Baseball’s Woes

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Money talks, and ballplayers are listening.

If you don’t believe it, ask fans in two-thirds of the Major League Baseball cities around the U.S. and Canada. Even though spring training camps haven’t even opened for the 2002 season, they know that their teams are already effectively dead in the water.

Why? Because, being intelligent capitalists, ballplayers go where the money is. After six years in the majors, players have the right to declare their free agency and sign with whichever team they choose. As predicted 25 years ago when players won their right to move freely from team to team, the top players have flocked to the teams with the most money, which have in turn become the top teams in the sport.

Recent history proves it. In the past 10 years, every team that has won the World Series has been among the top 10 in payroll. In 2001, six of the eight playoff teams were among the top 10 in payroll.

Effectively, 20 out of the 30 teams will show up each day, play their games, sell their tickets and concessions, operate their businesses and have absolutely no hope of winning the World Series.

For most of the sport’s history, teams that stunk up the joint had at least a sporting chance to improve by bringing in new management or by making shrewd trades. In the new millennium, two-thirds of major league teams face the reality that even very skilled executives cannot trade for or sign certain players who could help their teams, due to budget limitations.

Other sports have seen their average player salaries balloon into the millions as well, but the NFL and NBA are not facing a similar competitive crisis. Like baseball, those sports have their wealthy and not-so-wealthy franchises. Unlike baseball, those sports have salary caps — limits on how much money teams can spend on player salaries.

In the NFL, the worst team and the best team have the same ceiling on what they can spend on player salaries. What that does is keep all of the top players from congregating on three or four teams. And with just a few shrewd acquisitions and good coaching, a team in the NFL can come off the scrap heap like the St. Louis Rams did in 1999. In ’98, they won four games and lost 12, one of the league’s worst records. The next year, they won 13, lost only three and went on to win the Super Bowl.

One reason the Rams were able to make such a complete reversal of fortunes is that their primary rivals couldn’t respond by going out and buying players to try to match their improvements. Foes were forced to face the Rams with the players they had since they couldn’t add salaries.

In baseball, it has become an annual rite of passage for the New York Yankees to spend the first couple of months of the season evaluating at which positions they are weaker than expected or weaker than their top rivals. Then they go out and trade for better players from bottom-tier teams who can’t afford them or who know they will be losing them after the season anyway.

Give the Yankees credit for being excellent judges of baseball talent. Just because someone signs a big contract doesn’t guarantee he will be a star. But more often than not, the Yankees are able to find the ones who are standout major league players.

But if there was a mandatory cap on salaries, many of the current Yankees (as well as players on the other wealthy clubs) would have to be shipped off to other teams. It wouldn’t be good for the Yankees, but it certainly would be good for the long-term competitive balance of the sport as a whole.

The Montreal Expos, baseball’s worst team, are on life support. The only way they’ll play this season is if the rest of the sport’s owners decide to subsidize their existence. Their fans have known for many years that they don’t have a chance to sign the better players, and they have finally lost interest. The same will continue to happen in other cities until the time baseball ownership and the players’ union both wake up and realize that a salary cap is needed.

Baseball is still our greatest game, but even the passionate fans won’t stay forever when their teams are merely perennial fodder for the sport’s elite.

Mr. Tom Mitsoff is a daily newspaper editor and syndicated editorial columnist. His web address is http://www.tommitsoff.com.

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