Realignment by revenue makes cents Revenue realignment

December 10, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Call it "revenue realignment," a restructuring of major-league baseball's divisions according to spending power, the only thing that counts in the sport anymore.

The idea is the brainchild of Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden. It has no chance of gaining acceptance. It has even less chance of working.

But such is the state of the game, it appears as reasonable a solution as any to the widening payroll disparity between teams in high- and low-revenue markets.

"You look at all kinds of creative ideas," said Sandy Alderson, the former Oakland GM who is now MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations.

"The one that Jim articulated is not one currently being considered. But at the same time, in the nature of a broad, think-tank approach, you have to consider everything.

"I'm sure that's what we'll do as we try to formulate plans to make more teams compete deeper into the season. Jim is not the first one to suggest that possibility. It's been bandied about."

The gap between the haves and have-nots remains the game's biggest concern on the eve of the winter meetings in Nashville. The supposed solutions -- revenue sharing, the luxury tax, even ballpark construction -- no longer can be viewed as panaceas.

Teams like the Orioles and Cleveland Indians rose from the bottom of the game's payroll structure to the top in less than a decade, largely on the strength of new ballparks. Bowden's team will open a new stadium in 2003, but he wants more immediate competitive relief.

Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail said there is "nothing wrong" with Bowden's suggestion for revenue realignment. Of course, if the concept required clubs to honestly state their revenues, it would be dead on arrival.

Still, just imagine two divisions of big spenders in each league, plus one division composed of teams unable to compete under the present economic system, fighting it out in the baseball equivalents of welfare states.

MLB could work it like English soccer, providing upward mobility for teams that move into new ballparks or develop other new revenue streams -- and downward mobility for salary-dumping clubs like the Florida Marlins.

Small-market wanna-bes like the Chicago White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf? You'd simply check in with him every season: Jerry, are you trying this year? Or, are you going to wait?

"I think we need to fight for it," said Bowden, whose Reds #F contend with Houston, St. Louis and the Cubs in the NL Central. "We need a short-term solution until we can solve the long-term ** problem.

"It would benefit the players' association as well as the clubs. It would probably promote more spending by small-market clubs. They all would have a chance to win.

"A lot of clubs now look at it and say, 'We have no chance. Why spend extra money on payroll? We might as well put it in our pockets and take the profit.'"

MLB lacks not only a salary cap, but also a salary floor. So, as teams like the Orioles and New York Yankees push their payrolls past $80 million, teams like the Montreal Expos can spend as little as they want.

In 1988, the Yankees had the highest payroll, the Seattle Mariners the lowest, and the difference was $14.98 million. In '98, the Orioles had the highest and the Expos the lowest, and the difference was $65.68 million.

That disparity figures to remain about the same next season -- the Expos plan to double their payroll to $18.5 million. But if the Orioles sign Kevin Brown or trade for Roger Clemens, it would increase again.

Agree or disagree with the Orioles' manic spending, one thing is indisputable: They've got an owner who is committed to winning, and they're trying to take full advantage of the system.

"I don't place blame," Alderson said. "All of the clubs are responding to the economic realities. With few exceptions year to year, if you spend more, you win more. That's the reality of the situation right now."

The 1998 postseason featured eight of the sport's 12 highest payrolls. The Orioles, fielding the highest-paid team in major-league history, were one of the exceptions.

Still, the Orioles are but one example of a team with seemingly unlimited resources. TV-network teams like the MSG Yankees, Disney Angels, Fox Dodgers and Turner Braves appear even better equipped to field $100 million payrolls.

Eight new ballparks will open in the next five seasons, but Alderson pointed out that not all are publicly financed. What's more, he fears the revenue boosts won't be enough for the Detroits and Pittsburghs to compete, saying, "We're rapidly outspending the ability of those teams to keep up," he said.

Other solutions?

"Revenue sharing allows some clubs to survive -- [but] put an asterisk by survive and query whether clubs should survive in certain locations," Alderson said.

"The luxury tax doesn't really do much at this point. It doesn't do anything as near as I can tell. That doesn't mean you need something else. You might need to tweak it a bit.

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