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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

(continued from page 3)

While Seitz's decision was only indirectly related to free agency, the bidding war that ensued for Hunter's services was a harbinger of things to come. Representatives from 15 Major League clubs descended on Ahoskie, North Carolina, near Hunter's home, and participated in a 13-day bidding period. Hunter eventually signed a five-year deal with the Yankees for $3.75 million, including a $1 million signing bonus.

In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenged the reserve clause in a new way. Miller observed that the standard player's contract bound a player for one year. But what if a player didn't sign a contract while playing for his team that year—would he then become a free agent? Management claimed that the player would still be reserved by his team. The dispute went to an arbitrator and again Seitz ruled in the players' favor, saying that the option year in every contract was just that: one option year that could not be renewed perpetually. Now players could fulfill their contracts and then sign with the highest bidder. McNally and Messersmith refused to sign contracts with Baltimore and Los Angeles, respectively, and became free agents. Miller cautioned players against flooding the free agent market and thereby hurting their own bargaining position.

The owners tried to arouse fear by arguing that minus a reserve system, baseball would be ruled by the wealthiest teams. Free agency would have dire consequences for competitive balance, they warned. Many media members, fans and players believed this. It couldn't have been further from the truth.

In the first 16 years of free agency, from 1976 through 1991, 13 different teams won the World Series; only the Yankees (1977—78) won back-to-back championships. Fans could enjoy unpredictable World Series matchups like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Philadelphia and Kansas City, St. Louis and Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Baltimore, San Diego and Detroit, and San Francisco and Oakland. One wonders if some of those matchups would even be possible now. The perennially inept Washington Senators won in 1924. The 1950 Phillies and the 1959 White Sox—both pennant winners—had a kind of small-scale charm. The New York Mets went from ninth place in 1968 to a World Series title in 1969 against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. But will we see their unlikely equivalents in years to come? Not if the trend of the last 10 years is any indication.

Since 1991, when Minnesota edged Atlanta in the 10th inning in one of the most thrilling World Series ever, the Braves and the Yankees have made up nine of the 18 Series contestants, with Toronto (twice), Cleveland (twice), Philadelphia, Florida, San Diego, the New York Mets and Arizona making up the rest. (No World Series was held in 1994 due to a players' strike.) While nine different teams out of a possible 18 signals a frightening, dynastic dominance to some, that's more variation than in the 1950s, when only seven different teams competed in the World Series—mostly the Yankees and the Dodgers—and not far behind the 1940s, when 11 different teams competed.

Marvin Miller thinks it was harder for most teams to win the World Series 50 or 60 years ago, unless they were one of a few elite teams. "The Yankees won 14 American League pennants in 16 years [1949—1964] and most of the World Series in that period. And in those years, it didn't matter what your payroll was.

"The problem today is nowhere near as unbalanced competitively as it was then. We're sitting here with the most recent season, when an expansion team, in business for what, four years, and they win the World Series and beat the Yankees! Regardless of payroll, it is not tougher now for a low payroll team to win a World Series than it was when a few teams dominated the game in both leagues."

Zimbalist thinks that neither the present situation nor the 1950s is optimal for the game. "The good old days of the last Yankee dynasty were not that good for baseball. In that span, average attendance at games grew by less than 3 percent over the entire 16 years [1949—64], even though real ticket prices remained virtually flat [they increased by less than half of 1 percent per year]."

Some observers point out that baseball intelligence matters as much as small or large payroll. Your front office still has to make the right decisions in picking talent, and your players must stay injury-free. So teams like San Francisco in 2000 and Oakland in 2000 and 2001 combined to win five playoff games despite being in the lower half of the payroll rankings. "The only reason that they were able to do well was they [had] players that had less than six years of experience [and thus had not earned the right to free agency], and by happenstance, were able to get a good group of them together," says Charles Link.

Agent Scott Boras agrees. "When you talk about lower payrolls, the only way you're going to have talent on it is if it's young talent," says Boras. Boras represents Alex Rodriguez, who signed a 10-year deal with Texas for $250 million last season, and Barry Bonds, who signed a five-year pact with the Giants for $90 million, despite being 37 years old. But there is a drawback. "Young talent never wins," he says. "And the first element is that a lower payroll club does not pursue veteran talent. So experience in sports is wholly related to success."

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