Friday, September 22, 2006

Tangenital Musings

Just for an update, I’m very busy at work, hence the lack of a post yesterday. However, I’d be remiss to skip two days in a row, especially as we hit the home stretch. It’s hard to believe that the season started nearly six months ago, and even harder to believe that we’re about to enter playoff season.

There is nothing more pleasing than a cold October night in the Bronx. Poems, books and essays have been written about the Yankees playoff experience, but very few come close to accurately describing the animosity among the fans. Yes, we’re spoiled and get these nights every year, but that doesn’t at all diminish the inherent value of seeing our team play for the world’s greatest prize. Each year brings its own unique blend of heroism, failure and drama.

But along with the glory felt annually by Yankees fans comes contempt from around the league. If you’re not a Yanks fan, you certainly hate them; there is no indifference when it comes to America’s richest team. Since there are fans of 29 other teams, they certainly outnumber us Yankees faithful, and they all carry one message: the Yankees are what is wrong with baseball. To the haters, the Yankees free-spending ways disables competitive balance, thus ruining baseball in small-market cities like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

Remember, though, that the free-spending Yankees really didn’t come into play until after the 2001 season, when Jason Giambi left Oakland for the big house in the Bronx. Sure, the Yankees led the league in payroll in 2001, but not nearly to the degree they do now. $112 million may have been a lot, but there were two other teams with payrolls over $100 million, and a total of eight teams with a payroll over $85 million.

You know who started the Yankees free-spending ways? Alex Rodriguez, or, more accurately, Scott Boras. Market value for star players grew exponentially (obviously an exaggeration, for those of you who would pedantically point this out) when Alex signed his 10-year, $250 million deal with the Rangers. Everyone wanted a piece while the market was up, which explains the monstrous contracts of Giambi and Jeter, as well as guys like Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Miguel Tejada and anyone else who was deemed a “star.”

Now that the market price has fallen to a more sane level—though to describe the current salary market as sane might not be accurate in itself—payrolls are normalizing. Well, except for that of the Yankees. Most people blame this on their splurges in free-agency, as they can afford to take on risks that other teams simply cannot. While that’s true to a degree, it’s not completely accurate.

The Tigers feared that Jeff Weaver wouldn’t be worth his expensive contract; the Yankees took him off their hands. The Dodgers wanted Kevin Brown off the books; the Yankees took on his inflated contract. The Blue Jays loathed Raul Mondesi; the Yankees, in search of a right fielder, took him off their hands. The Diamondbacks, realizing that a change of personnel was crucial to return to winning, needed to rid themselves of Randy Johnson; the Yankees, needing a dominant starter, took a risk and traded then-valuable commodities for the 40-year-old Johnson and his prickish attitude. And, most recently, when Pat Gillick realized that he needed to clean house to return the Phillies to contention, he looked immediately to dumping off Abreu or Burrell; Cashman swooped in and took Abreu’s $16 million for 2007 off his hands.

So, while the Yankees do have a payroll that triples or quadruples that of many clubs, they have lent valuable fiscal assistance to these clubs by taking on their unmanageable and, to an extent, albatross contracts (or at least relatively). They’ve helped grant a reprieve to teams who made terrible personnel decisions. And, in the process, they’ve gained themselves. It’s almost a win-win situation, though the outcome does more greatly benefit the Yankees; they have the players and the better team, while the smaller market clubs are still susceptible to bad management decisions.

This idea warrants a full column itself, but I truly think the competitive balance in baseball can be restored without a salary cap. More than limits on spending, baseball needs an influx of more competent front office personnel. The game has change a lot since the 60s (and hell, since the 70s, 80s and 90s, too, for that matter), and to continue employing these old school thinkers in a decision-making capacity is counter productive. Businesses need to employ progressive thinkers to get ahead; baseball teams are businesses. Yet, they continue to employ people who refuse to acknowledge advances in information processing and insist on doing things they way they were. If Smith Barney employed economists and traders who insist on using techniques and philosophies from the 1970s, they’d be underwater almost instantly.

I know I sound like an apologist of gargantuan proportions, but this needs to be said. The Yankees shouldn’t be the model of how to run a baseball team, but to say that they are what is wrong with baseball is preposterous and one-sided. Hate if you will, but hate with emotion. Hate the mystique and aura of the Yankees. Hate their arrogant players. But please, don’t hate the way they do business. Not only do they pay money to help fund small market teams, but they unburden them of past mistakes.