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Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Money talks, but baseball won't listen

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Almost instinctively, as though he could anticipate the inevitable, undermining charge that his team had purchased rather than earned its 27th title on the field, Derek Jeter stood on the podium at Yankee Stadium moments after the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 of the World Series and offered his version of a pre-emptive strike: "We deserve to be here," he said before holding the championship trophy in his hands.

Jeter's declaration did no good, of course. The post-World Series narrative in the wind and cold of November has been that the Yankees finally bought the right hardware for their $206 million investment in player payroll. It could be heard in the stands, on the airwaves and, just as clearly even before they won it, inside rival big league clubhouses. A little more than a week earlier, during the American League Championship Series, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Torii Hunter mentioned the Yankees' massive offseason spending spree in seemingly every third interview, trying to soften his team's eventual fall.

Jeter
Derek Jeter and the Yankees deserved to win the Series whether the price was right or not.

"Their payroll is what, $10 billion?" he joked before praising the Yankees as a smart powerhouse team.

So the Yankees are champions, and thus begins an offseason that will be centered on money. Owners across the league this offseason will promote the creation of a salary cap, ostensibly for "competitive balance" -- a way to take money from the players and take down the Yankees simultaneously. All this at a time when the owners have a golden opportunity to improve the quality of the game but won't because they refuse to reduce their sizable profits.

For the record, the Yankees are World Series winners because when the championship points were played, the Yankees' stars all performed. Meanwhile, the wannabe showstealers in Minnesota, Los Angeles and finally Philadelphia forgot their lines when it counted the most. The Phillies, although valiant defending champs they were, received exactly two performances from their headliners -- one from second baseman Chase Utley, the other from starting pitcher Cliff Lee -- while any number of the Yankees' stars seemed to alternate auditioning for Series MVP.

Hideki Matsui eventually won it, hitting .615 with three home runs even though he started only half of the six games. Jeter hit .407, Johnny Damon .364 (and he erased his Game 4 misfire in the field with a superb baserunning play later that will not soon be forgotten). Alex Rodriguez's home run in Game 3 melted Cole Hamels, and then he devastated Brad Lidge (in Lidge's only 2009 Series appearance) the next night. Mark Teixeira ignited Game 2 against Pedro Martinez and fielded flawlessly throughout the playoffs. Mariano Rivera appeared in four games, saved two and closed out the finale, all without giving up a run. Andy Pettitte won two games. CC Sabathia pitched stoutly in two starts. And even wild, checkered A.J. Burnett outpitched the great Martinez in a pivotal Game 2 that kept the Yankees from going to Philadelphia looking up from a grave 0-and-2 hole.

The Yankees spent for this year's team as they always have spent. During the past 25 years, they have led the league in payroll 17 times; before this season, they'd won the World Series exactly four times during that stretch. They've led the league in payroll each season since 1999 and won the World Series three times, including an eight-year gap between the second title in 2000 and the third a few weeks ago.

In one title year, the 2000 season, the Yankees won all of 87 games, the fifth-best record in the American League and the ninth-best record in baseball. And during the past quarter century, only six teams have won the World Series by spending the most on players.

The last team other than the Yankees to lead the league in payroll was Baltimore at $77.3 million back in 1998. (The Orioles lost 83 games and finished 35 games behind the Yankees that season.) So in truth, the $442.5 million the Yankees spent this past offseason on Teixeira, Burnett and Sabathia represents business as usual.

Payroll in its own way represents a straw argument, for there is a general figure a franchise can reach -- roughly $145 million -- to be an elite team. Spending beyond that figure produces diminishing returns for the simple reason that a disproportionate amount of payroll pays star players. The Yankees, for all of their high-priced players, still went through the season with a young, untested bullpen; and when it counted, they had no fourth starter in the playoffs, two weaknesses common in modern baseball.

In other words, spending $500 million on payroll would still produce a team that would win between 95 and 105 games, as virtually all great teams do. It is the order of things.

Yet two differing strains of a common theme -- money and who gets to make it -- dominated the talk during the postseason and continue to be a top discussion point about the future. During the World Series, incoming union head Michael Weiner and his opposite number across the bargaining table, executive vice president for labor relations Rob Manfred, were both asked -- with limited success in eliciting answers -- just how seriously baseball owners will push for a salary cap when the collective bargaining agreement expires in two years. Commissioner Bud Selig has taken the nonchalant position that "the other three sports all have one, and the world hasn't ended," as he said last summer. Understanding its third-rail sensitivity, Selig has not hardened that anecdotal approach into a concrete policy, as the owners did back in 1994.

Salary caps generally are discussed for two reasons: The sport is hemorrhaging money, or a preponderance of teams cannot win. Yet baseball is not really making either argument in 2009, because neither case can be made right now.

The top-down approach of pinpointing the Yankees as baseball's biggest problem might create a more sympathetic argument in favor of a salary cap, but Selig has said annually in recent years that the league has made more money than ever ($6.6 billion in 2008, the most recent season for which figures are available) and has had a record number of teams in playoff contention each summer.

The Kansas City Royals, who in 1990 had the highest payroll in baseball at $23.6 million, have not made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985. Since 1993, the Royals have finished a season better than .500 only once, winning 83 games in 2003. They have not finished as high as second and over .500 since 1989.

Bud Selig
Bud Selig has yet to draw a hard-and-fast line in the collective bargaining sand about a salary cap.

But the Royals haven't demonstrated a great deal of front-office acumen lately, nor has baseball articulated a position -- with empirical data -- that suggests the on-the-field failures of the Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres and other poor franchise cousins stem from the game's financial structure rather than corporate incompetence. The Oakland A's, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins (the Twins and the A's were among the teams the league establishment considered for contraction less than a decade ago) might have a greater claim to a cap argument. They've had some success on the field lately.

So before baseball tries to restrict the earning power of the players to address whatever financial woes it has -- and a salary cap surely would come couched in terms of player greed -- the game's central office needs to place more scrutiny on how its franchises are actually run.

Meanwhile, rivalries -- such as the ones the Yankees seem to spawn -- are good. They are good for fans. They are good for players. And they are good for the all-important television networks. In football, a salary cap made a certain degree of sense. The teams were sharing revenue at socialist levels anyway, and before the cap was instituted, if you weren't one of six teams -- Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Washington or Oakland -- chances were you weren't going to win the Super Bowl.

Here's what former MLB player Curt Flood, addressing how profit rather than the quality of the game is all that concerns ownership, wrote in "The Way It Is" in 1971:

Their protestations notwithstanding, the owners measure the Good of the Game in terms of the profits that remain after expenses are subtracted from receipts. Everything else is subordinated, including the quality of what takes place on the playing field. The proprietors of baseball have never hesitated to adulterate the game to make an extra dollar. Exhibit A is the profitably extended season of 162 games, plus pre-season exhibitions, plus in-season exhibitions, plus intraleague championship playoffs, plus a World Series that has become a travesty because the men are utterly exhausted before it starts.

All members of the game's quintet of power -- fans, players, media, broadcast partners and even owners -- seem to agree that the season has become dangerously elongated, stretching into November this year. The weather can undermine the health of the players and the quality of the sport's premier showcase, the World Series; and attending a late-October or early-November game can be hell on fans. Yet the game's leadership also agrees there is no way out: The schedule (with or without the World Baseball Classic in the spring) dictates that every few years, or even annually now, World Series games might be played in November. Nobody, it seems, likes this very much.

The only solution is for baseball owners to agree to return the season to 154 games or fewer. That would allow the regular season to end before the final week of September, and the World Series could end before horrible weather has the chance to ruin it.

Rockies Fans
These Rockies fans might as well have been watching the Winter Olympics last month.

And yet, it also is universally agreed that the same parties who will fight for a salary cap on the grounds of competitive balance will never cut back on the number of games because they don't want to lose the revenue from home dates.

"The clubs in Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would never, ever allow this," said a union official who asked not to be identified because he isn't authorized to speak publicly on policy. "And you have some serious math to do. Take away eight home dates, multiplied by 15 clubs, and you're talking about significant, significant sums of money."

Selig agreed, saying both at the World Series and later in a televised interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network that the discussion of a shorter season was immediately "off the table."

Blaming the players for the imposition of a salary cap might be a popular -- indeed, populist -- move in a time of high unemployment, but it is a straw argument, one that Selig undermines every August when he trumpets how many teams from different financial situations are in playoff contention. If baseball needs cost containment, it also needs quality control. A salary cap would address only the easy side, curbing the players' earning power.

Nor will the commissioner's office curb its own lust for every dollar by fighting the television networks on behalf of the fans who attend games in increasingly worse weather or by demanding that northern-tier teams submitting plans for new stadiums find the additional revenue for a retractable-roof option. Baseball's economic experts estimate a retractable roof adds roughly $300 million to any new stadium project.

Sooner or later, the game will crash into a doomsday scenario: a Twins-Rockies World Series in blizzard conditions around Election Day. And when that happens, a salary cap will be the least of its worries.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.