Taking baseball owners at their word

If competitive balance is the main issue in the contract talks, why does their main proposal address payroll imbalance?

By King Kaufman
Published July 23, 2002 10:58PM (EDT)

Let's do something I pretty much never do. Let's take what baseball's owners are saying at face value.

"All of our proposals are directed at the issue of competitive balance," says Bob DuPuy, the president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball and commissioner Bud Selig's right-hand man.

There are various and sundry issues on the table as baseball's labor negotiations drag toward Sept. 16, which has reportedly been targeted by the players association as a strike date: drug testing, a worldwide amateur draft, even contraction. It's safe to say, though, that these issues can be negotiated away if the big issue is resolved, and the big issue is money.

The owners say that baseball is going broke and teams are in danger of going bankrupt, and that the big problem in baseball is that low-revenue teams can't compete with high-revenue teams. (This is sometimes stated as small-market and large-market teams, though teams have a way of moving from one group to the other based on rhetorical need.) Low-budget, small-market teams, the argument goes, have no way to compete with rich, free-spending teams -- here the New York Yankees are always cited -- and fans of those less fortunate teams therefore have no hope of seeing their boys succeed, and no incentive to hang around as fans.

The argument of the players association can be reduced to: We don't negotiate salaries, which are between the teams and individual players. What we want is to make sure that no artificial upper limit is placed on how much players may earn. Let the free market set player salaries, just as it does the profits of the owners, who charge fans and television and radio outlets what the market will bear for their product.

But what about this competitive balance thing? "In the last five years -- since the last [collective bargaining agreement] -- you've seen the numbers," DuPuy told Baseball America this month. "Two hundred twenty-five playoff games, and only five won by teams in the bottom half of payroll. Not a single World Series game has been won other than by teams in the top quartile of payroll."

First of all, I'd argue that even with the extra round of playoffs that were added in 1994, baseball's playoff system is small enough and its regular season long and meaningful enough that citing playoff wins is not an accurate measure of determining which teams are competitive. Unlike in basketball or hockey, where more than half the teams make the playoffs and even mediocre clubs win a few playoff games most years, you can be competitive in baseball without winning many, or any, postseason games.

For example, look at the San Francisco Giants, a team that was fifth in the 16-team National League and 10th in the 30-team major leagues in Opening Day payroll this year, which is about where they usually are. The Giants have won one playoff game since 1989. But over the last five years, they've won two division titles and finished second three times. They've finished first or second in their division eight of the last 13 years. As of Monday morning, they were second in the N.L. West, one game out, in a three-team dogfight with Arizona and Los Angeles, the loser of which will likely be the Wild Card playoff team. In short, they're consistently competitive. Their fans reasonably expect them to compete for the championship each year and are rarely disappointed. It's pretty fun to be a Giants fan. I ought to know because I am one.

A better way to measure a team's competitiveness is to -- here I go again -- take the owners at their word.

"At the start of the season, the fans of each team should have hope and faith that his and/or her team can compete for the championship," Selig said in an online "town hall" this spring. "Unfortunately, this is not the case and has not been the case in recent years. When baseball fans have no hope, the game is diminished."

Again, we can take issue with the merits (not to mention the pronoun agreement) of the owners' argument here. After all, as my stablemate Allen Barra points out, baseball has more competitive balance today than it ever did. In the game's so-called golden age, the 1950s, the Yankees dominated the American League and the Giants and Dodgers the National League to a degree that far outshines what the Yankees have had going the last half-dozen years. In fact, if you were a baseball fan any time from the early '20s to the late '60s and you didn't root for the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants or Cardinals, you could go decades at a stretch greeting one Opening Day after another knowing your team had no hope to compete for the championship.

But never mind that, and never mind that there's no evidence that competitive imbalance hurts a sport, as evidenced by the other major American professional and college team sports, all of which have spent significant portions of their growth years dominated by one or a small number of teams, not to mention tennis, where the dominant Williams sisters have led to the women's game thumping the competitively balanced men's version, or golf, never more successful than right now, when Tiger Woods' not winning a major tournament is front-page news.

If the owners say competitive balance is the big problem, then by golly competitive balance is the big problem.

Which leads me to ask: Why is the owners' main proposal aimed at making payrolls more even, rather than won-loss records?

Baseball already has revenue sharing. If your team's payroll goes over a certain amount, you have to pay a "luxury tax," which goes to the poorer teams. There is no rule that says this windfall for the have-nots must go to player salaries. It can merely be pocketed by the owner. This does nothing for competitive balance, of course, and is a mere nuisance for the rich teams. The owners' main proposal is to make this luxury tax much, much higher. That would mean that if rich teams continue to exceed the payroll level where the tax is triggered, a lot more money would go to the poorer teams -- though again, without a rule forcing that money to be added to payroll, it doesn't necessarily mean the poorer teams would improve themselves.

What would more likely happen is that teams would be discouraged from exceeding that limit, because it wouldn't be worth it to spend money that would then be taxed at a prohibitive rate. The luxury tax would therefore be a de facto salary cap, and the spending of the Yankees, say, would not continue to outpace the spending of, say, the San Diego Padres by more and more each year, and that would be good for the Padres.

Seems like an awfully roundabout way to address competitive balance problems to me, especially when you consider that while there is a relationship between payroll and won-loss records, it's not a perfect, direct relationship. Just as in any other business, what you pay your employees helps determine the quality of employees you can get, but it's not the only factor.

The National League's top two payroll teams, Arizona and Los Angeles, are battling for the Western Division title with the Giants, but the league's best team, Atlanta, is fourth out of 16 in payroll, and the other division leader, St. Louis, is seventh.

In the American League, Anaheim, seventh out of 14 in Opening Day payroll, and Oakland, 13th, are fighting No. 4 Seattle for the lead in the West and No. 2 Boston for the Wild Card. The top-payroll Yankees lead the East, but the Twins, 12th in payroll, are running away with the Central. The teams with the third-highest payroll in each league, the New York Mets and Texas Rangers, are terrible. Three of the top-10 payroll teams in baseball are out of contention. Three of the bottom 10 are in contention. That doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

Payroll does seem to take on added importance once the playoffs start, because the players who can control a short series -- top-shelf starters and dominant closers -- are expensive. On the other hand, if Jeremy Giambi of the A's slides at the plate in last year's first-round Game 3, the Yankees and their big salaries go home. And the consistently big-spending Braves have won one World Series in their decade-long run.

Still, if the owners want the bad teams to get better, why not give them players? This could be done any number of ways. The amateur draft could be weighted so that losing teams could get more high draft choices. Let's say the bottom five teams in winning percentage make up the first round, then the bottom 10 make up the second round, the bottom 15 the third, and so on. By the time the world champions make their first pick, the 105th in the draft, the worst five teams will have taken six players each. That should help competitive balance, and if the bad teams are also poor teams, moneywise, those extra draft choices would be assets that they could sell.

Another way to help the bad teams is to let them draft off of the good teams' major league rosters. Nothing drastic, but why not let the eight playoff teams protect 25 players off their 40-man rosters, and let the worst eight teams pick one player each from the remaining pool, with the stipulation that each playoff team could lose no more than one player? The playoff teams would lose nobody better than their 26th most valuable guy, but that guy might help a have-not team, especially if he's a prospect stuck behind a star on the good team who would get a chance to blossom with the -- for now -- bad one.

These are just a couple of suggestions. We could tinker with them until they're workable, or maybe there are other, better ideas to help the bad teams become good ones.

But if competitive imbalance is the problem, why is everyone talking about money?

You see? Every time I take the owners at their word, I get confused.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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