By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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Without the lure of a pennant race, fans might still turn out in respectable numbers to watch a bonafide star like a McGwire, a Barry Bonds or a Ken Griffey Jr. But for small-market teams, such players are becoming harder and harder to retain. "We've reached a situation now where no matter how much a player makes," Herzog says, "that player, if he's not on a team that has a chance to win, is going to leave that team. A lot of those teams don't have superstars anymore because they've already left, and some of them have retired. You don't have (George) Brett in Kansas City, so why do they want to come out and buy a ticket? You don't have (Kirby) Puckett in Minnesota, so why do they want to buy a ticket? You don't have any of them left in Montreal -- as soon as they're eligible for arbitration, they've got to trade them -- so why do those people want to buy baseball tickets?"
"Just think about it," Costas laments. "You think of a team like the Oakland A's right now. You can imagine them being competitive, but it's very hard to imagine them being a true contender under this system anytime in the next 10 years. And yet, less than 10 years ago, they were the best team in baseball for a stretch of three or four years. That just can't be done now. And their fans and teams of fans like them know it.
"This is one of the things that (Commissioner Bud) Selig is right about: that you sell faith and you sell hope. The idea isn't even so much how many pennants did you win over the last 10 years; it's how often when the season began did we think we had a chance, because that's what the appeal and the illusion is."
Herzog and others who recognize the problems he identifies have some proposals to restore hope, to give every team that chance of which Costas speaks.
As a means of redistributing talent, Herzog looks to the past for future direction. "I think what we have to do is we've got to go in reverse," he says. "We have to implement some rules that used to work." To bring the cost of amateur free agents and international signings back to affordable levels, or at least limit the number of quality players a big-money team could hoard, Herzog wants to reinstitute baseball's old bonus rules: If a player is paid more than a specified sum to sign, the team would be required to carry him on its major-league roster for the year. "Put the bonus rules back into baseball," Herzog insists. "You give a guy over $500,000 -- if that was the figure -- he has to stay on your 25-man roster for two years. Now how many can you sign like that?"
Although Costas, Alderson and Lamping all see some value in the bonus-rule notion -- James thinks it's irrelevant -- the proposal is essentially doodling in the margins. Rather than experiment with bonus rules, some would prefer simply to expand the draft to include foreign-born talent. "Bringing international players into the same system, which ensures there can be an equal dispersion of talent at the beginning of the pipeline, would be a great step forward," Lamping says. Alderson agrees: "I think that's a must. If some of these big-revenue teams only have one draft pick, just like some of the smaller-revenue teams, then what's really valuable is the pick itself, where they have to make choices among players. Now, it's just a question of, 'Gee, if I can get five or six of these guys, it doesn't bother me to spend $10 or $15 million on those players.'"
Alderson also finds merit in economist Zimbalist's proposal to weight the draft in favor of low-revenue teams. "I think that is a realistic prospect," he says. By giving smaller-market clubs more early draft picks, he notes, "you take the pressure off them to sign all those draft picks and maybe even give them the opportunity to trade those draft picks to bigger-market clubs who are now effectively shut out of the top number of selections and would have to trade already established talent to get access to those players." Lamping is less enthusiastic about the plan's ultimate benefit: "That sounds like a sump pump on the deck of a leaking ship," he says. "It certainly will help, but it does nothing to address the real fundamental problem, because we've got a hole in the hull."
How, then, do you patch the hole in the hull -- the disparity in revenue? Simply generating additional money won't solve the problem, in Herzog's estimation. "Revenue's not the answer," he says, "because there's no end to the escalation in the players' salaries. When they got the new TV contract and the TV money went from $11 million to $16 million (per team), hell, within two years that extra $5 million was gone." Similarly, the potential extra funds generated by new stadiums, which have been embraced as a panacea in many cities, serve only as stopgap measures, not long-term cures. "Will the Brewers and the Pirates be better off with new ballparks?" speculates Costas. "Yes, they will, but only by degree. It doesn't change the fundamental problem. Even if you increase the ability of Pittsburgh to pay somebody $6 million instead of $4 million, they still can't pay Kevin Brown $15 million, and the next Kevin Brown goes to $20 million. Once you've built your new ballpark, how much more blood can you get from that stone? Let's put a decal on every player's uniform, and each team will get an additional million dollars out of that. That's another fix for a junkie."