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Friday, December 21, 2007

What's Happened to Baseball

UPDATE: Of course, this didn't actually happen last night, however everything I originally wrote then continues to be in play and none of the problems have yet to be addressed.

Last night, I was watching Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN between the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves. The Detroit Tigers had pitching for them one Andrew Miller 6-6 210 pound left hander with mid to upper nineties fastball and wicked hook (that's curveball for all you non fans). a word, his stuff was sick.Miller was drafted sixth last year's in the amateur draft. first five were neither incompetent or asleep at the wheel. In fact, there was pretty much universal consensus that Miller was the best player available. Why then did the first five teams not draft Miller? The answer, as explained by the announcers at ESPN, was "signability". In the crudest, most appropriately demeaning terms, "signability" means that the first five teams were too damn poor to afford Miller.

Miller was signed with an upfront three and a half million dollar signing bonus and a contract behind it. Can you really blame the Devil Rays for passing on him? Their entire payroll was 30 million. By contrast, Alex Rodriguez made just over $25 million in 2006. In fact, the New York Yankees payroll ran just below $200 million in 2006.

The reason that the New York Yankees have a 200 million dollar payroll while the Devil Rays have a 30 million dollar payroll has to do with several factors. The first is obvious. New York City is metropolis with over 8 million residents, while the Tampa Bay area has about 2.4 million residents. With the introduction of cable and satellite, big market teams like the Yankees are able to take even more advantage to create more revenue streams. The YES network is a station Steinbrenner created to carry Yankees games exclusively. What are the chances that the Devil Rays would ever create their own network to host their games? The other factor is that baseball has no salary cap unlike all of the other major sports leagues. The long and short of it is that the Yankees spend 200 million per year because they can, and the Devil Rays spend 30 million per year because that is all they can.

How about this? Can anyone reading this name what round any of these players were drafted: David Ortiz, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Zambrano, Sammy Sosa, and Pedro Martinez? If you answered they weren't you would be right, and that's because the amateur draft is only for American amateurs, on other words that are playing for an American high school or college. For foreigners, it becomes a free for all. Of course any prized foreigner like Daisuke Matsuzaka invariably gets bid on by only a handful of teams. It isn't that Tampa couldn't use him, but they simply can't afford to pay him. Even in the market of foreign born players, the deck is stacked against the small market teams and in favor of the big markets.

Baseball has created a system that is rigged where only a handful of teams have any legitimate shot to win it all in any given year. Now, some may point to the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins as "small market" teams that are able to thrive regardless of whatever inefficiencies I have mentioned. It is true that Billy Beane, general manager of the Athletics, has done a tremendous job, but how good would the team be without their inherent handicap?In 2002, the Athletics had a formidable rotation anchored by studs, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. One by one, through trade or free agency, the A's lost each and everyone of them. It wasn't that Beane didn't want to keep them. It would have been too much to sign one individual guy and still fill other needs. The A's have a very strong farm system that produces young talent like Rich Harden consistently. Thus, they could afford to lose the nucleus. The simple fact of the matter is that if the A's weren't hamstrung their rotation would just be lethal, and these three guys would be followed by Harden. The A's would be winning World Series not just making the playoffs.

Then there is the issue of steroids. Barry Bonds is now only six home runs away from tying the most hollowed record in sports. The evidence against him is so plentiful and overwhelming that it is now to the point of overkill. Only die hard Giant fans continue to believe that he didn't take steroids. Soon we will all hold our collective noses while the universally loathed Bonds becomes the new home run champ.

How did we get here? It all started in 1994. You all remember that baseball year. What a great World Series that was? It was full of drama and excitement. If by drama and excitement you mean a blank screen because they didn't have a World Series that year because there was a strike. As one of my friends said back then, "a bunch of millionaires and billionaires can't seem to figure out how to divvy up the money". In the aftermath of the strike, the fans revolted. What brought them back? It was the home run chase of 1998. Today, most of us are convinced that the Home Run chase was a fraud and the participants cheaters.

Baseball either knew and did nothing or simply looked the other way, and either way, it isn't good for baseball. Steroids run so deep that no one knows just how many players were involved, but we all know that it was lots. A couple years ago I was watching another Tigers game when Ivan Rodriguez came up to bat. The announcers began a long analysis of why his home runs were down in the last couple years: he moved to Comerica Park which is spacious, he moved into the second spot in the office, he was getting older. It was like the announcers were dancing around the issue. All of those were probably contributing factors, however Rodriguez showed up to spring training in 2005, the first year they tested, with about thirty pounds less of muscle. Now, I am not saying he used steroids, but I am saying that all that muscle he lost had something to do with all the less home runs he hit.

The union of course has their dirty hands in both of these matters. For years, the union was able to fight of drug testing on right to privacy issues. They were also able to fight off the salary cap that has contributed to the mess that is the current salary structure. Other forces have also played a role like free agency, and agents who have set a market that only some of the teams can reach. Everyone already knows about Scott Boras and Alex Rodriguez' contract said, the role of the ridiculously strong union cannot be downplayed in this whole mess.

The national pastime allowed a strike to nearly bring it down, and then most likely allowed cheaters to bring it back into the spotlight. Now, it has a policy that provides an unfair advantage to big market teams while turning most small market teams into sacrificial lambs.

Finally, during the game I took a poll of what everyone thought of the designated hitter. were unanimous on two aspects: one we didn't like it and two, we didn't dislike it enough to get upset. Well, maybe if we weren't dealing with cheaters and an unfair playing field then maybe we would care some more that baseball allows people to play only parts of the game.

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