Saturday, April 17, 2004

The End of the American Pastime by Jonnie Whoa Oh

If you would have asked me what the present state of Major League Baseball was on February 13th, I would have told you that it’s never been better.  For three years in a row there have been different World Series Champions and two of them with payrolls below that of at least half of the teams out there.  The trend of paying players obscene amounts of money seemed to be going the way of the dodo with Vladimir Guerrero signing to what ended up being less money than he was originally offered by the Expos, and Pudge Rodriguez taking a reasonable contract and trying to restore one of American’s best markets to respectability in Detroit.  It seemed that teams were fed up of these monstrous, overwhelming contracts that were hand cuffing them in the long run, and I really thought that the trend was going towards lower guarantees and more performance-incentive contracts.  With all of these on-goings throughout the most exciting off-season in decades, I dismissed anyone who proposed a salary cap in baseball.  In all fairness I’m a Mets fan and being in a major market where teams have money I’ve always been of the opinion if you have it, then spend it.  In the last three years spending a lot of money (especially in the Mets case) if not the most money did not produce a championship or a playoff birth or even a .500 record.  Keeping all this in mind I thought a salary cap was something that was good for other sports but was unnecessary in baseball.

If you would have asked me what the present state of Major League Baseball was on February 16, 2004, I would have told you that it’s never been worse.  I would have told you that the livelihood of the sport is teetering in the balance.  I would have told you that one man’s gluttony has been so short sighted that if it doesn’t blow up in his face, it risks destroying a sport that has finally recovered from labor disagreements and strikes that has tainted its past.  I would have told you that money is everything and if you have enough of it you can buy every player available regardless of cost or need and eventually buy yourself a championship. 

The Yankees have six of the 12 highest paid players in the sport; that means that the other 30 teams have the same number.  The Yankees infield costs more than 2003 World Championship Florida Marlins.  The Yankees payroll is over 50% higher that of Boston (who has the second highest payroll) and nearly seven times that of the Royals.  How are the Royals, Twins, Devil Rays, Tigers supposed to compete if all the best players will be bought by the Yankees? 

Could the Yankees have won the AL and the World Series without Alex Rodriguez? Yes.  Did Boston bridge the gap some what this off season with Schilling and Foulke? Yes, but by no means are they guaranteed a championship.  George has escalated the Cold War that we are in the midst of to the point of no return.  The only way to achieve victory is to stockpile as many weapons as possible until the other side can’t compete and they fold; all the while keeping your citizens afraid of the potential of losing and forcing propaganda down their throats to convince them that it’s necessary to maintain their winning ways by any means necessary.  By 1980 the USA and the USSR had the capability to destroy the earth 300 times over.  On February 16th, 2004 the Yankees have the capability for any one of their #1-8 hitters to be the MVP of the league (by the way all of them have been All Stars).  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Evil Empire; an empire not built for winning, but rather built for total and complete destruction; not only of the destruction of its opponents, but of the very game itself. Yankees have set a course to outspend every other team until they have won every championship from here to eternity, to the point that no other team is even competitive.  The outcome will not only be more titles for the Yankees but fewer fans all across the country.  Fans will stop caring because they know that the excitement experienced this past season when the Cubs and the Red Sox nearly getting into the World Series might never again be a reality.  This cannot go on for the greater good.  It is evident what’s necessary for the survival of America’s past time.

A salary cap of $75 million is the only solution that can potentially save a sport that lies in a cross roads of being annihilated.  Figure with a 25 man roster $75 million works out to be a $3 million average.  The concessions necessary by the Player’s Association would be to lower the league minimum to $200,000 and establish a maximum of $10 million (adjusted annually for inflation and cost of living).  Now why would the player’s association allow their players to take less money, that’s un-American!  The rationale is as follows: small market teams will go under when they can’t compete and their fan base dries up.  Economics tells us that there will be fewer jobs available with more players looking to fill them and salaries will decrease because in order to guarantee work players will be willing to take a pay cut rather than stay unemployed.  The Player’s Association can nip this economic trend in the bud by accepting these limits on salaries and protecting all of its players instead of just the highly paid ones. 

With these salary restrictions having six of the 12 highest paid players in the game would be virtually impossible, if they each were to make the maximum.  A direct repercussion would be phasing out specialists because each player would have to earn their keep and salary by doing more.  The insurance policies called closers would be forced to pitch more than just the 9th.  This change would speed up the game because managers would expect relief pitchers to do more than face one batter (they couldn’t pay these pitchers as much as they could in the past, $10 million for Billy Wagner leaves you only with $65 million) and that would mean fewer pitching changes in an inning and probably more intentional walks to get better match ups, and more base runners equals more excitement.  A salary cap will continue the trend of bargain shopping like Boston did last season and most other teams have done this off-season by picking up non-tendered players.  It will also push for more incentive contracts in the sense that the teams would have to budget for the maximum amount on the contract but if Vladimir Guerrero doesn’t reach, let’s say, the 500 plate appearances necessary for the full contract value to kick in, the club could apply that money to next year’s budget.  The stipulations would be that the amount could only carry over for one year and that it would be lost if the player is traded in the off-season (preventing teams from stockpiling players who didn’t reach their maximum and spending that money on other players).  The frugality of the game will affect the fans in the sense that ticket prices will decrease since the owners won’t have to spend as much and this could potentially increase attendance.  Couple this the achieved parity and the casual fan will have cause to believe that their team has a chance.  No Yankee fan is going to stop watching because their payroll has decreased by two-thirds, but more Devil Rays fans will take the time to follow their team if there’s a greater chance that they’ll actually win.  Interest from causal fans breeds hardcore fans in a short time.  Hardcore fans preserve the livelihood and the life of the game.

The next part of the equation is increased revenue sharing.  Revenue sharing will make the $75 million budget attainable for the smaller market teams.  The current system is a good start but the “haves” don’t give enough to the “have-nots” in the case that they are under the luxury tax threshold.  Since there would be no way to be over the $65 million cap, an arbitrary number like 3% of TV and radio revenue will go into a fund that would be divided evenly between every team thus leveling the playing field for smaller markets.

The final step should be to get rid of all deferred money.  I can’t buy a ticket for $20 and then pay the rest of the $25 in 2008, so why should owners?  This way contract values can’t argued over by the Player’s Association. (Such as how much is it worth for a team to link your personal website?)  This will shore up budgets in the present and future but not allow teams to overextend themselves now as well as further down the line creating stability in the franchises. 

Salary caps work; you need to look no further than the NFL or the NBA—both leagues not only have a constant changing variety of teams competing for the title but also have shown that even within salary caps it is possible to build dynasties.  You also have more teams competing for a playoff spot later in the season than you see in baseball.  These factors increase fan base and the strength of the sport.  If the same team wins all the time (especially running away) then fans stop caring and sport will eventually die.  Everyone loves a winner but everyone loves the underdog knocking off the top dog even more. 

Baseball is standing in the midst of its most crucial crossroads in many years and its survival hinges on how quickly it embraces a salary cap and brings the spending and salaries back to earth.  Monopolies were ruled to be un-American yet they are perfectly acceptable if you are a Yankee fan.

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