Damn Twins!

The standings better turn upside down, or baseball's "small markets can't compete" argument is going to look pretty silly. Plus: There was no **** asterisk

Published May 2, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

If the 2001 baseball season continues at its current pace, I can't wait to see what the Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee is going to tell the union when they sit down to discuss the next basic agreement.

Maybe "We need revenue sharing and a salary cap to keep big market teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs from dominating small market teams like the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates."

Do you really think they won't say something like that? Forget that if the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets don't win it will have opened up the field for three other teams to slip in; forget that if the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners win it will be in defiance of what they have been telling us practically since the '94 strike; forget, too, that although the Dodgers and Cubs are two of the biggest market teams in baseball, they have been embarrassments for most of the last decade (particularly the Cubs with their "How can we compete with our poor little ballpark and poor little TV network deal that only beams us around half the country?" act).

Forget all of that. When it comes bargaining time, the argument you're going to hear is "Too many small market teams can't compete in today's game," and, of course, it will be absolutely true, since there are an unprecedented number of teams and there will therefore be a lot of small-market teams that lose big no matter what happens. And that will be used as the reason a strike had to be forced, or for the players to be locked out.

I'm so confused I'm not sure anymore what exactly constitutes a large and a small market. I used to hear that the Philadelphia Phillies were the largest potential single-market team in baseball, but the Phillies' management has spent year after year whining about poverty and how they need a new stadium in order to compete. (Compete, exactly, with who? The only other team in their market area was the A's, and they moved nearly half a century ago.) Now, the proposed new stadium will make the Phillies a big-market team again. But what if they continue to win without it? Does that mean they were simply a big-market team all along that was poorly managed? Is that what makes a big-market team big? A new stadium? Or good management?

The Baltimore Orioles certainly haven't had good management, but they pack 'em in at Camden Yards, and that's why the Orioles were for years considered one of the big-market teams. That is, until exactly when? When the Yankees took Mike Mussina away from them? Why did that suddenly make Baltimore a small-market town? And wasn't the principal reason Mussina wanted to leave Baltimore that they were mismanaged? Was it mismanagement that made them a small market, in spite of the new stadium?

Are the Cleveland Indians, with a new stadium and the best-respected management in the league, a legitimate big-market team? Or, when their stadium gets old in a few years, do they go back to being small-market again?

The Texas Rangers, now those guys really puzzle me. After making a deal to buy Alex Rodriguez, they suddenly became an example of how big-market teams are buying up the best players. But until Texas signed A-Rod, I never heard anyone lump them together with the big-market teams. Then, of course, it turned out that Texas didn't just reach into their pockets and pay him the money, they were able to make the cable deal that brought in the money to sign him by actually signing him. Does that make them big-market or are they suddenly small-market again? (I've forgotten if their ballpark is new or old.)

Here's what really has me puzzled: In other sports, where they have both the revenue sharing and salary cap that MLB covets, are there still such things as big and small markets? If there is a big market in New York, why do the Knicks struggle to compete with the Toronto Raptors? Why is there a fairly good chance that the San Antonio Spurs will win their second championship in three years?

But if there isn't such a thing as a large market in the NBA, what does it mean that the game's best player, Shaquille O'Neal, left the Orlando Magic to go to the Los Angeles Lakers? And if Los Angeles wins for the second year in a row, doesn't that prove that playing in a big market gives a team advantages that teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves and Vancouver Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets, who never win championships, don't have? And if you answered yes to that question, then why are the Los Angeles Clippers the laughingstock of the league? (Mismanagement? Lack of their own new arena?)

Major League Baseball is going through a mini-boom right now, largely, I think, because the game has never been more competitive. Yet, there is very likely going to be a shutdown at the end of the season in the name of revenue sharing and a salary cap that are supposed to foster the same kind of competitive balance that other sports now have. Only, there is no evidence that the other sports that have those things really have competitive balance, at least not beyond a phony playoff system that includes more teams in the postseason than baseball's and thus creates the illusion of parity.

Do you really think Charlotte and Miami and Minnesota and Portland, based on their season play, deserved a shot at the championship? Did you really think at the end of the regular season that there was a chance they could beat the Lakers or Spurs, or at least that they stood the same chance as the Mariners or Oakland A's had of beating the Yankees in last year's baseball playoffs?

And if not, then why would you want to scrap baseball's system for pro basketballs'?

If you're a baseball fan, you'd better start asking yourself that question right now, 'cause the clock is ticking on the discussions for the basic agreement.

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There was no **** asterisk

If Billy Crystal's "61*" is guilty of propagating one real myth about the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris home run chase in 1961, it's that the so-called "asterisk" that old-fart commissioner Ford Frick wanted to place next to Maris' name in the record books ever really existed.

That is, Frick (who worshipped Babe Ruth) did call a press conference and announce that there would be an asterisk in the record books for anyone who set a new record in the eight-game span that had been added to the old 154-game schedule. What was never made clear was that Frick had no such power, particularly since there was no official major league record book, and there wasn't one until Total Baseball was given the job just a few years ago.

In other words, there never was an asterisk, though Maris and the press and millions of fans and, apparently, Billy Crystal thought there was. I suppose one could argue that this amounts to the same thing.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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