• Exclusives

    Moneyball a sad reminder of appalling baseball economics

    by Kent Covington

    The baseball themed Brad Pitt film, Moneyball, will be released nationwide later this month.  The movie tells the story of the small market Oakland Athletics’ efforts to adapt in the modern day Major League Baseball environment of haves and have-nots.

    In other words… it’s a sad reminder of the appalling nature of baseball economics.

    Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, Peter Moylan

    Not long ago, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, Peter Moylan, expressed via his Twitter account how proud he is to be a part of the greatest union in the nation, in his view (the MLB Player’s Association).

    I replied by conveying my belief that the Player’s Association had greatly damaged the game.  Peter responded (facetiously), “Yeah, because the game is in such bad shape”.

    Let me start by saying, I’m a big Peter Moylan fan. I appreciate what he brings to the field, and while I don’t know him personally, he seems like an incredibly likeable guy. I understand his pride over being a part of that fraternity, and I get that he’s a company man.

    Having said all of that, his response frustrates me, and at the risk of sounding a little melodramatic… it even saddens me.  Why?  Because Peter’s point of view represents the prevailing mindset throughout Major League Baseball, which is the belief that nothing is broken. Everything’s just fine.

    But something is broken.

    When the Tampa Bay Rays, with a payroll of 41 million dollars, are forced to compete with two division rivals that spend 202 million and 161 million, respectively, something is very, very wrong.  It astounds me that anyone in the game can stare at that laughable disparity and honestly say they’re ok with it.

    And the fact that Major League Baseball as a whole, like a raging alcoholic, refuses to admit that a problem even exists gives me very little hope that it will ever be fixed.

    Now, before we go any further, let me explain what I mean when I say the Player’s Association has damaged the game. The Players Association is a union, and it does what unions do. It pushes to get the very most for its members.  And normally, there’s nothing wrong with that, at least to an extent.  But this isn’t your typical labor dynamic.  Most labor disputes involve just two parties: the union and company management.  In this case, however, there is a third party… the game itself.

    Major League Baseball is more than just a business. It’s an American institution that has played role in the lives of countless millions over more than a century. Baseball brought fans together and helped to lift the spirit of this nation through the Great Depression, two World Wars and 9/11. It deserves to be preserved in the healthiest state possible for generations to come.

    The owners are looking out for the owners.  The players look out for the players.  But who’s looking out for the game?

    The Player’s Association has successfully fended off every effort on the part of owners to institute salary controls. As a result, the payroll disparity between the haves and have-nots in baseball has spiraled out of control.  Their refusal to consider even the most reasonable of salary control measures has changed the game for the worse.

    If players would speak candidly, I believe most would tell you they’d like to see a leveler playing field, but NOT at the risk of a slight reduction in the average player salary.  Nor are players willing to risk turning one’s self into a social pariah by breaking ranks with the official union policy of insisting that an inanely unfair system is perfectly fair.

    I guess it seems fair enough to them.  I mean, hey… their checks cash.  And despite the predictable impact of a poor economy, attendance has been healthy in recent years, so the owners are happy.  Even perennial losers, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, are cashing in on the system via revenue sharing.  So there appears to be little motivation to fix the problem.

    Before you ask, YES, I’ve seen the studies. I’ve heard the arguments. There is no correlation between payroll and winning, right?

    But wait… if that’s true, why don’t the Yankees cap their payroll at 80 million, then fold the rest of the cash over and put it back in their pocket?

    Why are Major League Baseball players—ever loyal to their union—so quick to regurgitate the company line that payroll doesn’t = winning, then wish aloud their employers would spend more money to make their team more competitive?  If spending more cash doesn’t help you win, what does it matter?

    Bloated contracts given to players like RHP, C.Zambrano, have hurt big spending Cubs

    No, spending does not necessarily equate to winning.  It guarantees you nothing.  The Chicago Cubs, who boast MLB’s 4rd highest payroll this year, are likely to lose 90 games.  Conversely, several playoff contenders (Braves, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Brewers and Rays) are winning with below-average team payrolls.

    Clearly, it is possible to win without a fat wallet or lose despite massive spending. But does the failure of some big spenders or the success of some beer budget teams in any way nullify the value of spending power?  Absolutely not.

    Too often, big market teams try to take shortcuts and spend their way into the playoffs, without first developing a strong foundation of homegrown talent.  With the possible exception of the Yankees and their 200-million dollar piggy bank, this approach usually fails. That only goes to show that even an unfair advantage can be squandered.

    Let’s take a lesson from baseball’s glamorous steroid era.

    Juicers like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were talented and hard working. Steroids alone could not have been responsible for their success. But did it give them an unfair advantage? No doubt about it.

    McGwire has argued that steroids don’t hit homeruns. Again, he’s partially right. You still have to have talent. But if steroids did nothing to help his performance, why did he take them?  Surely he wasn’t shrinking his testicles without a cause.

    Have there been sluggers who have succeeded without performance enhancing drugs?  Of course.

    Did every player to take steroids achieve great things in the big leagues? Nope.

    So… there were players who succeeded without steroids, while many who used steroids were not successful. Conclusion: steroids provided no unfair advantage and its widespread use didn’t need to be addressed.

    So… there are teams that succeed without big spending power, while some big spending teams don’t succeed. Conclusion: Deep pockets provide no unfair advantage and the massive payroll disparity does not need to be addressed.

    Hey Major League Baseball, whadya say we apply consistent logic, huh?  Then again, it took pressure from the United States Congress to make you give a #$^?*@#% about steroids, so I suppose you are being consistent.

    Now for those who insist spending power makes no difference, here’s a fun exercise for you:

    This season, the Boston Red Sox spent 161.8 million dollars.  Their Wild Card/division rival, Tampa Bay Rays, spent 41.1 million.  Just for kicks, let’s close that gap.  Subtract 120 million dollars from this roster any way you’d like (assuming the subtracted players are replaced by low-cost players from within the organization), and then show me the Red Sox team that would still be atop the AL Wild Card standings today.

    OR… add 120 million to the Rays’ roster, and try to make a convincing argument that the Rays wouldn’t be in line for a postseason berth right now.  Better yet, flip the two payrolls, then tell me with straight face that money isn’t the difference in that race.

    The Philadelphia Phillies are outspending the mid-market Atlanta Braves by 86 million dollars this season.  Subtract 86 million from the Philly roster and see what you’re left with.  Flip it around and add 86 million to Atlanta’s payroll. Does that NL East race look any different?

    All-star OF, Carl Crawford, left Tampa to sign 142 million dollar deal w/ Boston

    Small market teams can “win” on a tight budget. However, it’s difficult to maintain that success over an extended period.  As core players near free agency, small market teams are often forced to part with talented players, who they cannot afford to retain.  And the next generation of replacements may or may not be as good.

    It’s ironic that Moneyball will hit theaters at a time when the success (and attendance) of the budget conscious A’s has clearly faded, while big spenders like the Red Sox and Yankees have remained among baseball’s elite for many years.

    Furthermore, while small payroll teams can sometimes “win”, they rarely win it all.

    In the past 35 years, only 3 teams have won the World Series with a payroll that ranked lower than the top-15 MLB team salaries.   And since 1991, only 5 of the last 18 World Series Champions were outside of the MLB’s top-10 payrolls.

    There was a time when any team in baseball, if they sensed they were close to fielding a World Series contender, could dig a little deeper and spend the money necessary to compete at the highest level.  Consider the World Series Champions from 1985 through 1992. Here they are in order:

    ’85: Royals
    ’86: Mets
    ’87: Twins
    ’88: Dodgers
    ’89: A’s
    ’90: Reds
    ’91: Twins
    ’92: Blue Jays
    ’93: Blue Jays

    Seven of those nine World Series winners are teams that would be considered highly disadvantaged in today’s baseball economy. None of these teams, except the Dodgers and Mets, could afford even HALF of what the New York Yankees currently spend on player salaries.  No cash strapped MLB team these days could achieve the kind of dominance and enduring success that small market franchises like the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA and the Green Bay Packers in the NFL have achieved.

    Fans in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tampa and the like will continue to cheer their young stars on, only to watch them depart for deeper pocketed teams a few years later.  But given that everyone’s making money, short of another act of Congress, the problem is unlikely to be fixed anytime soon.

    While the absurd payroll disparity in baseball may make for compelling David-vs-Goliath Hollywood fodder, it remains an untreated cancer in the bones of Major League Baseball.