Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The four-ton elephant in the corner of the room that people refuse to acknowledge these days: the lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball

Back in the early-90's, when the Pirates were in the midst of winning their three-straight NL East titles, there were rumblings that it would probably be the last great era of Pirates' baseball for a very long time. The economics of the game were changing, and more and more players were signing record-breaking contracts. As for the Pirates, Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek, Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and John Smiley were all nearing free agency, and it was almost a foregone conclusion that the team would lose most, if not all, of those players once they hit the free agent market.

It was around '91 or so when I started hearing suggestions that a salary cap was needed for teams in cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City to compete with teams in New York and Chicago.

Local sports personalities like Stan Savran and Bruce Keiden would discuss this on a daily-basis.

Being the young, impressionable person that I was at the time, I believed a salary cap would eventually be a part of MLB, and everything would be okay with the world.

By 1993, most of the above-mentioned Pirates superstars either left for free agency or were traded away, and the Pirates three-year window to win a World Series had come to an end.

In the summer of 1994, there was the infamous players strike that eventually eliminated the remainder of the regular season along with the playoffs and World Series.

One of the the main reasons for the strike was the owners eagerness to have a salary cap put into place in-order to off-set the growing economic disparity between small and large-market teams. The players were dead-set against such an idea and went on-strike.

At the time, I figured the owners would eventually get their way and baseball would have a cap and more of a competitive-balance.

Well, as most know, the strike eventually was settled, but without a cap in-place. The owners essentially caved and the players won out. Sure, there was a form of revenue sharing to help ease the pain, but there was nothing to stop the escalating payrolls.

I couldn't believe the owners caved. A number of years ago, former Pirates pitcher Bob Walk was discussing the 1994 strike. Just out of baseball at the time, Walk still spoke with many players around the game, and he said that the long work-stoppage had started to take its toll financially on many players and several were actually pretty close to crossing the picket-line and returning to work.

I firmly believe that if the owners would have held-out just a little longer, MLB would be operating under a salary cap today.

From about the mid-80's to the mid-90's, the New York Yankees were just another team. They were like Notre Dame is today in college football. Yes, they had a great tradition; they were one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. But nobody feared the Yankees. Well, that all changed after the 1994 strike.

The New York Yankees have been the biggest benefactors in this era of free-spending. Since 1995, the Yankees have made the postseason every year but one, they have been to the World Series seven times and have won it five times.

The Yankees are so powerful now, their advantage so great, can you ever again picture a future era when the Yankees are just another team struggling to win for a number of years? It will never happen again in the current climate of MLB.

Moving-on, by the early 00's, the talk of a salary cap had started to dissipate. Now, instead of talk of competitive-balance, people started pointing to teams like the Twins and Marlins as good example of financially-challenged teams who managed to win under the current economic-structure.

Yes, the Twins have been a model small-market team for a number of years, and other teams like the Tampa Rays, Cincinnati Reds, and Milwaukee Brewers have shown that they can win from time-to-time, but where are the World Series titles? The Twins haven't been to the World Series since 1991, back before the current economic conditions took hold of the sport.

Yes, the Rays have been to a World Series recently, but competing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, who knows if they'll ever reach that level again.

In 2010, the Cincinnati Reds made their first postseason appearance since winning the World Series in 1990. What did they get for their troubles? They were on the losing end of a no-hitter in their first playoff game in two-decades and eventually swept right-out of the first round by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, I know the Marlins managed to win a couple of World Series, but at what cost? After defeating the Cleveland Indians in 1997, owner Wayne Huizenga was forced to sell-off most of the pieces from that team, and in 1998, the Marlins were so bad, manager Jim Leyland asked the team's public address announcer to stop introducing them as the defending World Series Champions.

When you have to gut your franchise after winning a World Series simply out of necessity, that should tell you all you need to know.

Proponents of this current financial structure will point to teams like the Cubs and Mets as examples of large-market teams who rarely win. "Money isn't always the answer to everything." And that's right, it's not. However, it sure does help. Besides, there's a difference between winning and having a chance to win. Maybe the Cubs and Mets have inept front-offices who simply don't know how to take advantage of the system, but the opportunity will always be there if they can just figure things out.

In the NFL, where everyone operates under a salary cap, teams like the Lions and Bengals have struggled for years, but that doesn't mean they don't have the same opportunity to succeed as the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.

And speaking of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they just played in the most recent Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is an even smaller market than Pittsburgh. Can you ever picture a scenario where the Pittsburgh Pirates face the Kansas City Royals in the World Series? I can't.

Today, fans are just expected to accept this financial climate. We're just supposed to deal with MLB being the only major professional sport without a cap.

People will tell fans of small-market teams that the sport is doing well-financially, and no change is needed.

Oh really? Well, I refuse to accept it. How can MLB expect fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City to buy-into the same World Series dreams as fans in Chicago and Los Angeles when they know the Pirates and Royals will always be at an inherent disadvantage?

It seems that only a few teams really matter in the current state of MLB, and for whatever reason, that's okay with the higher-ups. You wouldn't think that in 2011, the needs of only a few would outweigh the needs of the many in a major professional sports league, but that's what's going on.

There was a time, back in the 70's and 80's, when the Pirates, Red, A's, and Royals were some of the most talented and successful franchises in the sport. Can you ever imagine that being the case again? I can't.

Today, if you root for a small-market team, you just have to hope that your team figures things out and can just give you a reason to celebrate, even for just a year or two.

The real shame in all of this is I used to absolutely love Major League Baseball. I still love the Pirates and am rooting like crazy for them to somehow get it together and compete under the current economic conditions. But as for baseball in-general, I don't have the love for the sport that I once did, and I can only point to the disparity between small and large market teams as the reason why.

And you would think that would really bother MLB, but it doesn't. After all, I'm not a Yankees or Red Sox fan, what does it matter how I feel?

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