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Opening Day

As a union advocate, I must admit that salary caps rub me the wrong way. On the other hand, checking out some commentary as the baseball season begins there seems to be something a little ridiculous about a sport where insofar as your owner is just willing to spend a ton of money there's nothing stopping him from signing up star after star. Obviously, the NBA has its payroll disparities. But not only are high payrolls no guarantee of success (that's true in MLB as well) but the cap rules put meaningful restraint on the ability of a big spending owner to make moves and turn a bad situation around in the short term. I think that if I were, say, a Blue Jays fan I'd find it unendingly frustrating to realize my team's just stuck in a structural situation where they're always going to be badly outspent by not one but two teams in my division.

In addition (and I'm not a baseball fan, so I'm open to being corrected on this point) but my sense is that this is exacerbated by the fact that baseball is the least team-ey of the major team sports in that the players don't really need to cooperate actively in the way basketball and football players do.

Anyways, baseball-bashing is even more boring than baseball, so I'll leave it at that.

April 3, 2006 | Permalink


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Then again, the Jays did win the Series in '92 and '93. Combined with the Expos title in 94 and that's three Canadian wins in a row!

Posted by: DJ Ninja | Apr 3, 2006 6:52:43 PM

Comparing sports leagues to other business entities, especially in terms of labor relations, is dicey. A totally free market in terms of employment can largely destroy the endeavor, IMO.

Posted by: Pooh | Apr 3, 2006 6:59:20 PM

The pitcher and the catcher need to cooperate as much as the players in any sport. Defensively, there's a lot of teamwork going on--double plays, cutoff men, picking off someone who's stealing, and so on. There isn't the obvious offensive teamwork that there is in, say, basketball, but teamwork is nontheless hugely important.

Posted by: Matt F | Apr 3, 2006 7:10:49 PM

You said it, Matt F!

Posted by: William Dipini Jr. | Apr 3, 2006 7:14:42 PM

I don't really think that there's a huge difference between competent defense and brilliant defense, though. Similarly, I haven't witnessed many situations where the pitcher-catcher combination makes a huge difference. Most successful teams seem to win due to pitching, hitting, or a combination of both. Even managing, for all the second guessing that goes on, seems to have less of an impact than coaching does in other sports.

I think exacerbating the lack of a salary cap is the fact that there's less revenue sharing in MLB, so small market teams really seem to be at a disadvantage.

Posted by: Royko | Apr 3, 2006 7:22:02 PM

The issue isn't parity - whether one team wins season after season, or many different teams win in various seasons. So bringing up Toronto's wins in the early '90s isn't the point (and I think the salary disparity has increased a lot since then). The issue is fairness - teams should compete based solely on the skills of their players, manager, and GM, and not based on how much money the owner can spend. Having a league where one team routinely spends so much more than most other teams is simply unfair, even if there is "parity" (meaning various teams getting to the playoffs or winning championships).

And I'm not sure what being a union advocate has to do with the salary cap? The union negotiated the agreement that includes the salary cap, which was duly voted on and approved by the members of the union! If the members of the union didn't want a salary cap, then they should have negotiated a different agreement.

Posted by: Al | Apr 3, 2006 7:23:56 PM

great points Al.

as a union detractor, I must admit that guaranteed six-figure figure minimum salaries for having the greatest job in the world rubs me the wrong way.

Posted by: right | Apr 3, 2006 7:30:42 PM

as a union detractor, I must admit that guaranteed six-figure figure minimum salaries for having the greatest job in the world rubs me the wrong way.But the multi-gazillion salaries for owners don't rub you the wrong way?

Salary caps are consistently low enough that basically every team in the posrt makes a huge profit. I think that's wholly unfair to the players and really just kinda stupid.

If a sport were to institute a salary cap that didn't massively cut into the amount of money that went to the players, that'd be one thing. But it never is.

There's very similar tendencies to parity in most of the major sports.

Posted by: DivGuy | Apr 3, 2006 7:45:11 PM

The last five World Series have been won by the White Sox, Red Sox, Marlins, Angels and Diamondbacks of whom only the Red Sox were among the superrich. Although the playing field is level by no means, a clever team can outperform a rich one. The BlueJays can get there by being smarter, not just richer.

Posted by: QuietStorm | Apr 3, 2006 8:15:26 PM

Al, if the amount of spending has little influence on who wins (parity) then it is hard to get too upset about spending disparities. After all there are lots of other deviations from perfect equality such as non-standard stadiums and skewed schedules that people ignore. And what is really unfair is that some teams have better territories than other teams which could easily be fixed without a salarly cap.

As for the unions negotiating salarly caps, this is a case of the union leaders selling out their membership. The players would be better off with no union as the antitrust laws (except for baseball) would prohibit collusive arrangements such as salarly caps. However the union leadership would lose their jobs.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Apr 3, 2006 8:31:08 PM

I was more worried about this a few years ago than I am now. It looked for awhile as though the Yankees were going to become a perpetual dynasty again, like they were through most of the 1930's-mid-1960's period. That was disastrous for the rest of the American League (it took the AL almost 20 years to recover). However, the Yankees have been less successful recently, despite outspending everyone else by a huge margin. They appear to have made the classic high-spending mistake: putting too much money into free agents (who are often past their prime, or about to be), and neglecting the farm system (the dominant 1998-2003 Yankees were built around products of their farm system). Consequently, the team is now too old. If the Yankees start spending their money more intelligently, however, I'll get concerned again.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen,PhD,ARNP | Apr 3, 2006 8:34:03 PM

Quietstorm beats me to the point: the empirical evidence is that it is perfectly possible to win it all on a mid-level payroll.

insofar as the differing revenue levels in baseball make a difference, it's that a high-revenue team with a brain can compete every year, whereas some years the mid-level revenue teams simply won't be able to compete.

but so what: i realize this leads to all sorts of conceptual issues that were brought up the last time i mentioned this, but nonetheless, the facts are that there is more competitive balance in baseball than in the salary cap sports, if by competitive balance we mean greater uncertainty as to the winner of any given game as well as to the likely champs.

Why shouldn't the players earn all the money? What value is ownership actually adding that it should be rewarded handsomely by the huge revenues baseball generates.

Frankly, though, if baseball wanted to solve the differing revenue problem, it could so pretty readily, by pooling all local tv money (on the grounds that you need an opponent to have a show!) and thereby provide Al the "fairness" he (and we've noted this before) bleedingly hearts for baseball but not for politics or business. strange....

Besides, what baseball's system allows is the chance of historic excellence in a team, which is no longer possible in the salary-capped nba and nfl.

Posted by: howard | Apr 3, 2006 8:35:43 PM

The issue isn't parity - whether one team wins season after season, or many different teams win in various seasons. So bringing up Toronto's wins in the early '90s isn't the point (and I think the salary disparity has increased a lot since then). The issue is fairness - teams should compete based solely on the skills of their players, manager, and GM, and not based on how much money the owner can spend.

Have to disagree strenuously with Al on this one. As a baseball fan, I don't really care about fairness, and care much more about parity.

To me, the fact that some teams can spend a lot more than others is really neither here nor there. Indeed, to the extent that this situation mirrors the unfairness of real life, or of the business world, it probably makes for a better and more satisfying fan experience. It's fun to hate the evil Yankees, and root for the underdog, if you're a fan. It only becomes unfun when the lack of fairness affects parity, because then it becomes boring.

So, as a fan, I'll just say I couldn't care in the least if the Yankees had 100 times the payroll of Kansas City if the two teams were broadly competitive. As we all know, however, the big differences between top financial tier teams and their poor cousins adversely impacts the parity of the game. It is this lack of parity that, when it rears its ugly head, lessens baseball's appeal by making the whole thing so doggone predictable, thus robbing the sport of drama (which, as any network TV executive weill tell you, is the primary advantage and attribute of sport as entertainment).

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Apr 3, 2006 10:44:22 PM

so you say salary caps don't permit historic excellence? hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. pats win 3 of 4 super bowls, pretty historic. spurs have best record in all of american sport since duncan came on board. and the historic excellence in baseball is demonstrated by what? the late 90s yankees with a run that matched the pats or the lakers? were the bulls historically excellent? weren't there caps back then? silly.

Posted by: dj superflat | Apr 4, 2006 12:36:02 AM

The thing about baseball is, you don't always have to have to big names to win like in basketball or even football. You can have a team of a bunch of no-namers and still go all the way. Teams can 'grow' players in the minors and AAA. Look at the A's. They are 22nd in the league in team payroll, year after year they generate talent which they can't afford, and they're still predicted to win their division.

Everyone knows the Brewers suck, their team payroll is one of the worst in the league, and in the next few years, they'll be the next whitesox because they've already got two dominant pitchers and up-and-coming young hitters.

My point is, the teams that win championships are the teams that build from within(also the teams that have great pitching).

Posted by: MaddenDude | Apr 4, 2006 2:11:17 AM

My other point is, theres no problem with no salary cap. Except this year, it looks like the yankees are taking it too far. The kind of salary cap that I would imagine is one that is reletively high, maybee around 100 million per year. It would bring down the top three teams, but still encourage other teams to try to increase revenue somehow.

Posted by: MaddenDude | Apr 4, 2006 2:15:42 AM

Have to disagree strenuously with Al on this one. As a baseball fan, I don't really care about fairness, and care much more about parity.

I dunno, Al may have a point here. Here's a hypothetical. Say the league has long-term parity, but once every five years, Bill Gates buys a team, spends $2 billion, and each time manages to get a WS title. Since it doesn't happen that frequently, parity is preserved. But in those years that BG goes on a spending spree, it really sucks for the fans.

I guess I'm asking if a system in which unfairness is exploited only occasionally still a good one?

Posted by: Royko | Apr 4, 2006 9:57:54 AM

Al, if the amount of spending has little influence on who wins (parity) then it is hard to get too upset about spending disparities.

But does spending have "little influence"? I think spending has a moderate amount of influence - it clearly isn't solely determinative of winning a championship, but I seriously doubt whether spending and winning percentage are completely independent variables. (I wonder, has someone done a regression analysis about this?)

To me, spending is like using loaded dice. An adverse result is not precluded, but a beneficial result is made more likely. And that, to me, is unfair.

I don't like parity - I prefer a league with dominant teams. The Patriots dynasty makes the NFL more fun. Same with the Bulls dynasty and the NBA. But I would prefer that those dynasties be created through the skill of the players, managers, and GMs, and not through the inordinate spending of the owner.

Posted by: Al | Apr 4, 2006 11:16:09 AM

dj superflat, i admire the achievments of the patriots tremendously (and anyhow, coach belichick was a year behind me at wesleyan and i played him in intramural softball, so i've got a soft spot for him anyhow).

but no, the pats are not a historically excellent team in the sense that the packers, dolphins, steelers, and cowboys were.

simiilarly, i admire the spurs, and i admired the bulls, but no, there are no circumstances under which the spurs or the bulls could defeat, for example, the '80s Celtics and Lakers. Those were teams with multiple hall-of-famers, as were the classic Celts and the late '60s - early '70s Knicks.

I appreciate that they are the best of their times, and i admire the way they have been built within the restrictive rules of the times, but being the best of your time isn't the same as being historically excellent: you cannot build and hold a roster under the salary cap that matches what could be done without one.

So yes, the 4-rings-in-5-years Yanks were historically excellent; the Pats and Spurs aren't. alleging otherwise is what i'd call "ridiculous."

P.B. the only reason that the royals aren't comeptitive is because management sucks: as Maddendude points out, the A's compete year in and year out with even more limited resources. And in a given game, anyone can win.

Royko: because of the variability of pitching, even if Bill Gates went out and spent a fortune every 5 years, there is no guarantee that his team would win, and no "spoiling" for the rest of the fans. As P.B. points out, in fact, there is a lot to be said for the notion that the fans like to see the evil empire either win or lose; on the other hand, watch the ratings for pistons-spurs....

the closest we've come to your model is Steinbrenner, circa late '90s, and if he'd had anything less than the greatest relief pitcher of all time, that team wouldn't have won 4 out of 5 titles.

Posted by: howard | Apr 4, 2006 2:55:51 PM

oh, Al, i meant to respond to you as well: i don't think the "skill" of managing a salary cap is exactly the kind of "skill" in sports management we should be admiring. All this nonsense of trading equal salary for equal salary and stuff is a distraction from assessing talent qua talent....

Posted by: howard | Apr 4, 2006 2:57:07 PM

I find the constant invocation of the A's to be a curiosity. What have the A's achieved, exactly? The A's compete but they never win. I think the relatively lackluster performance of the A's (including, if not especially, the post-season) during these Beane years tends to cast some doubt on the efficacy of their approach.

Posted by: DJ Ninja | Apr 4, 2006 4:11:54 PM

A GM deserves a lot of credit for a team that wins 100 games -- it's hard to win 100 games just by luck.

A GM does not deserve a lot of blame for a playoff team that loses in a best-of-seven or best-of-five series, which is much more of a crapshoot than a 162-game season.

So Beane's record looks pretty impressive to me.

Posted by: Barbar | Apr 4, 2006 5:07:31 PM

DJ Ninja, the reason we praise the a's is because they put together a highly competitive team but for a break here or there could have won some playoff series, even potentially a world series, on a shoestring budget, thereby putting the lie to those who claim that small-market teams can't compete. They most certainly can compete if they have a clue, and most teams have more revenue than the As, and therefore greater wherewithal.

and what Barbar said.

Posted by: howard | Apr 4, 2006 7:19:08 PM

Matt - Major league baseball is a joint venture. The teams do not compete economically against each other; they cooperate to stage games and thus compete for revenue against other sports and other entertainment products. Indeed, you could have all the teams owned by one owner (which is how the WNBNA is organized - all the teams are owned by the NBA) or have all the owners share ownership of each others' teams. That just happens not to be the most efficient form of organization or it would have happened by now.

What does this mean? It means that there is no antitrust issue of any kind with major league teams cooperating with each other to set prices for players' salaries, to set prices for advertising on televised games, to set prices for tickets, to share revenues, whatever. In other words, the Supreme Court was absolutely right in holding that the antitrust laws don't apply to baseball, albeit for the wrong reason (baseball is clearly "commerce" within the meaning of the antitrust laws).

What does this mean for parity? Nothing, really. Parity is primarily an aesthetic issue. Some people think leagues are more interesting when all the teams are approximately equal; other people think that such parity makes things terribly dull. Obviously, the owners try to pick the level of parity that optimizes fan interest and their revenues.

More importantly, what does this mean for the free agency? It means that reserve clauses are not illegal under the antitrust laws. If all the teams could be owned by one owner, he would be free to transfer or not transfer his players from one team or the other. If the players didn't like it they could quit and go work for another employer, but they couldn't force him to put them on one or the other of his teams. It makes no difference that the teams have different owners since, as I said above, they are in a joint venture and not competing economically with one another.

This all gives me hope since IMHO the advent of free agency has damaged baseball greatly. It's much harder to form emotional attachments to teams that are formed by guns-for-hire and not home grown talent. Let's hope the pendulum swings back the other way.

Posted by: DBL | Apr 5, 2006 3:32:29 PM

The only reason MLB has an antitrust exemption is super strong stare decisis, the last time the exemption was challenged the court acknowledged that the entire rationale for the exemption had evaporated.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 5, 2006 4:36:24 PM

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