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The Money Pitch

The Widening gap between rich and poor teams means only a handful will have a shot at the World Series
Ken Shouler, Austin Merrill
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

More and more, Major League Baseball resembles high-stakes poker. Bringing the most money to the table doesn't guarantee you a victory in poker tournaments. But you need a load of money to even get a seat with the big boys, ante up, and have a chance at winning. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has said that fans want to begin each spring with hope and expectation.

But as many as 15 of the 30 Major League clubs—possibly more—have virtually no chance of winning the World Series. Their dim prospects don't stem from a deficit in runs scored or high earned run averages or any of the standard statistical barometers for that matter. Their problem is more basic: they simply lack the cash to field a championship team.

Of the eight teams that made the playoffs in 2001, six spent between $75 million and $109 million on payroll. The only playoff contenders spending under $75 million were Houston ($60 million) and Oakland ($33 million). Both were eliminated in first-round division series.

Sixteen other teams spending under $75 million sat out the playoffs.

"From 1995 through 2001, only four teams from the bottom half of payrolls reached the postseason, and combined, they won a total of five out of 224 games," says Andrew Zimbalist, Robert A. Woods professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the author of Baseball and Billions: A Probing Look Inside the Business of Our National Pastime, an award-winning study of baseball business from Civil War times to the present.

"There is a stacking of the deck; the most problematic part of that stacking of the deck is that there are teams at the top that spend so far above everyone else in payroll. There is clear evidence today that the problem is not just the Yankees, but it is the growing disparity between the top and bottom revenue teams.

"Just over a decade ago, in 1989, the revenue difference between the highest and lowest teams was around $30 million. By 1999, this difference grew more than fivefold, to more than $160 million. When you get to the top handful of teams, they are not spending five or ten percent more than the teams below them, they are not just spending 100 percent more, or 200 percent more."

The advantages of the rich teams reach to 300 and 400 percent and beyond. Last year, the Yankees and the Red Sox led the way with payrolls of more than $109 million each, while Oakland and Minnesota held up the rear at $33 million and $24 million, respectively.

At the outset of Major League Baseball's 132nd season, how dire are some teams' hopes of winning? Consider the numbers:

-The Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1991, the last time a team with a payroll in the bottom half won a championship. The Twins were 17th in payroll that year, spending just $22.5 million.

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