By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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Although the debate over competitive imbalance appears one-sided, the Players Association remains an important dissenting voice. "This is just a new way for baseball owners to claim poverty," asserts Marvin Miller, the former head of the union. "They always find a way. In good times and bad, it doesn't matter, they're always complaining about something. The fact is that, while I don't consider the state of competitive balance in baseball to be perfect, it is so much better than it's ever been that it's absurd to be talking about this terrible problem.
"In the period since free agency -- before these last three years when the Yankees won two of three World Series -- you had more contenders from so-called small markets than you ever did before. I used to read one columnist after another telling me, 'Well, the owners say and it looks like it's true that the big-market teams are just absolutely going to dominate this game.' I would look and say, 'When the devil was the last time a New York team won, a Chicago team won, a Los Angeles team won? What are you talking about?'"
Miller is correct: Since the 1960s -- and accelerating after the advent of free agency in the mid-'70s -- baseball has moved consistently toward greater competitive balance, breaking the stranglehold that a handful of clubs had on baseball pennants in the '40s and '50s. "The complaint that today's imbalance is this terrible problem is insulting," says Miller. "It indicates that the people who are saying this think they're talking to people who can't read or who have no memory or who don't have access to the record books."
But James, who is notoriously cautious about drawing conclusions without a sufficiently large statistical sample, disagrees: "I believe we are heading toward a very serious problem of competitive imbalance. The standard deviation of winning percentage in baseball has gone down every decade in this century -- it's always gotten more and more and more competitive -- and that is still true in the 1990s. But sometimes you can see where you're headed before you get there, and I have no doubt that this is in danger of becoming an extremely serious problem."
Adding further legitimacy to the assertion are the opinions of sports economists such as Zimbalist and Mark S. Rosentraub, frequent critics of Major League Baseball's owners and their cries of impoverishment. Rosentraub, author of Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It, declares unequivocally, "We have a disastrous situation in terms of revenue imbalance. The hard data are there; the point is well sustained. I've talked about it extensively; Andy Zimbalist has talked about it extensively."
Costas dismisses the union's objections:
"The Players Association right now is in a position somewhat similar to where the owners have been over the last two or three decades," he says, "which is saying things that any reasonably intelligent person knows are preposterous simply because it's in their interest to put that point of view out there. What they're saying now is, 'Well, more teams won with free agency and under a wide-open economic system than used to.' That's true, but very clearly there's been a significant sea change in the last five or six years. And it's not coincidental.
"I've heard the Players Association guys say things like, 'You know what? What about in the supposed golden age of sports in the 1950s? The Dodgers won almost every year in the National League, and the Yankees won virtually every year in the American League.' Yeah, but no one who was a fan of the Chicago White Sox thought that the Yankees won because the White Sox had no chance to win. If you're a Red Sox or Cubs fan, you may think that the baseball gods have conspired against you, but no one thought that their team was out of it by virtue of the system itself. They may have been doomed by stupidity or circumstance or other teams' having once-in-a-generation players, but that's way different from what prevails now."
This systemic problem -- the revenue disparity between clubs -- is a big stone that creates ever-widening ripples when dropped in the talent pool available to clubs. Most fans readily recognize that having less money to spend means fewer signings of the high-salaried major-league free agents, veteran players free to negotiate with any club. Less apparent is the effect at the other end of what Cardinals president Mark Lamping calls the "player pipeline": "The worst-case scenario is to have a small number of teams having a competitive advantage at both ends of the player pipeline," says Lamping. "Some could argue that's what we have right now. There's only a few teams that can afford the premier free agents at the major-league level, and there's only a few teams that have the ability to pay the signing bonuses and the guaranteed contracts necessary to sign free agents coming into professional baseball."
More and more, the highest picks in the amateur-free-agent draft -- which was intended to help enhance talent distribution by eliminating the ability of wealthy clubs to corner the market by offering lucrative signing bonuses to the best prospects -- are commanding major-league salaries. Two years ago, for example, when the Phillies were unwilling to meet the demands of J.D. Drew, the Cardinal rookie outfielder, he held out, playing for an unaffiliated minor-league club, and re-entered the draft the next year. The Cards picked Drew fifth and took the risk of signing him to a big-money contract.