Sunday, November 04, 2007

What's Wrong With Major League Baseball, or Why I Think The Pirates Should Become America's Team

I thought about naming this post “A-Rod and What’s Wrong With Major League Baseball,” but I was afraid someone would think I had recycled a post from 2001 (ooooh! feel the burn!). Frankly, I feel a little bad for A-Rod – literally right as I was writing that last sentence, Seth Meyers commented on the A-Rod opt-out on SNL, noting “he’s available for any team with money to spare that doesn’t like winning.” But seriously, folks.

This may surprise you, but this post was actually not intended to be entirely a collection of poorly-executed A-Rod jokes (though I’m always willing to go there, I just don’t know if there’s enough demand. Just like I don’t know if there’s enough demand for a $350 million player who can’t hit in the postseason! Hey-o! Here I come!). This post concerns the shadowy future of the MLB in the coming years, and for a change, it has nothing to do with steroids.

I’m still floating on the Red Sox’s second world championship in my lifetime, so complaining about the future of baseball feels a little awkward, but it was while watching the World Series this year that I realized just how truly bad this league could become if it continues along its current path. And it was A-Rod who showed me that.

If you watched the World Series this year (and according the ratings, you didn’t, so I better explain it) you’ll already know that A-Rod has chosen to opt out of his Yankee contract and look for more money elsewhere. His agent, Scott Boras, decided the opportune time to announce this news would be in the middle of the World Series, in order to shame the Yankees, who always feel they should be in the World Series, and to spread the buzz among the millions of fans watching the telecast (forgetting that 7 of the 10 million fans watching were in the greater Boston area, where the prospect of signing A-Rod for any reason other than screwing the Yankees seems inconceivable).

But perhaps Boras was right to announce it then, because sports nation has been buzzing about the possibilities. Will A-Rod screw the Yankees and sign with the Red Sox? Or the Mets? Perhaps he’ll travel out West again and sign with the Giants or the Angels. For the next several weeks, the major question on every baseball talk show will have to be who will sign this year’s MVP.

What’s a much more pertinent question is, “who can?” A-Rod would’ve made $81 million over the next 3 years, and the Yankees proposed adding another 5 years to the end of his contract for $150 million, which makes an 8-year total of… lessee here, carry the one… $230.65 million more than Kevin Youkilis made this season. Which one would you want on your team? But A-Rod wants more. $100 million more.

Honestly, I can’t fault A-Rod. New York was never good for him, and he’ll make that money somewhere – maybe with the Giants, who loved Bonds with the sort of judgment-free love that only a city with no other currently valid sports franchises can give. A-Rod would thrive there. Bonds would last three more seasons with A-Rod behind him. The media would give them a really inane nickname, like the Record-Breaking Rockers or something vomitous like that. A-Rod would spend his money on something outrageous and idiotic, like buying Britsh Columbia or crossbreeding horses to try to make unicorns, or something similar. Everyone would sigh and do their best to ignore the team, but the team would win a lot of games, there’d be at least one good playoff series each year, and all would be right with the world.

Unless, of course, you don’t live in San Francisco, or Boston, or New York, or one of those cities with the capability to sign A-Rod. Maybe you live in Tampa Bay, or Kansas City, or Oakland, or Phoenix, or all those other cities that never bothered to throw their hats into the bidding ring because they couldn’t ever possibly afford it.

I know a lot has been said about the divide between baseball’s haves (Yankees, Mets, Red Sox) and have-nots (Tampa Bay, Washington, Florida, Pittsburgh), but that divide is growing, it’s becoming more pronounced in a number of ways, and it needs to be addressed. The Yankees had a payroll of $190 million this year, the Red Sox $143 million, Tampa Bay $24 million. These teams play in the same division. I don’t give the Rays much of a chance next year. Or the year after that.

What’s more, teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox have changed their ways, rebuilding their farm systems from the ground up. No longer are prospects viewed as nothing more than trade bait for established veterans, but as the most valuable possible way to build a team. The Red Sox won this year with a rookie second baseman, a rookie outfielder, and three young pitchers who we developed through our minor league teams. This team is going to be even better next year. The Devil Rays will be about the same, though they might be a little bit worse.

The long-term ramifications look worse the more you consider them. The Red Sox had a huge payroll this year, but that’s not a financial stretch for them because they generated hordes of revenue from fielding a successful team. Winning the World Series three years ago spread Red Sox Nation across America, leading to extremely lucrative merchandising deals for Red Sox management. The success of those deal created more funds to pay players with, enabling management to throw money at players it didn’t need (see J.D. Drew, $70 million over 5 years), hoping that their contribution would push the team a little bit further. As it turned out, they were right, the team had yet another very successful year, finishing with the Sox winning the World Series - which only leads to further popularity, more merchandising and television revenue, and more money to throw at players. One of the major reasons that the Yankees can throw money at any player they see is that their massive capital-generating machine will make sure that the money is always there – and consistently fielding a winner makes for a solid marketing product.

The Cubs are just starting to realize this. Long the loveable losers, their management had always been happy just to remain The Friendly Confines, where you can see good old-fashioned baseball and enjoy the sunshine. Winning would just get in the way of their business plan, which was always just about being classic Americana. But their recent playoff runs have generated tons of revenue for the team, and management is just starting to make the connection that good team = popularity = money = better team = more popularity = more money. You’d think they would have seen this one sooner, but I suppose that’s part of what makes the Cubs the Cubs. At any rate, they’re taking it to heart: their payroll topped $100 million this year.

How then, is a smaller market team to compete? The old rules soon won’t apply anymore – it used to be that small-market teams focused on developing players and building teams from scratch, and hoping that enough stars would align to give them a shot at glory. Sure, it would only happen once every ten years or so, but those few years when it did happen would feel awfully good. But now the farm systems of the bigger teams either meet or exceed those of the small-market systems, and those teams will have no way to compete. They’re all doomed to permanent ignominy, without a chance of ever fielding a winner. It’s a tough road ahead.

Soon, the only teams with the potential to compete consistently will be highly marketable teams. The Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Dodgers, and Cubs will compete every year – in twenty years, one of those teams will be winning the World Series each year, no exceptions. The other teams will place in descending order of the size of their market; it will not vary from year to year, it will always be the same.

However, I’ve discovered a way out of this. It’s a brilliant marketing strategy which can only be used by one team, but that one team can ride it to greatness. One team – an preferably someone desperate, like the Pittsburgh Pirates – hires a truly extraordinary ad firm and starts to sell itself as America’s underdog. They make it trendy to root for the Pirates, not because the Pirates are any good, but because they are so tragically hopeless. The firm will convince people to feel bad for the Pirates, convince them that being a Pirates fan is the mark of someone with pathos and soul, who can bear the sufferings of an unfavorable market and rise above it. They will root for the Pirates because the Pirates have no money and therefore no chance. It is a classic story of the down-and-out, a real-life Rocky Balboa in black and yellow.

To Boston or Chicago natives, this story is starting to sound awfully familiar. But here is the crux of it: convincing America that it is an emotional prerequisite to root for the Pirates will actually make the Pirates a much better team, just like it did for the Red Sox and Cubs. They will sell much more merchandise, they will get much plusher TV deals, they will sell more tickets, they will become financially viable; which will lead them to fielding better and better teams each year, which will only lead to increased popularity. Soon it will be clear that buying a Pirates hat is more than just a symbol of your fandom, it’s giving your money to a worthy cause, helping a struggling organization fight back against the unfair economic climate that weighs it down. And we will feel united in this goal. Economic disparity will become the new Billy Goat curse. Economic disparity will become the new Curse of the Bambino. And we will conquer it together.

Frankly, I’m looking forward to it. If it ends up happening, I’ll be the first to purchase a commemorative “Fight The Establishment!” t-shirt with a snarling pirate across the chest. I’ll see you in line.

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4 Comments:

At November 05, 2007 6:28 AM, Blogger Erin said...

Bravo!

 
At November 05, 2007 5:20 PM, Anonymous Mr. King said...

Baseball actually introduced revenue sharing in the form of a tax on the high payroll teams, meaning that in exchange for paying outrageous salaries to players, the Yankees and Red Sox actually have to give money to other teams. You've heard this plan before, because that was one of the property tax solutions in New Hampshire - you had "donor" towns and "receiving" towns. What the receiving towns actually did was simply take the money to reduce the tax base and did nothing to better the town. That is what the recipient teams are doing in MLB. They get the money and they don't put it into player personnel.

I guess what I'm saying is that giving a team a financial windfall doesn't necessarily mean they will do the right thing, and the Pirates would continue to finish last in the NL Central.

But, in general, your premise is right and MLB needs to do something. A salary cap has worked in NFL and NBA, but baseball won't go there - I'm not sure why, other than the union continually blocks it. But if it eventually means the self destruction of several franchises, then there will be fewer of those high paying jobs. It behooves the owners and the players to figure this out before it does become the same 5 or 6 teams in the postseason every year.

 
At November 05, 2007 5:49 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

From 1947-64, the Yankees won the AL pennant 15 out of 18 times. In the NL, a NY team (including ex-Brooklyn Dodgers in LA) won 12 in the years 1947-66. From 1949-66, in fact, a NY team was in the World Series every year, and from 1949-56, a NY team won the World Series every year. Hence the novel The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant and the musical made from it "Damn Yankees."

Everything old is new again.

 
At November 05, 2007 6:58 PM, Blogger Wyman said...

Mr. King, you're right, I'd forgotten that the salary tax has completely failed to make a difference in baseball. On a lot of these teams, the concept of using the money to build a contender rather than just using it to stay afloat is a foreign concept. I'm glad I'm not a Royals fan, who do just enough baseball business to convince people that their management actually comes in to work sometimes. Gotta be a tough team to root for.

AVI, your point is valid, and I considered history while writing the post. The fact that the Yankees are a powerhouse each year is a crucial part of the very nature of baseball - they are always the enemy and they will always be the enemy, and they will always spend too much money.

But we're gradually eliminating our way for anyone to beat them purely because of economics. During that twenty-year period you mentioned, economics didn't play as big a part as it does now because it was before free agency. During this period, the economic differences between those teams didn't divide them as directly as they do now. At the end of each year, the team would decide what salary you would make for next year. You could haggle with them, but you didn't have much choice. It was true for the Yankees and it was true for the Orioles. Everyone did it.

But now, with free agency, baseball teams can't trust their players to remain with them, they end up losing them to the bigger markets. And those markets keep getting bigger and bigger each year. And having also lost the advantage of being the only ones paying attention the farm system, smaller teams have lost what little advantage they had.

The end result is that we are (again) reaching a point where only a few teams will compete each year, but more than that, there won't be any way for the other teams to change their luck. The distance between the haves and the have-nots will grow further apart each year, until we'll look back on the era of Mantle, Mays, and Robinson as a time of competitive balance.

 

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