Foul Ball

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

Similarly, if franchises begin to fold, jobs are lost: "What happens if Montreal collapses?" Herzog asks. "What happens if Kansas City throws in the towel? All of a sudden you've got 50 ballplayers looking for jobs. Maybe that will have to happen to wake everybody up. I hope it doesn't come to that, but we're on that road right now." A baseball club going under, of course, remains entirely within the realm of the hypothetical. In the past, underperforming franchises have simply relocated, and it's possible that some of the current small markets will eventually be abandoned. Miller doubts a team collapse is imminent or even likely: "You can never say never," he admits. "While anything is possible, the odds are very high against this. I give you one evidence: The price of franchises when they change hands in baseball, or when each new expansion-franchise price is set, is always, always higher than before. Every time somebody comes into this game, they're willing to do so by paying a premium. Now, if that's a sign of collapse in the future, then I don't know what I'm talking about."

But the days of ever-escalating franchise values may well be over. "When you look at how long it's taken to effect a sale of the Kansas City Royals," Costas says, "you realize that part of the incentive for selling teams even in the recent past has now been removed. In the past it always was true that 'Hey, they're complaining that they're losing money, but when the team goes up for sale, there's no shortage of buyers and usually they make a profit on the equity.' But I don't know that that holds true indefinitely."

If the value of certain franchises is indeed declining -- a contention that Zimbalist also makes -- eventually their shaky status could begin to erode the value of the wealthier members of the league. Miller says that only when this point is reached will revenue sharing become a reality. "If you began to have clubs that just couldn't compete," he says, "you'd begin to face bankruptcy and disruption of all kinds, and you'd begin to find that the 'have' clubs' revenue stream would begin to dry up as well. Now, that being so, when this is a real problem instead of a make-believe problem, it would be up to the have clubs in their own self-interest to be pushing a reasonable revenue-sharing proposal that would meet these problems."

Not everyone, however, wants to sit bleeding in the ER waiting room until the big-market clubs begin to suffer; they're interested in alleviating their own immediate pain. "I was watching ESPN last night," Herzog says, "and the owner from Pittsburgh was on, and he said something that I never thought of. He said that if the haves don't agree to some kind of revenue sharing, then the have-nots are going to start moving their ballclubs close to the haves and cut in on their TV revenues."

That notion may not be viable -- the lack of venues and MLB rules would serve as serious impediments -- but Bill James says a variation of the basic concept isn't without merit: "What happens," he asks, "if the Minnesota Twins say, 'OK, you don't want to share the money -- we ain't comin', we're not playing'? Suppose the small-market teams have a meeting among themselves and say, 'OK, we've had it, if we don't get half the TV money, we're not going to New York, we're not going to Los Angeles.' There are three things that can happen. One is that the large-market teams cave and agree to share the money. The second is the small-market teams cave in and struggle along, which will eventually lead to some of them going bankrupt. And the third is that they split: You get two competing major leagues. Not American League and National League, but two genuinely competing leagues which hate each other, one consisting largely of the small-market teams and the other of the big-market teams."

James believes such a small-market league would get along handily. "I'm sure it would," he says. "It might not be as strong a league as the other league, but college basketball is not as strong as the NBA, the teams aren't as strong, but nonetheless it's absolutely commercially viable. Thinking of it from the other end, would I as a Kansas City Royals fan be more likely to go watch a Royals game if the Royals are in a superior league that they have no chance whatsoever of winning, or if they're in a major league that maybe is not of the same quality but they have a fair chance to compete in? Obviously I'd rather be in the smaller league because they have a fairer chance to win. What the hell's the point of being in a league you can't win?"

Rosentraub is also a proponent of aggressive action, but he believes that host cities, not just the small-market teams themselves, should attempt to force MLB into a revenue-sharing plan. "It's going to take cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh to basically say, 'We want to build stadiums, but we're not going to do it until you guys move on this issue,'" says Rosentraub. He's particularly keen on seeing St. Louis step up to the plate because of its unique status. "The St. Louis community has the highest per capita attendance of any baseball market in this country," says Rosentraub. "Hands down, baseball has to concede that this community has supported baseball more lavishly than any community in this country. You're the poster child for this issue, and if you let it go, then I don't know where it gets resolved."

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