I expected that my post on Tuesday would be controversial. Any time one complains about the nature of Major League Baseball's uneven payroll structure, there are bound to be numerous dissenters. What I didn't expect was that Rob Neyer would feature the post on his blog and send a swarm of peeved Yankees fans over here to spout their disapproval.
Of course I'm glad that Neyer saw fit to bring up the discussion over at this SweetSpot blog, and it was nice to see some outsiders voicing their opinions in the comments section here, even if the majority of those opinions basically boiled down to me being a whiny, know-nothing moron from a fly-over state (I <3 NY!).
What disappoints me is that many of these people seemed to miss the central point of the original post. Perhaps that's my fault for not clearly conveying that point. With that in mind, there are a couple key aspects of argument that I'd like to re-emphasize today:
1) This is NOT just about the Twins and Yankees.
I used the Twins and Yankees as examples because I had just gotten done watching a three-game playoff sweep in which the Yankees threw three starting pitchers who made a combined $36 million this year (compared to three Twins' pitchers who made less than $5 million combined) while sporting a lineup whose 2-through-4 hitters earned a combined $72 million -- more than the Twins' entire payroll.
The general sentiment from Yanks fans seemed to be that I was unfairly singling out the Yankees and/or pouting because my team had just lost. Neither of those things were true.
The Yankees are the most prominent example of baseball's imbalanced financial field, given that their payroll is 33 percent higher than any other team, but the same issues apply to any large-market team that holds a marked advantage when it comes to signing free agents, internal players, draft picks or international talent. For the most part, the revenue advantages of these free-spending teams are far more correlated with the size of their market than the quality of their fans or the devotion of their ownership. It's simply unfair that they should be rewarded with a substantial competitive advantage as a result of where they play.
And this isn't whining. I fully expected the Twins to lose, and they lost. I was frustrated when the Yankees bought three of the top free agents last offseason, I was frustrated watching them win 103 games this season largely as a result of that spending spree, and I was frustrated watching them pound an understandably less stacked team in the first-round of the playoffs. My ranting post was the culmination of plenty of pent-up annoyance with baseball's current system, and the fact that it appeared in the aftermath of this playoff sweep is only because I deemed the timing appropriate.
In truth, the Twins probably aren't the greatest example to illustrate my argument, given that they've enjoyed relative success over the past eight years and could have probably defeated the Yankees in this series if not for some bad breaks and terrible baserunning blunders (which our friends from out east were so eager to point out -- repeatedly). But don't tell me that this team would not be in far better shape if they had an extra $100 million in payroll to throw around. Which brings me to my next point:
2) Higher payroll does not guarantee success, but there is no denying that it provides a distinct inherent advantage.
I can't believe how much energy some people spent trying to produce evidence proving that the Yankees' giant payroll doesn't actually provide them with a meaningful advantage. It is not debatable. If spending more did not make a team better and increase its chances of winning, then the Yankees would not run up a $200 million payroll, and other large-market teams wouldn't spend well over $100 million to assemble their rosters. No one has ever claimed that spending a certain amount of money guarantees wins or World Series titles -- and the Yankees have proven that over the past decade -- but there's no question that having the ability to employ significantly more high-paid players provides an advantage. The best players eventually command the most money, and while baseball's system does keep all players relatively inexpensive in their early years, it's damn near impossible to have a roster stacked full of superstars who haven't yet hit arbitration or free agency. It is not, however, hard to have a roster stacked full of superstars when you can flex a $150-$200 million budget.
One can debate how much of an advantage is gained by perpetually sporting a payroll that is more than twice the size of your opponents, but it's simply ignorant to try and argue that this isn't an advantage.
3. This argument should not have anything to do with the Pohlads.
Many, many people pointed out that the Twins' ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports, and that if they really wanted to they could outspend the Yankees in payroll outright, paying for Target Field in its entirety and bailing out the automobile industry while they're at it. But, in the same breath, many of these same people were quick to argue that baseball is a business.
Don't those two statements run somewhat contradictory to one another? If baseball truly is a business, how could anyone expect an owner to put more into their product than they're getting out of it? Look, I was never a big fan of Carl Pohlad and by no means was as a defense of him or the way he operated this franchise. But it's perfectly fair to expect a team in a smaller market's expenses to be commensurate with its revenue, regardless of the owner's worth, and it's also worth noting that most owners of small-market clubs don't have as much money as the Pohlads, which brings me back to my initial point: this ain't about the Twins. It's about baseball, and all of its overshadowed and unfairly disadvantaged small-market clubs.
To close today's post, I would like to highlight two examples from Tuesday's 50-comment maelstrom which I felt most thoughtfully and eloquently supported the two sides of this debate.
The first, which falls into the anti-cap category, comes from an anonymous commenter:
The beauty of baseball is that the very best teams (regardless of payroll) end up playing .630 ball, and they end up playing a bunch of .530 - .600 teams in the playoffs. Unlike the NBA or the NFL, the best teams don't make it to the championship series every year simply because their advantage of the other teams in the playoffs is marginal, and baseball is a game of funny bounces.
Yankees / Twins was hardly a walkover, and it ultimately came down to the Twins making Little League baserunning mistakes and their $11 million closer spitting the bit. Yes, the Yankees had a better team top to bottom and a larger margin for error, but just by the nature of baseball the lesser team had a legitimate chance to win.
In the big picture, MLB wants NY, Boston, LA, etc. to have the very best teams. Successful teams in the largest, most affluent markets = maximum ticketing, concessions, merchandising, TV, and radio revenue + greater global branding opportunities. Common business sense says you probably want 20 million happy fans in New York than 1 million in Kansas City.
But for those niche markets, devise the "AL Central" and "NL Central" where you let a less talented team with a worse record into the playoffs every year. That way, every fan can dream every spring.
But make sure you institute a "Wild Card" so that you get an extra large market team into the playoffs every year while giving niche market teams another hope to grab onto.
The only way to guarantee that this works and to maximize MLB revenues is to make sure you DON'T have a salary cap. What's wrong with that?
The second comes from Bill Lindeke, who probably did a better job of summarizing my argument than I did in one long-winded post and several meandering rebuttals in the comments section:
Nick... I'm a long-time reader of your blog. I fail to understand why people aren't getting your rather obvious point. I suppose the ideology of fandom is that owners are philanthropists, paying players out of personal or civic pride.
The fact is that, unlike other pro sports, baseball has a very imbalanced financial landscape. The reason Yankees fans are so annoying is that they (willfully) blind themselves to this fact.
We all see what we want to see, but the massive payroll discrepancies in baseball are a crying shame. The vast majority of teams have no real shot at winning in the playoffs most years. The fact that baseball still manages to keep a semblance of competitiveness is a testament to the inherent strength and beauty of the game.
(Incidentally. the same argument about inequality would hold true for the Mets or Cubs even though they're consistently mediocre. If all the big-market teams had decent management, baseball's uneven playing field would be truly intolerable, condemning Pittsburgh, K.C., Baltimore, and the rest to lifetimes of baseball purgatory.)
And, just for good measure, I'll republish this doozy, which I think portrays me very accurately:
awwwwww, boo hoo hoo. I'm a sad sack twins fan named Nick who cant seem to understand baseball economics and the idea of "fair" are not a mutual concept. I guess the twins should have just not even showed up bc I mean it was such a foregone conclusion that the big bad yankees would beat them and not even have to swing the bat. The yanks just show up and teams tremble at their massive salaries and just give up. boo hoo hoo. In the words of a great comic book master.....WORST.....BLOG....EVER.