Last week, I was sitting in an ExCollege class called “The Business of Sports,” taught by Jan Volk, who served as general manager of the Boston Celtics from 1984-1997. As Mr. Volk began to talk about the salary cap system that three of the four major American sports have in place, he explained how such a system manages to keep those sports largely competitive, lamenting the fact that Major League Baseball does not have one.
He said that baseball will never be truly competitive until the league’s players’ union finally agrees to a cap — something he’s more optimistic about than I am — that allows small-market teams to at least feel like they have a chance from one year to the next.
Then a student piped up from the back of the room, asking Mr. Volk, “So you’re saying the [Tampa Bay] Rays didn’t feel like they had a chance last year?”
“So says the kid in the Red Sox hat,” I thought to myself.
Sure, the Rays were competitive last year. Where did that get them this year?
And yes, the Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and 2003, as fans of the current system like to point out.
But what those people don’t often acknowledge it that the Fish blew up their roster in the following years because they couldn’t afford to pay everyone. That’s what happens when your payroll is the lowest of all 30 teams in the league and less than 20 percent of that of the league’s richest franchise. In the years between their two World Series titles, and from 2003 to the present, the Marlins have had to settle for either mediocrity or outright embarrassment as a result of their financial struggles.
Look at this year’s playoffs. Five of the eight qualifying teams were among this year’s eight biggest spenders, and it would have been six if the Detroit Tigers hadn’t done their best New York Mets impression down the stretch. Using this statistic as a foundation, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman makes a case that surprisingly few sports journalists are willing to stand up for these days.
While most baseball writers give Bud Selig’s party line — “baseball is perfectly competitive as is, just look how different this decade’s World Series champions have been” — when asked about the need for a salary cap, Heyman notes that the big spenders have, and will continue to have, a tremendous advantage.
That’s because the playoffs themselves are a crapshoot. To win the World Series, a playoff team needs only to win eleven games before it loses nine. That’s not a terribly impressive feat. In fact, I bet even my Baltimore Orioles manage that once or twice a season.
Therefore, the more important factor in determining baseball’s level of competitiveness is who gets into the playoffs, not who wins it all. And this year’s postseason is not an anomaly, as Selig might suggest. Year in and year out, the eight playoff teams include at least six representatives from the top half of the league’s payroll.
The Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics are usually the exceptions to that rule. They have often been in the thick of things despite being near the bottom of the league’s payroll, trying to play David to baseball’s overpaid Goliaths. However, Minnesota benefits from a generally weak and volatile AL Central, and many Oakland rosters have been forced to undergo a fire sale comparable to that of the ’98 and ’04 Marlins. I’m sure their fans would be thrilled if, every once in a while, they didn’t have to watch the incredible young players developed by these teams spend the bulk of their careers elsewhere. I think most true baseball fans would like the same thing.
And by the way, if you go around town in a Red Sox hat or a Dodgers jersey, please keep your opinions about baseball’s parity — or lack thereof — to yourself.
Rory Parks is a senior majoring in international relations and Spanish. He can be reached at Rory.Parks@tufts.edu.