O's-Royals series shows have-nots have little shot

On Baseball

April 07, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The season-opening series between the Orioles and Kansas City Royals last week looked something like that memorable scene in the '60s classic "Cool Hand Luke." Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke in the movie, is challenged to a fight by a character played by George Kennedy.

Newman is slender and relatively weak, Kennedy huge and tough, and Kennedy's character beats the spit out of Luke. The brawl turns into a brutal beating. Those watching, many of whom had shouted excitedly when the match started, turned away, sickened.

Luke never quits, like the Royals never quit against the Orioles last week. But you wonder how long fans in Kansas City will keep shelling out money to watch mismatches.

Or fans in Milwaukee, or Oakland, or Detroit, or Montreal. The disparity between the good teams and bad is growing, and the difference is predicated on money.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that there is a $36.7 million difference between the club with the highest payroll -- the New York Yankees ($52.2 million) -- and the Montreal Expos (about $15.5 million). No wonder manager Felipe Alou said before spring training opened that he felt like his team had no chance this season.

If you were to list the worst teams in baseball, you would include the Brewers, Athletics, Tigers, Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates and, of course, the pathetic Royals. It is hardly coincidence that those six teams also happen to rank in the bottom six in payroll. They cannot possibly compete. How awful is this: The first week of April, and you already can write off six teams from the division races.

This week, the Orioles trotted out an All-Star cast of players, such as Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina, Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro. The Royals trotted out a cast of no-names. Heck, on Opening Day, manager Bob Boone felt compelled to pinch hit for his Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters. On the second day of the season, the third hitter in his starting lineup was Patrick Lennon, with 11 career at-bats in the big leagues.

The competitive gap between the two clubs was so great, one observer noted, that it was like watching a bad weekend college series, the University of Miami against Vermont Technical College. The only way the Royals can possibly beat the Orioles is if they get a great pitching performance, something that almost occurred Thursday, when Chris Haney shut out the Orioles for seven innings.

The Royals may get those types of outings this year every once in a while, from Kevin Appier or Mark Gubicza or Tim Belcher. But if you're a baseball fan in Kansas City, or Montreal or Oakland, what would compel you to pay $10 or $12 to watch your team play?

This is not a knock on the Orioles. They have built themselves financially and on the field, using all the means at their disposal to provide a winner for loyal fans. They had a chance to sign Alomar, and given their revenue stream, it was a terrific move, particularly since their main competitors -- the Yankees and Boston -- were out spending money, too. Owner Peter Angelos and general manager Pat Gillick have put together a great team. The Orioles, too, should be given credit for jumping on the Royals last week and pummeling them; it would've been easy for them to take Kansas City lightly.

But it's not a healthy situation for the game to have such disparity, and the baseball owners (and the players association) had better figure out a way to rectify the situation. Maybe revenue-sharing, perhaps a salary cap.

It used to be that small-market teams occasionally could compete with large-market clubs, that a team like the Minnesota Twins could piece together a contender and win. The chances of that happening are decreasing every year, as the financial gap between the haves and have-nots grows, and that is dangerous for baseball.

Some day, when the fans grow tired of the beatings, the Cool Hand Lukes of the major leagues won't have any reason to get up.

Yankees anger Rogers

The Yankees' handling of Kenny Rogers last weekend was laughable. They signed the left-hander to a $20 million deal, despite conventional wisdom that Rogers' psyche isn't particularly suited to the high intensity of the New York market. He pitched poorly in spring training, and instead of addressing his situation carefully -- giving him a few starts during the season, for example, for a truer read of Rogers' performance -- they announced two days before the start of the regular season that Rogers was being demoted to the bullpen.

Predictably, Rogers was angry. The next day, the Yankees reversed themselves, saying that Rogers was back in the rotation, because bone chips in the elbow of Melido Perez had reduced Perez's velocity to the point where he needed surgery. (Perez said he felt fine, and if the Yankees thought he had such a big problem, why did they let him throw six innings in their final exhibition game last Sunday?) What the Yankees have done is send up a big red flag for all New York to see, and attached it to Rogers.

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