittsburgh, KC, Miami, Baltimore and other markets to not get their ducks in a row.

    The bigger problem right now isn’t the super-rich teams; it’s the ones who refuse to do anything with the money they do have. Wayne Huizenga and Jeffrey Loria would have found ways to justify their Marlins fire sales even if there had been more revenue equality at the time.

    By Signal to Noise on Oct 22, 2008

  12. Steve,

    Interesting point, but I think you might be mistaken on a couple of points.

    First, I do not think the owners are going to abandon those teams. They would still be making money on them in that situation and even though they might have to adjust their profit margins, the return on investment of owning a MLB team is still fantastic compared to a lot of other businesses. Also, why should the bottom teams in the league be able to gross such massive profit margins percentage-wise on their teams failings while organizations like the Red Sox, the Yankees, and even the Tigers, Dodgers, or Brewers invest more money in having successful teams. Admittedly, these teams are making more money total in profits, but you can argue that this is because they are investing more (even if some, like Milwaukee, are in smaller markets).

    Second, all you would have to mandate is that they spend the money allotted to them on what that money was given to them for: to make them more competitive. I don’t think we would be asking them to do anything except what they are already expected to do. This money was never intended to be pocketed in the first place. It was meant to increase competition in baseball (whereby MLB is more popular and revenues go up).

    I don’t think attacking the owners for pocketing this money is unreasonable at all. I can’t blame them for pocketing it when no-one enforces it otherwise. But, these revenue sharing rules were put into effect to increase competitive balance and allow these teams to invest the resources necessary to make them competitive.

    I think the original point is right to say that these teams will likely not be competitive for as consistent a time as NY, Chicago, Boston, or LA, but baseball does not need this to be successful. The Brewers, Rays, Twins, and Rockies have shown the last few years that teams that manage their resources correctly can compete with limited salaries and draw attendance (see Brewers especially). Of course they will have a smaller margin for error, but on the flip side, NY’s $200M payroll and Detroit’s $150M didn’t do them a lot of good this year either.

    By Tom A on Oct 22, 2008

  13. Holy F the words are so small and numerous

    By Jersey on Oct 22, 2008

  14. Yes, a salary floor would fix a lot of this. You can’t sit at the table to play poker if you’re never going to throw in to the pot and fold your hand all the time.

    Also, as fans we are beat over the head over and over again with the amount of player salaries and bonuses. This only works to serve the owners, as they can cite the high salaries as the reason for high prices for tickets, beer, parking, gear, etc. This also works to turn the fans against the players, b/c the players are so rich, etc. I’d rather have the money go to the players. I never bought a ticket to see the owner.

    Owners should have to publish the amount of money they spend on the draft, development and minor leagues. They should also have to publish the amount of revenue sharing money they receive, which is basically they’re start up money for the season before they sell one ticket or get any localTV money. But all we’re ever goinig to hear about is how much the players make and how much it costs to go to the game.

    Most people like to eat hamburgers and sausage, NO ONE wants to know how it’s made. Go Rays!

    By jose cantu rodriguez on Oct 22, 2008

  15. i don’t think that the revenue sharing amounts are hidden. a simple google search will find them for you.

    for example, 2001:

    (i’d look more, but i’m at work).

    the idea of a “salary floor” is one of the silliest things i’ve ever heard.

    2008 Florida Marlins: 84-77, $21 million payroll.

    2008 Atlanta Braves: 72-90, $102 million payroll.

    Teams like the Marlins are trying to compete the best way they know how; by getting a nucleus of younger players that can play. Their revenue is in line with their payroll.

    Teams like the Braves can afford higher spending because there are substantially more baseball fans that attend games in Atlanta then there are in Miami.

    But then you get owners like Peter Angelos, who simply loves to complain about how hard it is to compete in the AL East. No one is telling Angelos he needs to spend big bucks. What Orioles fans want (and I’m sure it’s the same in places like San Diego and Pittsburgh) is to admit that you’ve been “rebuilding” for 10 years (or more) now, and it’s time to try something different.

    You can’t just look at payroll as the measure of whether a team is trying to win.

    By kevin on Oct 22, 2008

  16. You lost me with your comment:

    To borrow from Senator Obama and the subsequent fear-mongering reaction to his comments, we need to “spread the wealth around” in baseball.

    So to disagree is “fear mongering”? Sounds more like you’re into fascism.

    By rtl on Oct 22, 2008

  17. Hold on just one minute Will N. I usually don’t post on these, but did you really just try to justify that these guys have ever earned millions of dollars to go play a game?!?! Lets be honest here. Disregaurd the fact that I, being a member of the military, along with my other brothers in arms are grossly underpaid for putting our lives on line (I don’t care if you agree with why we are where we are) what about all the other civil servents who are in the same postion such as police officers, teachers, fire fighters, and so on. Don’t tell me that getting paid more money in one day than the average American because you are good a swinging a bat or catching a ball (talking about pretty much every “sports star” here) is justified in any way. Your post, much like what I imagine your general opnions to be, are a farce.

    By sgt.adams on Oct 22, 2008

  18. Here’s how I see it. If the Rays do win it all, it could bring 26-27 other baseball owners around to thinking “Hey, instead of wasting $40 million on an aging marquee name that will be more injury-prone and well past his prime, I can spend $10 million on developing 4 to 6 young guns into a long-term winner!” Even the Yanks and the BoSox could start realizing they don’t need to waste millions on free agency, and bring wages down accordingly. It’ll keep the small market teams from wasting their own FA money as well.

    Now, this could affect that ‘luxury tax’ system in place where the big-money teams (yanks, cough) pay a tax based on payroll: if the payroll drops enough, no more tax revenue, and the small market teams lose that revenue. So hopefully it’ll force the teams down the road to establish a more equitable and effective revenue-sharing system…

    By PaulW on Oct 24, 2008

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