Saturday, July 28, 2001

Ka-Ching: The Evolution of a Game by Kip Yates

It’s that time of year again. The Holiday season! Shopping for bargains! Fighting the crowds! Songs of joy in the air! Of course I am referring to the off season of baseball, otherwise known as free agent season. This is the time of year when all the owners without deep pockets search for that $3 million dollar relief pitching bargain or utility infielder. This is the time of year that the owners and general managers convene at their winter meetings to play a little hard ball of their own. They nudge and cajole each other until they get what they want or they go home. Those who succeed in December will prepare for a breakout season. Much like Tampa Bay did last year! But this is also the worst season of the year from a baseball fan’s perspective. One can witness the inherent greed that lies hidden during the summer months and I’m not referring to all the annoying Holiday commercials that inundate us each festive season. I’m talking about the about face regarding allegiances to the home team. All summer we hear that a player “only want to do what it takes to bring the fine city of (insert city name here) a much deserved championship.” When the off-season rolls around, we hear a much different tune.

I cannot even pick up the newspapers without getting a little queasy at what I am reading. Endless trade talks! Endless free agent talks! The never-ending chatter of the cable news stations droning on about which team will sign the overpriced flavor of the year. Tiring, old, speculation! I am not excited about the off season, nor am I particularly looking forward to the coming baseball season. Of course I feel this way every off season, but I don’t feel myself counting the days until the pitchers and catchers report for camp. I can wait like everyone else. Living in New York, I hear plenty of news and gossip on the streets and at work, about what the Yanks and the Mets are going do. (I even hear the occasional news about one of the other 28 teams.) This autumn, the Mets pulled out the Alex Rodriguez (or as he is affectionately known, A-Rod) sweepstakes. Who is this guy anyway and why does he deserve to be the first $200 million dollar man? Are any teams going to have the fiscal insight to know that this guy and those guys outta Cleveland, and Detroit, and Baltimore are not worth the money they are asking for? Nobody is worth Albert Belle and Kevin Brown money. Albert Belle and Kevin Brown are not even worth Albert Belle and Kevin Brown money. Some teams are going to bow to all of their demands. Some of them won't budge.

A-Rod wants harem girls to feed him grapes, according to Mets GM, Steve Phillips. Manny Ramirez wants the same kind of love that is shown to King Alex. Juan Gonzalez wants Detroit’s Comerica Park’s fences moved in before he’ll even talk. Mike Mussina wants to get away from Peter Angelos (who could blame him) and play for a winner. He also wants $12 to $15 million a year. This guy is good, perhaps he’s had some rough luck, but he’s not worth the ludicrous amount of money that he is asking for. I am absolutely flabbergasted at the numbers I hear being bounced about every day on the sports talk shows and read about in the newspapers. Something has got to give. Parity in Major League Baseball is nonexistent. When the season opens, there are maybe 6-7 teams with a legitimate chance to win the whole enchilada. The other posers are only taking up valuable air. Some teams know they have absolutely no chance in Hades of competing with the other kids. Occasionally there are aberrations to the current trend of non-competition. Last year’s Oakland A’s and Chicago White Sox, the ’99 Reds, the ’98 Padres and the ’97 Astros were able to compete while spending very little. But fewer smaller market teams compete each year while teams owned or sponsored by mega buck media companies continue to control the market…er, I mean the game, and how it is played. Pittsburgh and Milwaukee think that all they have to do is build a new ballpark and the crowds and the money will follow. The sad fact is that the crowds and the money, to an extent, will come, but then the team has to put a winning product on the field or it is all for naught. If one owner isn’t willing to ante up and give these millionaires what they want, then another owner won’t even bat an eyelash at giving in to a star’s demands. And I fear that it is only going to get worse.

In 1980, Nolan Ryan was awarded the first million-dollar contract and thus Pandora’s box was opened. If you go further back, there is the landmark free agency decision involving Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. I was too young to remember that case, but I do remember when Baltimore made Fred Lynn the first $3 million dollar player. It wasn’t long before Ryne Sandburg and Kirby Puckett signed their landmark contracts. Several years later, Belle signed the first $11 million dollar a year contract with the Chicago White Sox. Chicago also stipulated that Mr. Belle could take his corked bat to a team that could afford to pimp him if he decided that if they were no longer playa’s. A contract has become as valuable as empty promises. The weak armed Chuck Knoblauch left the Minnesota Twins for greener pastures in the winter of ’98. In 2000, Ken Griffey Jr. came “home” to the Cincinnati Reds. These guys left under the guise of a trade but it was their own demands that got the trade winds blowing in the first place. The Twins have never been the same. The jury is still out on the state of the Mariners. With A-Rod’s pending departure, it doesn’t look good. [Post Note: Crow has never tasted better]. The business of baseball makes me long for the good ol’ days before television contracts and fat cat bullies (agents) dictated market values. I am not alone. I have friends who are just as disenchanted with the state of baseball. We are not looking forward to another fruitless season, yet we hope that the game we all know and love can and will be remedied. First of all, it can. Secondly, it shall.

Both the owners and the players need to not only listen to each other’s wants and needs; but they need to listen to the fans as well. We are as much a lifeblood to the game as they are and the sooner that is realized, the better the state of the game will be. I want to see some changes, not in the game of baseball, but off the field, in the boardrooms where decisions are made. I want a comprehensive revenue sharing plan that will enable every team to compete. I also think that it is high time for an individual salary cap. I have seen what team salary caps have done to the National Football League and I wouldn't wish such confusion and chaos on Major League Baseball, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. I could go into the many specifics of how parity can be accomplished, but everyone has heard them before and it is not our job to iron out the details. It is the players and the owners that have the future of the game in their hands. This fall after the last of the confetti has fallen from the Championship parade; they will meet and take action. Let's hope that they have learned from past mistakes and set our game on a course that will allow it to thrive for years to come. Besides, it is a simple game really. It’s not about how many millions of dollars you are worth at present market value. It’s not about the fast cars and large yachts. It’s not about what has become the sports mantra, “Me, Me, Me.” It is not about television revenues, shoe contracts, or prime time commercialism. It’s about playing a child’s game to the best of your ability and loving every single passing moment.

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