Baseball still all the poorer for imbalance of have-nots

October 05, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Baseball's comeback is real, but incomplete.

A spectacular season of home runs and records has restored the game's dignity and produced a wave of good news -- improved attendance, higher television ratings, louder buzz, more magazine covers and, most important, a renewal of the public's faith.

Mark McGwire didn't have the best '98 of all; baseball did.

The game still can't match the NFL's astounding popularity, but it has been discharged from image rehab, which is a start. Some in the game, including commissioner Bud Selig, have even pronounced it "healthy" again for the first time since the '94 strike.

But at the risk of sounding like Scrooge on Christmas morning, no game should be considered healthy when it has problems such as those baseball has beneath its shiny-again surface.

Yes, the game is back in good standing, but no game is healthy when a full one-third of its teams begin a season without any chance of advancing to the playoffs.

That's a dangerous competitive imbalance, and it existed in baseball this season thanks to the ridiculous disparity between the economic haves and have-nots.

Fans need a reason to hope, for without hope there is no reason to pay attention. And there was no hope this year for fans of the Royals, Twins, Athletics, Tigers, Marlins, Expos, Pirates, Brewers and other teams left behind by the Orioles, Yankees and others who spend millions on player salaries thanks to a new stadium or a large home market.

You can be sure talk of baseball's comeback is ringing hollower in cities in which outmanned home teams meandered through a dull, losing '98, with little chance of improvement in '99.

Yes, other sports have winning and losing franchises; baseball isn't unusual in that regard. But those franchises' circumstances are determined by competence in scouting, drafting, playing, coaching and front-office management.

Baseball's order is determined almost strictly by money.

Not that having a lot of it is a guarantee of success, as the Orioles demonstrated with their $69 million bonfire this season. You still have to be smart and play well.

But not having a lot of money has become baseball's version of a slow death. And too many teams are experiencing it.

All the smart scouting, player development and front-office wiles in the world can't save you in baseball if you don't have any money. Because too many other teams have a lot. Enough to buy a contender. Enough to buy those good players you scouted, developed and can't afford now.

The plight of the left-behinds is becoming more hopeless as the Orioles, Yankees, Indians and other big-money teams inch toward the $100 million payroll barrier.

This year, the American League's division winners had the league's second-, third- and fourth-largest payrolls, and the Braves-Cubs playoff series was a matchup of two of the National League's three largest payrolls. The Astros and Padres managed to win with average-sized payrolls this year, but they're exceptions.

You can almost draw a line near the middle of the payroll rankings and cross out the teams below the line. They aren't going to win. They don't have a chance.

It's not a healthy situation.

Baseball's owners have halfheartedly tried to fix the problem with luxury tax subsidies from the richest haves to the poorest have-nots -- a nice idea that isn't working. The game's five highest payrolls averaged $61 million in '98, and the five lowest averaged $17 million. The gap is getting bigger, not smaller.

What's the answer? Well, it'd be nice to establish a minimum payroll level, preventing owners from gutting their teams. But that's not going to happen. Nor will the wealthy owners just up and decide to start sharing more of their stadium and local television revenue.

No, the reality is that a new ballpark is the only way to save a poor team going nowhere.

A new ballpark that transforms a franchise, as Camden Yards transformed the Orioles, is the only way out of small-market jail.

That's why you're hearing about more teams contemplating moving if they get can't new ballparks at home.

That's why the Orioles are going to have a National League competitor in Northern Virginia one of these years.

The owners have no one to blame but themselves, of course. They don't stick together. Too many look out only for themselves. The plights of other franchises aren't their concern.

But as long as new seasons continue to begin with a third of the teams having no chance, baseball's comeback can only reach so far into the belly of the nation. Regardless of how many McGwire hits.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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