Getting What You Don't Pay For

Success ruins some of baseball owners' most tearful tales

Here's some Fourth of July food for thought while you're perusing the Cincinnati and St. Louis business journals for bankruptcy and tax-lien notices against those starving Country Day preppie boys saddled with owning the baseball Cardinals.

The little-guy poverty pleas aren't looking so good this season.

Nearing the halfway point of the season, all three American League divisions are led by teams ranking in the bottom 10 of major-league salaries (and the bottom five of their own league). In the National League, higher-salaried teams are faring better, but the raging success of our own small-market, ancient-stadium Cardinals -- with a record better than four of the five higher-paying NL teams -- puts a slight damper on the argument that we must cough up $350 million or so in public funds to stave off the end of baseball civilization as we know it.

Here and elsewhere, the pitch for public stadium funding is supported by a seemingly irrefutable article of faith: that in the postmodern era of Major League Baseball, only teams with megapayrolls have a prayer of success. During the past five years, the big spenders -- led by the dreaded New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves -- have had quite a run, enabling other sports tycoons (and their willing subjects in the media) to justify their pleas for outside assistance.

However, this year's numbers -- largely unreported in the press -- aren't helping their case.

As of last Sunday, the Chicago White Sox had the best record in baseball (48-27), with the fifth-lowest salary burden ($31 million) of the 30 teams. The Sox are being paid roughly half, or less than half, than the three teams -- Detroit ($62 million), Tampa Bay ($64 million) and Baltimore ($82 million) -- at the bottom of the league.

The other division leaders -- Oakland ($32 million) and Toronto ($46 million) -- are also ahead of teams with payrolls twice their own or greater. In the National League, poverty cases Florida ($19 million) and Montreal ($33 million) have won as much as they've lost; the higher-rolling Chicago Cubs ($62 million) and Houston Astros ($52 million) are bringing up the rear.

It's not just the anecdotal experience of a few teams that questions baseball's conventional economic wisdom. A breakdown of the teams in three groups of 10 (using team-salary numbers reported May 1 in USA Today and standings as of Sunday), suggests there's not much correlation at all between paying big bucks and winning. Here they are, ranked bottom to top:

THE BOTTOM 10 .501
Kansas City...23,132,500...35-38
Chicago White Sox...31,159,000...48-27

THE MIDDLE 10 .483
San Francisco...53,541,000...37-34
San Diego...54,971,000...33-40

Chicago Cubs...62,129,333...30-44

THE TOP 10 .516
New York Mets...79,759,762...41-31
Los Angeles...90,725,952...38-35
New York Yankees...92,938,260...37-33

With almost half of the season completed, the "poor" are winning more than the "middle class" and, on the average, would finish just a couple of games behind the "rich." Though this may not disprove the need for some means of sharing baseball's obscene revenue wealth in the interest of competitive balance, it should at the least give the public pause before throwing hundreds of millions to stave off disaster.

Throughout North America, sports monopolists rationalize their raids on public treasuries with civic appeals for help to "stay competitive" with the really rich teams. For their part, the "really rich teams," like the Yankees, merely demand public largesse because they can.

Admittedly, the 2000 season is hardly over, but it's pretty hard for baseball people to argue credibly that the meek can't "compete" purely on economic grounds.

Just a month ago, a Post-Dispatch headline proclaimed the dark warning of Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "WITHOUT NEW STADIUM, LAMPING FEARS TEAM WILL SLUMP, LOSE FANS."

Lamping cited the example of the lowly Minnesota Twins, who seem trapped in the downward spiral of losing seasons, low attendance and underfunded payrolls (conveniently ignoring their world championships of 1987 and 1991).

"If you start down that slippery slope, people won't want to come to the ballpark," Lamping said. He even went as far as to put it in terms of the civic sky falling.

"I wonder what city services the city of Minneapolis has eliminated because of the decline in tax revenue,"says Lamping. "There's less risk to city services by growing Cardinals baseball than by doing nothing and running the risk that a Minneapolis situation could develop."

Well, Lamping's right: We certainly don't want to be like those horrid Twins this season. Maybe we should just be like the White Sox.

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