Foul Ball

Whitey Herzog takes a vicious swing at money-driven modern baseball, where only the wealthy win -- and the fans always lose

"I don't expect everybody to agree with a lot of things I say," Herzog admits. "I'm just trying to bring some things out that should be discussed -- try to sit down and talk about our problems and try to correct some of them before the new labor agreement comes due in 2001. We're in a situation where we've already had eight work stoppages in about 26 years. In 2001, if we have another one ... You know, people don't want to hear about millionaires on strike, and that's basically what it would be. That could really kill the game."

You're Missin' a Great Game is Herzog's attempt to get a conversation started about baseball's failing health before it expires. "This is really what's best about Herzog's book," says James. "It's not that the things he suggests are that good -- some of them are pretty far-out -- but at least he's willing to talk about how to fix these things. I just thought that was wonderful -- to have somebody, an intelligent person, step forward and say, 'All right, guys, we've got some problems. What are we going to do about them?'"

The problem that casts the largest and most ominous shadow in You're Missin' a Great Game is the widening competitive gulf between the haves -- the high-revenue, major-market clubs -- and the have-nots. Although Herzog identifies plenty of on-field ugliness that would benefit from cosmetic surgery, this imbalance in teams' basic ability to pay and thus win is a quickly metastasizing cancer that requires immediate treatment.

The abyss separating haves from have-nots is growing to Grand Canyon-size proportions: Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of Baseball and Billions, reports in this week's issue of Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal that the difference between the top- and bottom-revenue teams increased "from roughly $30 million in 1989 to $130 million in 1999." That vast difference in revenue, in turn, creates an equally large disparity between top and bottom payrolls, from the Yankees' record-setting $88.2 million to the Expos' paltry $17.6 million. And that difference in payroll, finally, appears to translate increasingly into wins: Last season, according to figures from the exemplary ESPN.com series "State of Baseball," the eight playoff teams all had payrolls of more than $48 million, and in the past three years only four of 24 playoff teams -- one of them the 1996 Cardinals -- had payrolls of less than $40 million. Perhaps most damning, of the 15 teams in the bottom half of total payroll in 1998, only a single club managed a record better than .500.

Herzog puts the situation in typically plain terms: "Ten million (in payroll) can't compete with $88 million. Really, to be honest about it, $35 million can't compete with $88 million. The only way today that you have a chance at all is to be in the $45 million-$55 million range and hope you get lucky or be in the right division." (Herzog notes that the Cardinals remain in the hunt because they and their most likely competition in the National League Central, the Cubs and Astros, all fall within that range.) Although a lofty payroll certainly provides no guarantee of success, as the woeful performance of the high-priced Baltimore Orioles proves, the penny-pinching clubs just as clearly have no realistic hope of winning. The gap in salary -- and, implicitly, talent -- between the high flyers and bottom feeders has simply grown too large.

"In modern baseball," says James, "I think there are about eight teams that are strongly advantaged, about eight which are strongly disadvantaged, and the rest are in the middle where they can compete if they do enough things well." Depending on who is doing the evaluation, the clubs in the top tier might include Atlanta, the New York Yankees and Mets, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas and Colorado; all are located in major population centers (which guarantees significant money from local and cable TV for broadcast rights), are owned by large media companies (which means the team has value beyond baseball as programming) or benefit from recently built stadiums (which infuse, at least temporarily, new revenue from luxury boxes and increased attendance). The cash-strapped cellar dwellers are clubs, primarily from small markets, such as Montreal, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Florida, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The teams between these extremes remain theoretically competitive depending on their intelligence and good fortune, but over time they are more likely to head toward the basement than to ascend to the penthouse.

There are any number of reasons for the widening gap in revenues between teams -- the new-stadium monies already mentioned, naming rights and signage for those facilities, higher attendance figures because of market size, pricier tickets, better merchandising -- but the primary wedge that continues to split the haves and have-nots ever further apart is local-TV revenue. Although baseball shares its national television money from ESPN, Fox and NBC, the local broadcast revenues are kept by the individual clubs, and the differences are huge: At the top end, the New York Yankees receive $70 million annually; toward the bottom, the Kansas City Royals take in less than $5 million.

"The gap is just bigger than in any other sport," says NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "Local broadcast revenues are insignificant in football, and the enormous network broadcast revenues are equally shared. In baseball, if you're in New York, not only the straight broadcast revenues but the cable possibilities are so much larger than for a team like Milwaukee or Kansas City."

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