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Baseball’s caste system is sure to kill the game

Baseball’s caste system is sure to kill the game

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News item: Baseball commissioner Bud Selig proposes a “competitive balance draft,” by which the eight teams with the lowest winning percentage over a three-year period would be able to take players from the eight teams with the highest winning percentage over the same period.
How’s that for a warped rationale? According to Selig’s plan, as reported by the Associated Press, the teams with the worst records have the worst records because they don’t have enough money to buy the best players. So, this “competitive balance draft” would enable the paupers to draft highly paid players and then trade them to the high rollers for less expensive talent.
Excuse me, but isn’t this where we came in? The financially strapped teams still wind up in old jeans and watches that will turn green on their arms and the Yankees, Mets, et al, still wearing three-piece suits and Rolexes. The poor stay poor and the rich remain rich. It’s called the status quo, stagnant, as in, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It figures. Major League Baseball has brain cancer and the best Dr. Selig can do is say, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” The game is hacking away at its own throat and is bleeding to death, and the commissioner responds with Band-Aids.
I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, what else did we expect? That Selig would recommend a complete overhaul of the ludicrous system? That he would call all the richest owners together and demand that they put a stop to their financial follies because they’re on the brink of destroying baseball as we know it? Maybe remind them that even the Yankees need a league to play in?
If Selig and baseball were smart-and that’s the Mount Everest of “ifs”-they would schedule a week-long meeting with National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Selig would open baseball’s checkbook and say, “Name your price. How much do you want? How much will it take for you to show us how to save us from ourselves?”
See, the NFL figured it out a long time ago. Baseball, though, just keeps ordering another round, bellowing with intoxicated confidence, “We’re the Grand Old Game,” and continues its binge spending.
Revenue sharing-NFL teams split gate receipts and television income-and the salary cap have prevented the caste system from ruining pro football. No team or teams in the NFL can corner the market on talent because they have the resources to outspend the others. Not even the Wash-ington Redskins could buy their way into the playoffs this season.
Whether you like the salary cap is irrelevant, because it works. At the two extremes, baseball and football are proof that a salary cap is the only way to keep free agency from running amok. Free agency, revenue sharing and the cap almost guarantee that every two or three years, the power structure in the NFL will be changed, if not overhauled.
Teams that accumulate enough stars to dominate their division usually can’t keep them, or at least can’t add to them. Inevitably, they have to release star players they can’t afford-star players who wind up on another team.
The system not only keeps the fans and the media guessing and anticipating, but teams rarely are good or bad for extended periods of time. Dynasties and doldrums are temporary.
Jacksonville, for example, was 14-2 in 1999 and 7-9 this season. The Indianapolis Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in ’99. Denver was 14-2 in ’98 and 6-10 in ’99.
The salary cap forces teams to manage their money instead of simply spending it. The cap is an enforced budget that levels the playing field and eliminates the haves/have-nots scenario. Every season, teams have to trade or release players they can’t afford to keep.
As a result, the NFL has no trouble keeping our attention. The playoff picture is almost always fuzzy and out of focus until the last weekend of the season. Through 15 weeks of the 16-game schedule, there were eight teams already in the playoffs and seven others with mathematical chances, depending on what happened in Week 16.
Baseball should be so lucky-rather, so smart. Unless the team plane goes down, nobody’s going to beat the Yankees in 2001. What’s worse, few teams can afford to compete with them, let alone challenge them.
Football understands that maintaining a competitive balance is what keeps its fan base interested. And football understands how to achieve that.
Meanwhile, baseball is intoxicated and staggering smugly toward the end of a pier. Unless it sobers up, it will soon be passed time for America’s pastime.

12/29/00–Rochester Business Journal