Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Salary Cap: Baseball's Enduring Straw Man

I hate the Yankees.

In the interests of fairness, I should make this clear before I go on. I've been a fan of the Atlanta Braves since the days of Dale Murphy, Rick Mahler and Bob Horner. It was with great pride that I watched the Braves build themselves into a baseball dynasty.
And it was with great pain that I watched them go down, again and again, in October. Yes, they won it all in 1995, beating the Indians in six exciting games. But as good as it was to see that, it was with a crushing sense of pain and doom that I watched the Braves lose the series in 1996 to the Damn Yankees. I remember sitting about 8 inches from the TV screen as Mark Lemke popped out in the 9th inning. I tried to force the ball into the stands by sheer force of will, but it didn't work. Charlie Hayes caught it for the last out of the series. And so was born my hatred of the Yankees. It didn't get any better in 1999, when the Yankees swept the Braves out of the World Series. By then my hatred was festering.
I say all of this because what I'm about to say may sound like Yankee favoritism. Let me assure you that it is NOT. What I say I say as a baseball fan, pure and simple.
Baseball doesn't need a salary cap.

There's been a lot of noise this off-season reviving the idea of a salary cap in baseball. Many team owners have called for some sort of limit on payroll spending. And several fans, resentful of the fact that the Yankees seemed to have rigged the free agent process, are echoing those sentiments.
The owners have their own reasons. As for the fans, reporters, columnists, and talking heads calling for a salary cap, they have a reason of their own: They hate the Yankees.
This is a big generalization, I know. And there are exceptions. But for the most part, the calls for a salary cap have come from those who are spiteful that the Yankees spent so much money and want to see them punished. Believe me — I've been hating the Yankees for twelve years now; I think I can recognize my own kind. Is it a coincidence that the salary cap noise came in the same offseason that the Yankees spent $400 million-plus on players? If the Mets or the Dodgers had signed these players, would we be hearing even a fraction of these complaints? I doubt it.

We Yankee-haters are all afraid that the Yankees are just going to buy themselves a World Series. That's doubtful. If the Yankees could just buy a World Series, wouldn't they have done that at least once in the past eight seasons? The Yankees' 2009 payroll is actually projected to be about the same as their payroll was last year — when they missed the postseason entirely.But still, whether you're a Yankee-hater or not, what probably scares you the most about this offseason is the loss of competitive balance. Owners, fans, and talk radio hosts alike are warning that there will be no competitive balance in baseball unless we do something to stop the big-spenders; and by big-spenders, of course, we mean the Yankees, not the Red Sox or the Tigers (who had the second-highest MLB payroll last season, which was good enough for a last-place finish in the AL Central).
But those analysts who have actually looked at the bottom line have a different story to tell. After a 1990s decade that saw several mini-dynasties and several perennial losers, the 2000s have seen the fall of old dynasties, the rise of new ones, and several teams reversing long-running trends. Since the start of this decade, there have been nine World Series. Eight different teams have won those nine series. About one in four baseball teams have won the World Series in the past nine years. No other period in baseball history matches that.
And that parity extends to the postseason as a whole, too. Since 2000, 10 of 14 AL teams and 13 of 16 NL teams have reached the postseason at least once. So about 77% of all baseball teams have made the postseason in the past nine years. Extend the deadline back to 1995, and 26 of 30 (87%) MLB teams have reached the postseason at least once. Think this is a fluke? Since 2000, 57% of major league teams have reached the postseason more than once.What else can we do to create competitive balance? If we level the playing field much more, we'll just be giving everybody a guaranteed win and then handing out "Participation" ribbons at the end of the season.
Granted, I'm probably overstating the case. There has been a lot done in terms of revenue sharing in recent years, and I think it's important to continue these measures as an effective way of increasing parity. My point is that there is no crisis; the voices screaming out for action are yelling, "FIRE!" in an empty theater.

Plus, the owners have an ulterior motive in calling for a salary cap. A salary cap would, obviously, limit the salary inflation that's exploded in recent years and give owners a greater degree of cost certainty when budgeting for the future. It also removes the finances of free agency almost entirely from the realm of the free market, which is what the owners have wanted for years
Think about it: why else would the owner of the Red Sox, with cash spilling out of his pockets,
suggest an "enlightened" salary cap? Isn't it striking to see the country's foremost capitalists putting on their Robin Hood hat and advocating socialism? I never would have mistaken Astros owner Drayton McLane or Brewers owner Mark Attanasio for a leveller.
I know that fans hate the huge salaries that players pull down, but you have to look at it this way: There's a ton of money in baseball revenue. It either goes to the players or the owners, so pick your poison. It's really that simple. And I think it was Jim Bouton who said that while the players don't deserve to make this much money, "the owners don't deserve it even more" (Ball Four).
I guess we're all free to grouse and moan, in our own way, about the small fortune handed out to Messrs. Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira. The Yankees look like the best team on paper but, as the cliche goes, they don't play the games on paper. If the Yankees are the best, the Red Sox aren't far behind. And the Tampa Bay Rays will have a big part to play in this race, even if they are working with a relatively tiny payroll. The truth is that the Yankees' offseason activity has gotten people talking about baseball and the AL East more than ever. And we still can't say for sure who's going to win anything. That's the fun of it all. No one named Steinbrenner can take that away from us.

In closing, I'd like to address my fellow Yankee-haters: you can calm down now. You don't need to worry about all this money spent, and you don't need to agitate for a salary cap. Because I've got good news: in our quest to level the playing field and punish the Yankees, we've already succeeded.

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