Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Phooey on the Salary Cap and Other Assorted Complaints

[[switching to the first person]] Toronto is home to one of the finest bloggers in the blogsphere. He is also a notorious and self-described homer for his home town sports teams. And my blog bud's problem is similar to a small man's complex. The Yankees and the Red Sox are the "haves" and the Blue Jays are the "have nots." Understood. Today, this fine blogger linked another blogger on money being the root of all evil in baseball. I could say this politely, but, we might as well be frank: Phooey.

Let's go back in the time machine and peer into the world of the New York Yankees in the 1960s. I was there and this was the world I grew up in. Born and bred in New Jersey (please don't hold that against me as I have been gone from there for 35 years now), the Yankees were the home team and they were our world...and they stunk to high heaven.

Back then, the team was owned by CBS, the media giant, and were run by a flamboyant former mayor of the city by the name of John Lindsey. I don't really know how good he was as a mayor but it is hoped that he was a better mayor than he was a baseball man. CBS simply ran the grand old team into the ground. After decades of Ruths and Gehrigs, DiMaggios, Yogis and Mantles, the Yankees became a team filled with the likes of Tom Tresh, Dooley Womack, Mike Kekich, Horace Clarke, Thad Tillotson, Lindy McDaniel, Mike Hegan and Roger Repoz. I don't suppose you have ever heard of any of them.

In 1967, the New York Yankees batted .223 as a team. That's right. .223. They were tenth in a ten team league in runs scored, doubles, and slugging percentage. They had a .613 team OPS. The year after that, they batted .214 as a team. Yeah, .214. Can you imagine? They make the Giants look like a hitting team. That year (1968), their infield consisted of Mantle at first (in his last year). He batted .237. Horace Clarke batted lead off and hit .230 with a .258 OBP. He was the second baseman. Tom Tresh played short. He hit .195 in 507 at bats. Bobby Cox (yup, the same guy sitting as the great guru of Atlanta) played third and batted .229. How's that for an infield?

The point of all this? The Yankees were a dead franchise. Tickets were so cheap that after my dad died, my mom would send us to the Stadium as her way of babysitting us when she had to work on Saturday. She gave my brother and me $5 each and that was enough for the bus to the city, the subway to the stadium, entrance to the bleachers and we had enough left over for a coke. The Yankees, if you can imagine it, barely drew over a million fans. My brother and I would wait until the ushers left after the fourth inning and then go down to the empty box seats behind the Yankee dugout. We saw all our heroes (what did we know?) up close for $5 round trip. One of the only reasons that the attendance figure was as high as it was came from two unique events: Bat Day and Old Timer's Day. Those two events brought in 65,000 people. The rest of the time? Nothing.

The Yankees had only a public television deal with WPIX (channel 11) and a radio deal with WCBS, a powerful station that sent Yankee broadcasts far and wide around New England. George Steinbrenner bought the team for a song. Really. He paid $10 million for the team. You couldn't buy a minor league club for that amount. That's how badly the Yankees' mess had become.

And love him or hate him, Steinbrenner knew what he was doing. He hired good baseball people and they started developing players like Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry and others. You've heard of them, right? When free agency broke, Steinbrenner jumped on it and got players like Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and guys like Oscar Gamble. The team started winning and George created the Billy Martin soap opera and put the Yankees on the front page of the New York papers. The Stadium started hopping again.

The team later put together the YES network, the most successful sports channel and money maker in baseball. Now the team is an event in New York. Four million people come to see them play despite astronomical seat prices.

Want another example? From 1960 t0 1966, the Boston Red Sox went 499-624. They came in next to last place three times during that stretch. In 1965, the Red Sox drew only 654,000 fans to come see them play. Now everyone is mad at them because they and the Yankees are the "haves" in baseball and it's not fair and we need a salary cap.

What people don't understand is that both the Yankees and Red Sox have built their empires on smarts and shrewdness. They started with nothing and built what they have become today. Why are they vilified for their success? Why should their success be punished with a salary cap because other teams weren't as smart or as shrewd?

It wasn't too long ago that the Blue Jays were the cream of the American League. They drew over four million fans in their second World Championship season. Unfortunately, they haven't been able to keep that ball rolling and as such, have fallen behind in payroll. That's the way it is.

What the Yankees and the Red Sox (and the Cubs for that matter) have done is build a brand. It's a good old American tradition that still works. Grind your teeth if you will at the "Red Sox Nation" but it has worked in spades. The Cubs were, along with the Braves, the original pioneers of cable television. That brilliant stroke still pays off today as the Braves and the Cubs are in the top ten in road attendance. The Cubs are third and the Braves ninth. Toronto is 29th. They haven't built their brand.

And don't you think that road attendance isn't beneficial to all those teams the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers play? Say that the average ticket price is $15 (yeah, as if). Then the Cubs bring a gate on the road of $533,000. The Royals average gate at that price would be $410,000. All teams split the proceeds of MLB merchandise. The bonanza is somewhere around $65 million a team. Don't you understand that most of that merchandise is sales of Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cubs jerseys and hats? Yet all teams reap the same benefits.

Of course we all get tired of nationally televised games always being these big teams. Understood. But that's where the money is and again, all that money the networks pay the teams is shared equally. Do you think the Nationals sign Strasburg without that money? Not likely.

The "haves" in baseball have earned it. In 1966, the Cubs drew only 623,000 paying customers. Last year, it was 3.2 million with almost the same amount on the road. They successfully built a brand and thus can afford a higher payroll. That's the model folks. Build it and they will come.

And there is one other thing that works against the "have nots" and that is the union. MLB players have the strongest union in sports. There is no way they will ever agree to a salary cap. No way at all. It's not going to happen.

This Fan believes that a salary cap is nothing but an easy out for teams that just don't do business correctly. Some teams aren't smart enough to build a brand (or a good team for that matter) so let's do the salary cap so they can be rewarded for their lousy work. The sad truth is that they are already rewarded for their lousy work.

A commenter on the blog that started this opus warned that salary caps have led the NBA off season to become a fiasco as most teams make moves based on the cap instead of on what's best for the team. Besides, the salary cap hasn't done much for the Clippers and the Bengals has it? A badly run franchise is a badly run franchise and teams like the Royals have only themselves to blame.

Money isn't the root of evil in baseball. Bad personnel decisions and bad business models are.

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