Also-rans get another lesson in new baseball economics

December 02, 1998|By Claire Smith | Claire Smith,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If Philadelphia Phillies fans need another grim reminder of where their team stands on baseball's food chain, they could consider the club's complete paralysis during this gaudy big-game, free-agent hunting season.

Yesterday, while the Orioles signed Albert Belle to a contract akin to a small nation's budget, the Phillies remained on the sidelines, reduced to walkovers by an increasingly skewed market dominated by robber-baron teams and cemented in place by a system that is strangling the also-rans.

The Phillies cannot do what the Orioles did in signing Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract. The Phils don't even make a pretense of trying what they and their fans know to be economically impossible.

"We've been honest with our fans that we aren't in position in our salary cycle to go after the types of players who might help our ball club very nicely," said Phillies general manager Ed Wade.

The A list was once within such a team's reach. Not only did the likes of Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Dave Winfield and Joe Morgan consider Philly, some actually came. And the Phillies spent, on occasion. Yet with a payroll of $28 million last year, the Phillies know they were outspent nearly three times by the world champion Yankees, even more by the Orioles. They know that one player -- Gary Sheffield -- wound up making half ($14.9 million) what they paid their roster.

The Phillies have simply been priced out of the market. Baseball's free-agent money train just doesn't stop at 30th Street Station any more. Teams like Philadelphia, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati are trying hard to compete. Their farm systems and baseball smarts are, sadly, losing ground to the mints among them.

Pretending to possess an ability to compete is already a pretense in more than half the major leagues, if last year's rich-team, poor-team finishes were any indication. Just consider the success, and failure, of the teams on either side of a salary demarcation line of $48 million.

Of the 13 teams with payrolls of $48 million or higher, all but one -- the dysfunctional Orioles -- finished above .500.

Of the 17 teams with payrolls under $48 million, only two -- the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays -- finished above .500. Neither made the playoffs.

"I'd like to think that if Mike Lieberthal hadn't gotten hurt we would have had a chance to finish above .500," said Wade. "But I don't think there's any question these other things are making it extremely difficult."

So the only time the Randy Johnsons, Mo Vaughns, the Kevin Browns and Albert Belles of the world get to see Willie Penn's hat, the sports complex and the fading pennants of the Phillies' proud past is when their Leer jets fly over en route to Baltimore, New York or Atlanta.

Teams will spend when they can because they can, thanks in nTC part to revenue streams in some cities that flow like the Mississippi. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, for instance, has a cable deal with MSG that pays about $32 million a year -- after the Yankees' deduction for baseball's general revenue-sharing of television funds.

Now, the Yankees didn't win the World Series with a near-perfect team because of these funds alone. A large portion of the world champs was home-grown. Still, give Steinbrenner a $32 million head start before he even has to sell a ticket is akin to giving Ben Johnson a performance enhancing drug.

Another advantage derived by such clubs is the avoidance of budgeting. The Yankees haven't signed a soul from outside their organization this winter. Still, they tried, even though they had to shell out $110 million to re-sign Bernie Williams, David Cone and Scott Brosius.

Doomsayers among baseball owners have warned for decades now that baseball would eventually be driven by these superdollar transactions.

Too bad the owners obscured a good message with wrong-headed strategies. If they had been as diligent at convincing their peers and their players of a legitimate crisis as they were at concocting illegal collusion formulas and muddled salary-cap proposals, baseball might have a solution by now.

That solution has to involve radical change in revenue sharing, for the good of all of baseball. Yet the concept has never survived large-market intransigence. Until it does, teams fed by cable and broadcast television billions or cash palaces like Camden Yards will continue to have an advantage.

That advantage is now bordering on gluttony, with either an insatiable international corporation or omnipotent owner spinning the market out of reach.

Take the Arizona Diamondbacks, for instance. The D'Backs' rich tradition may go back only six whole months, but they have an owner unafraid to buy his way into history.

Jerry Colangelo is shaping up to be one of those new owners Wade describes as teeming with "white knight" syndrome. These guys come in bent on showing how to win -- and then profess "shock, shock" at baseball's runaway salaries.

As the sated teams feast, the market continues to shut down on the also-rans. Ed Wade says he is still fighting and believes each day that there are ways to make the Phillies better, to make them into a contender.

Still, the window is increasingly smaller.

When it finally shuts, all pretense will be gone, leaving teams with the unpleasant task of explaining why they even bother to open the gates come April.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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