Have-nots striking out in baseball

April 12, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

One of the great myths of baseball, faithfully kept alive by the owners, is that there has been a correlation between spending money and winning championships in the two decades that free agency has existed.

It makes sense in theory -- the wealthier the team, the more quality ballplayers it can afford -- but simply has not proved valid in practice.

Not that the owners ever would admit that was true. Their "concern" for competitive balance is the foundation of their poverty-cry that led to the Great Strike. But the evidence against their position is overwhelming.

Small-market franchises such as the Twins and Reds have fielded World Series winners in the past decade, and others such as the Expos and Pirates have flourished, putting together top-caliber teams. Their relatively small home markets were not a hindrance. Why? Because they were better than their wealthier brethren at scouting, drafting and nurturing talent, and because their front offices were particularly smart.

Meanwhile, the big-market Yankees have floundered until recently, dragged down by poor organizational vision, front-office bumblings and bad baseball. The Orioles' flurry of free-agent signings in the mid-'80s succeeded mostly in hastening their decline to an all-time low in 1988.

The game's highest payroll recently has belonged to the Detroit Tigers, who haven't had a good pitching staff since Mickey Lolich's days.

Sure, signing free agents can help build a winner, and often does; the 10 highest-paying teams have had a higher winning percentage than the 10 lowest-paying teams in each of the past 10 seasons.

But the point is that solid fundamental play, front-office competence and general intelligence on and off the field can get you every bit as far as a fat wallet -- and sometimes farther.

In other words, the game itself always has been a great equalizer, generally immune to outside forces such as who has more money. Smart management and good baseball always have been able to overcome a lack of money, and bad management and bad baseball have bungled riches.

But as the sport struggles back to its feet after a crippling strike, it faces its fiercest challenge yet to its guarantee of balanced competition.

Never has baseball been more polarized than it is now. Seven or eight teams have a lot of money, and the rest apparently don't have much or any, their revenues drained by the strike.

Identifying the rich teams is easy. They're the ones trading for the David Cones, Jack McDowells and Jose Cansecos, the ones signing the Kevin Browns, Larry Walkers and Orel Hershisers. You know who they are. The Orioles, Blue Jays, Rockies and Indians are four, each with a bottom line bolstered by a new stadium. The Yankees, with their $50 million local TV contract, remain the richest of all.

It is no surprise that baseball's return is being greeted with far less cynicism in the places where these teams play. Things are happening.

But what about the rest of the game? How can there be excitement in Montreal, where the Expos have shamelessly given away all of their talent? Or in Kansas City, where the Royals unloaded their best pitcher and star outfielder? Or in Seattle, where the Mariners are considering dumping Randy Johnson?

How can there be much excitement in Milwaukee, where the Brewers played lousy ball in 1994 and haven't signed a single free agent? (As opposed to four by the Orioles, four by the Indians, etc.)

The rich teams appear so much stronger than the poor teams this season that it is difficult to envision any of the latter making much noise.

The game is perilously close to the danger point at which money does matter; the point at which smart management simply can't overcome a lack of money, because there just isn't enough talent on the field.

In the American League, it would appear that the Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians and White Sox are significantly better than the other nine teams. In other words, there are almost twice as many pretenders as contenders. Several of the latter are barely major league in quality.

In the past, it was always possible that the perceived order could be wrecked by a long-shot team with unforeseeably perfect chemistry (see: Orioles, 1989) or a legion of young players coming together simultaneously.

There is still a chance that such an event could occur this season, that one of the 20 or so have-not teams could emerge as baseball's best in October.

But the chances are slim -- slimmer than ever before -- with the have-nots unloading essential components every day, just to avoid having to pay them.

The gulf between the haves and have-nots is widening, making it easier and easier to see the future, which is a shame. Unpredictability has always been one of the game's greatest attributes. But it is disappearing.

The owners say they hung tough during the strike so they could overhaul the game's economic structure and improve competitive balance. But they only made it worse. Typical.

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