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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Updated: March 12, 1:37 PM ET
The lost leverage of Manny and T.O.

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Billionaire Warren Buffett, who also happens to be the richest man in the world, on Monday referred to the national economy as having "fallen off a cliff." Seeking more optimistic ground, President Barack Obama attempted to tap into the American creative spirit that has flowered for the bold during the desperate hours. "Difficult times can create opportunity," he said.

More than the former, it is the latter quote that bears relevance to the sports world today. During the past month, three seemingly unrelated events across two sports -- Terrell Owens' bottoming out in Dallas, Manny Ramirez's losing his staring contest with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the renewed murmuring among baseball owners about a salary cap -- suggest the emergence of a new narrative from the free-falling economy: The power that sports ownership believes it has lost to the players in recent years is ripe for the retaking, and the time to strike is now.

Manny Ramirez
By the time he was traded to L.A., Manny Ramirez had worn out his welcome with some Red Sox fans.

Even before the presidential election in November and the grave revelations regarding the disastrous state of the economy, questions had been lurking about a tipping point for professional athletes. Could players really do and say anything they want yet still be rewarded financially because they possessed rare talent? When people are losing their jobs and worrying about the future, will fans still pay to watch players who complain about being underpaid at $20 million per season or who commit silly, dangerous acts with handguns?

Doubt that sports are recession-proof is gaining momentum, as franchises in sports ranging from baseball and basketball to NASCAR already are downgrading attendance expectations this season. But determining the saturation point of the paying customer has not received much attention.

Owens might have provided a glimpse into the way owners will operate during the coming months. He is 35 years old and not the transcendent player he was when he took the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season. Still, little indication exists that he was released by the Cowboys because he was an unproductive player or even a financial liability, which is the reason most players get cut.

With Owens, the Cowboys seemed to take the position that talent alone no longer wins. Dallas owner Jerry Jones took a $9 million salary-cap hit by releasing Owens. He has a new stadium to open, and Owens, diminished skills or not, was still his best receiver. Owens, at least from the outside, appeared no more disruptive today than, say, when he arrived in Dallas or when he played for the Eagles or the San Francisco 49ers. Part of the reason Jones was attracted to Owens in the first place was the T.O. persona and the residual currency that came with it, including jersey sales, name recognition and all the other ancillary advantages of his star power. It meant his franchise constantly would be in the news, even on days when it wasn't playing, when football wasn't even in season.

When it comes to superstar players in any sport, addition by subtraction seldom works. The Cowboys, on paper, are not a better team without Owens.

T.O. Sign
Even this Penn State basketball fan recognized the rift between Terrell Owens and Cowboys management.

So why did Jones feel he could make the move? Power. The world has shifted. The locker-room argument -- that Owens was a distraction to winning football -- is present and somewhat valid, but it's not the only factor. What Owens brings to a locker room was well documented long before he joined the Cowboys.

A better reason for the move is that Jones senses the shift in public attitudes. The country is more sober. The party is over, and the T.O. bombast that Jones once cultivated, that he once felt built the brand of the Cowboys, no longer seemed much of an asset. People, whether buying a seat or suiting up at an adjacent locker, are tired of seeing unaccountable superstars rule the roost. Jones knew it and acted accordingly.

The same logic could be applied to the Boston Red Sox and their handling of Manny Ramirez this past summer. For years, Ramirez held the ultimate power. His bat could not be replaced during the years he was at his most productive, and therefore, he was essentially bigger than his teammates and certainly his managers. The Red Sox had to sit and take his mercurial, unpredictable personality.

When the twin line graphs of Ramirez's enormous contract and age intersected at a point where the Red Sox could make an escape from Ramirez a good business decision, he was traded to the Dodgers.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the Red Sox profited greatly from the Ramirez personality. For years, numerous players wore T-shirts under their uniforms that read "Manny Being Manny." The club's television network  the team owns 80 percent of NESN -- ran advertisements that included "Manny Being Manny" as a selling point, as a reason for fans to pay money to watch him play. The Red Sox sold Ramirez to their public as wacky, fun-loving and harmlessly unpredictable even when, in-house, the organization believed he was the most destructive clubhouse influence since John Henry and associates bought the team in 2002.

Manny Ramirez
Eventually, "Manny Being Manny" wasn't working well enough for Boston to keep him around.

The residual effect of the Red Sox-Ramirez war wasn't felt until months after he was traded, when Ramirez came onto the free-agent market after a half season as the difference-maker on the Dodgers. In Los Angeles, Ramirez was the best offensive player wearing a Dodgers uniform since Gary Sheffield a decade ago. Ramirez propelled the Dodgers to the National League Championship Series. Had the team found a way to beat the Philadelphia Phillies, Ramirez likely would have been the catalyst who pushed the Dodgers to the World Series.

But during the offseason, the 500-home run, first-ballot Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez could barely find a job. Why? Power.

There is no better time for what economists call a "market correction" than now. Fans are tired. Talent is no longer enough. The Ramirez routine was exposed by the Red Sox and exacerbated by Ramirez and his agent, Scott Boras, during a bizarre offseason in which Boras seemed oblivious to the changing attitudes about the marketplace. Suddenly, the sideshow of Manny Being Manny became more important to prospective teams than his production.

Another player out in the universe -- last name: Bonds -- is suffering under a similar dynamic, one that was not prevalent even three years ago.

It wasn't that the Dodgers weren't willing to pay Ramirez. They just weren't willing to pay his price, not when Los Angeles was convinced it was bidding against itself. How different the Ramirez negotiations were this offseason than when another Boras client, Alex Rodriguez, engineered a better deal than his existing contract a year ago from the New York Yankees, even without a second bidder for his services.

If anything, organizations that resist the temptation to sign a player whose personality is a detriment could actually gain with fan bases that are beginning to weary of the gilded, unaccountable ballplayer. Judging by the contracts given recently to CC Sabathia, Albert Haynesworth and A.J. Burnett, there is still money to be had for star-quality players who don't necessarily make their own personality a public priority. Yet, according to an ESPN/Seton Hall University poll, the majority of baseball fans believe that preposterous salaries -- and not anabolic steroids -- are the biggest problem in the sport, giving the owners even more leverage should they choose to challenge the players.

Terrell Owens
T.O.'s production hadn't fallen off dramatically, so why did the Cowboys drop him? Maybe just because they could.

Even if fans show no discernible proclivity to stop spending, the Dodgers and Cowboys sensed the possibility that a tipping point had been reached and saw no reason to be on the wrong side of the equation, alienating fan bases by caving in to players.

Now, the final arena of the power play: the baseball owners. In 1994, baseball generated $1.2 billion in revenue and did it with the specter of a strike looming over the game from the first day of spring training until it finally happened on Aug. 12, costing MLB its playoffs and the World Series.

Last year, the year of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Phillies, baseball made $6.6 billion in revenue. Its franchises are booming. The Cubs will sell for $1 billion. Outside of family heirlooms Dodger Stadium, Wrigley and Fenway Park, the soon-to-be-vacated Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and the solution-less Oakland Coliseum, the oldest stadium in baseball will be the Toronto Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome), built in 1989!

Baseball owners are discussing competitive balance -- what they like to refer to as "the Yankee problem." But during the past five seasons, the Rays, Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies, not exactly financial juggernauts, have represented their leagues in the World Series. In the eight seasons since the Yankees last won a World Series in 2000, the Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros and Rays have all reached the Series for the first time. The Chicago White Sox had not appeared in a World Series since 1959, yet won it all in 2005.

The Yankees spend, but there is a law of diminishing returns to payroll. Whether a club spends $22 million (as the Marlins did last season) or $209 million (as the Yankees did), a baseball team will win between roughly 65 to 97 games. Spending $300 million on payroll -- or even $1 billion -- will not translate to 155 wins. The sport just doesn't work that way.

The Yankees' payroll in 2000 was $93 million. The 2004 Red Sox payroll was $127 million, making Boston -- and not New York -- the biggest-spending world champion in baseball history.

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez and his agent, Scott Boras, right, eventually got a deal from Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and general manager Ned Colletti, left. But L.A. was the only team seriously interested.

The point isn't that the Red Sox have done anything wrong, but merely that they benefit from the current system as clearly as the Yankees do. History shows that to be a dominant club, a player payroll in the $130 million neighborhood has been sufficient, and any amount above that hasn't translated into exponential win totals.

Henry of the Red Sox might be wise to consider this perspective: The Yankees are in nowhere near as dominant a position as they have been historically, such as in the reserve-clause, pre-amateur draft days. Then, the Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers enjoyed more name recognition and had more scouts and more money than all the other teams combined. In 1939, the Cardinals, for example, had 28 farm teams. The Cubs, Pirates, Phillies, A's, Giants and Braves fielded 30 combined.

The Yankees boost ratings. They move the revenue needle with MLB's Internet ventures, in merchandising and in road attendance, which means every team in baseball gets rich from their popularity. The Yankees are actually a straw man. When they're good, every team in baseball makes money.

Why, then, are Henry, the powerful Red Sox owner, and Lewis Wolff, the Oakland owner with a powerful friend (he and Bud Selig were fraternity brothers at the University of Wisconsin during the 1950s), clamoring for a salary cap? Why would baseball, which has enjoyed the longest period without a work stoppage since Marvin Miller built the union in 1966, instigate a fight over an issue that does not, on its face, appear germane to the business of baseball today?

One reason: power. Ownership believes that it has it while the players' association does not. One of the reasons is steroids. The union is on the run on the steroids issue, at least in the eyes of the public. The players -- with a minimum salary of $330,000 per season and Rodriguez in the middle of a guaranteed $275 million contract -- would forever lose the public by striking over a salary-cap push in 2011, when the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire. The ownership's position is that the union will have little leverage to walk out on the game, especially if unemployment hits 10 percent nationwide.

In all three cases, the bottom line is the same: In this country, at this time, bling is out. Character and virtue -- what's left of them, at least -- are in. The players and their agents need to learn how to gauge the tipping point when the big personality turns from an asset into a liability, especially during a contract year.

Otherwise, we'll be watching more of them acting as though playing in Buffalo is the greatest thing in the world.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.