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Blame Baseball's Leaders, Not The Yankees

November 9, 2009
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Bud SeligThe New York Yankees won their 27th World Series Championship last Wednesday night, and in the process are taking a resounding beating by baseball fans and media everywhere about how they bought a championship after shelling out over $420 million this past offseason on the likes of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Texeira.

The problem with that is while the fans and media are right in that the Yankees have an unfair advantage with an endless stream of revenues, a seemingly infinite bank account, and the ability to outspend any team to get any player they want, it is not the Yankees fault they have all this power.  The finger is being pointed the wrong way as the Yankees are simply playing within the rules of the game as approved by all other 29 franchises.

The fault lies with Major League Baseball and the owners.  And, if you want to point the finger at anyone or any one thing, the guy truly to blame is Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

Under Selig's watch which began in 1992 as acting commissioner and then to official commissioner in 1998, the financial landscape of the game has changed dramatically.  He certainly has done a lot of good for the game as under his watch league revenues have skyrocketed by a reported 400% and attendance records in baseball have fallen almost yearly.  He has been in charge of introducing the controversial World Baseball Classic in 2006, inter-league play in 1997, and the wildcard in 1994.

But for the good Selig has done, it is hard to shake the eternal black eye he greatly assisted in giving the sport by conveniently looking the other way in regard to the steroid issue that permeated the scene to such a high level under his watch in the 90s and early 00s.

But Selig's biggest atrocity as commissioner may be how he has let the financial disparity between the small and big market teams widen from where it was once just a small difference barely negligible in the early 90s to now where it is now the size of the Grand Canyon.  It is inconceivable how he along with the owners for some 20-22 other franchises (who are also at fault too) have let the financial disparity get to where it has.

In Selig's first year as acting commissioner in 1992 the highest payroll in baseball was $44 million by the NY Mets while the Yankees were 6th at $36 million.  In fact, the Yankees prior to 1992 were often ranked 5th or lower in the league in payroll.  The big markets still ranked in the top, but the disparity was almost insignificant from the big market teams and the small market teams.  I mean, in 1990 the Kansas City Royals led all of baseball with a $23.9 million payroll.

But look how the gap has been widened over the years under Selig's regime and the disparity that exists in the game today between the Yankees - who have been #1 or #2 in payroll in every year since 1994 - and the median payroll in baseball each year:



A lot of attention has been focused on the steroid issue the past few years, and deservedly so, but the issue which to me is killing the sport that I love above all others is that rapidly growing disparity between the big revenue teams and smaller revenue teams.


As an aside, remember when at the start of 1999 how former Indians owner Dick Jacobs announced he was selling the team?  Look at what has happened since 1999.  He saw it coming and got out at the right time. 

All the revenues and money that the big market teams have to throw around is not their fault, and hence I do not blame or look down on those teams in any way.  They have taken advantage of an unbalanced system where with uncapped spending they can almost do as they please and monopolize the talent.  While the revenue sharing Major League Baseball has setup to go along with some very nice big TV contracts helps everyone to a degree, the revenue sharing system in place pales in comparison to that of the NFL where just about all revenues by all teams share an equal portion of TV revenues whereas in Major League Baseball teams keep a significantly large portion revenue from local TV broadcasts and everything else from ticket sales, merchandise sales, advertising, and so on.

Times have certainly changed.  Fifteen years ago you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who even knew the payrolls of the top spending teams or how much of a gap there was between the big market and small market teams.  Back in the 80s and early 90s no one referred to teams by market size and payrolls.  No one cared.

That's because it was barely negligible and was not much of an issue.  No one cared because even though free agency existed back then, star players still for the most part remained with their teams, even the small market ones.  Players were synonymous with cities and stayed there seemingly forever.  The roster turnover was much different in comparison to today where it seems like major league rosters are constantly flowing through a revolving door every year.  Nowadays it seems once a player reaches free agency they leave or teams are dealing them in their contract year to get something for them before they ultimately lose them.

As Indians fans, we were lucky and caught things just right in the mid-90s as the playoff run they made from 1995-2001 coincided with all the new ballparks popping up in the league, huge revenues, but it also came at the birth of what was a growing disparity in the game between those feasting on steak and those settling for hamburger.  In Cleveland, the new ballpark and a hungry fanbase eager to support a winner helped close the gap and make us a pseudo big market for a few years all the while just temporarily putting off the inevitable.

The Indians were able to outlast the financial disparity probably the longest of any small market team because of that Perfect Storm of events in the 90s.  But since the turn of the century they joined the rest of the have not's once their revenue stream began to dry out and they were forced to think and be more like a mid or small market team.

Teams like the Indians, Rays, Pirates, Royals and so on are now reduced to being the big league farm teams for the big markets.  These teams have to get almost everything right to win any season or for an extended period of time.  They need to hit on a much higher ratio of draft picks, develop at a much better rate, perfectly sprinkle in the right mix of free agents, and when all this is done the core of players must learn to win as a group quickly for any chance at a sustained run.  When this happens, you get what we saw with the Indians from 2004-2008 or what is happening with the Rays the past few seasons.

Unfortunately, there is little room for error as few teams are lucky enough to enjoy this kind of success, and the clock can quickly strike midnight as those young players reach free agency and teams are forced to retool.  This is why when you are given a chance to win it all as the Indians in 2007 and Rays in 2008 were, you need to come through.  The Florida Marlins in 2003 are a prime example of a young team coming together at once, making the most of the opportunity, delivering, and then shortly after having to retool as those players all became too expensive and were nearing free agency.

Looking back on it, the strike in 1994 was the ideal time to implement some sort of salary cap or some other kind of financial measure to ensure that there would not be such financial inequality in the game among teams.  In fairness to the owners and Selig, they probably never envisioned payrolls and revenues for the big market teams skyrocketing to the level they have over the last ten years.

Still, former NFL Commissioner Peter Rozelle envisioned it way back in the 60s and got the owners on board to agree to share league revenues.  To this day, this is what makes the NFL competitive and allows Green Bay to compete with the New York teams from a payroll perspective.

Yet, for whatever reason, even though Selig - who was still owner of the Milwaukee Brewers while he was the acting commissioner in 1994 - and his fellow owners seemed to have the players and the Players Union backed up against the wall, they flat out dropped the ball at what may have been the last chance to get a salary cap in the game.  They tried to get a salary cap, but eventually caved and it was never a part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement as they instead agreed to the revenue sharing system currently in place.

No sooner did baseball get back into action in 1995 once they ended the strike, as the owners feared the payrolls started to increase significantly growing at a rapid rate and the big market versus the world situation was born.

This all brings us to today where a team like the Indians cannot afford to keep their stars.  The likes of C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee end up pitching in the prime of their careers for the big dogs while the Indians are forced to lick their wounds and hope lightning strikes again and they can develop or land more young pitching to build around.

Back in the 40s and 50s, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Mel Harder and others anchored an impressive Indians staff which led to many winning and successful seasons.  I cannot fathom to think what might have been had the current setup of baseball been in place back then, as Feller surely would have ended up in pinstripes or Lemon and Harder in Dodger Blue.  Money talks, and with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox or anyone else doling out $160 million contracts over seven years to the best pitchers in the game, the Indians would have had no chance.  Bill Veeck was a popular owner, but even he wouldn't have had the revenue stream to compete and match those deals.  Not even Dick Jacobs who would have had the best chance of any prior Indians owner because of the ridiculous level that team revenues were at in the late 90s, yet he still would have come up short.

And this is not crying foul for the Indians as they are in the same situation as every other team like them.  The Royals knew they couldn't keep Carlos Beltran so they traded him.  The Twins knew they couldn't keep Johan Santana so they traded him too, and they also are going to be faced with a tough decision soon on Joe Mauer and Justin Mourneau (Mauer to the Yanks in 2011?  Ugh).  The Marlins could not keep Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera so they traded them, and in a few years Hanley Ramirez will be the next to go.  Some of the other teams like the Rays and Pirates haven't lost anyone of significance because they really haven't had a star the past few years close to free agency, though this should change soon for the Rays as Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are now in their contract years and will be free agents after the 2010 season.

The big difference is that teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, and others never have to worry about losing their star players.  They don't worry about what to do with a Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, David Wright, and a cast of many others in their contract year.  If they want to keep them, they have the means to keep them and essentially give them what they want without mortgaging the future of the team and roster.  Compare that to the smaller market teams who don't have the financial means to keep these players even though they obviously would love to keep them.  And if they did keep them the affect it would have on the makeup of the rest of the roster or the potential albatross such a contract would be is unbearable.

Once the big market teams have their stars, they always have them as part of their plan and never worry about them leaving until they give a reason to maybe let them leave with poor performance or health concerns.  In contrast, the small market teams always have it in the back of their mind that the time with so-and-so star player most likely is short lived and that they need to consider contingency plans to replace them once they are a year or two away from free agency (prepare yourselves Sizemore fans, he is gone soon).

At this point, there are few if any competitive advantages left for the small market teams.  For awhile from about 1996-2005 the big market teams were concentrating so hard on their big league operations and adding all the all star and veteran talent they could find to fill their roster that they paid little attention to their farm system as they often dealt away lots of good high end talent in deals for proven major league players.  They also did not put as much of a focus on minor league international free agent signings or the draft.

The small market teams used this to their advantage with trades as they often sent declining all stars or veterans in the twilight of their careers in deals that brought back packages full of young talent.  They also scoured the globe internationally and found some good young talent, and added more talent via the draft as well.

But the big market teams eventually wised up, and now they are integrating more young talent into the fold both at the big league level and at the minor league level.  They not only go out and spend the money on big league free agents, but they go out and scoop up a lot of the top talent in the international free agent market with 16-17 year old Latin players or players in the Pacific Rim.  They can afford to reach and draft players with signability concerns, and agents and players know this and can use it as leverage against the small market teams thereby almost forcing them to the big market teams.  On top of this, they now have a much better appreciation of young talent and are not as quick to unload their best young players in trades anymore.

Also, small to mid market teams every year have shown that they can compete when they get to the playoffs.  Spending the most does not guarantee a World Series championship, as the Yankees clearly demonstrated this from 2001-2008.  But what spending often does ensure is that you have a much greater chance of making the playoffs and competing over a 162-game season, whereas in the five and seven game series' in the playoffs the playing field is much more level.  The few small to mid market teams that do make the playoffs are but the exception as the richer will always have the greater chance to compete year in and year out because they always have the ability to add and maybe more importantly keep the best players.

It's just a different game now.

A game that for the casual fan is a complete turnoff, and the diehards are holding on for dear life.
Don't blame the Yankees for buying a World Series championship.  Blame the system, or more specifically, blame Bud Selig and the owners.

Payroll figures courtesy of USA Today, and photo of Selig courtesy of the Associated Press

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