Salary cap? Baseball needs something

Funny how now that the New York Yankees have added the most expensive sports contract in history, Alex Rodriguez, to their already outrageously priced roster, suddenly the freespending Boston Red Sox, owner of the second-most expensive sports contract in history and the second-highest payroll in baseball, are calling for a salary cap.The freespending teams of the 1980s quickly found that money doesn’t buy championships. The Yankees outspent a lot of teams in the 1980s, and all it got them was some really awful teams. The Baltimore Orioles chased every big-name free agent it could in 1984 and landed a few. It never really got them anywhere–while they were one of the American League’s proudest franchises in 1982, they haven’t won a World Series since 1982.

I still hated the Yankees for stealing Steve Farr and Danny Tartabull from my Royals, but I hated them more for what they did in the 1970s than for what they did after that. Farr and Tartabull didn’t do all that much after they left the Royals for George Steinbrenner’s money. Maybe they were finished anyway, maybe the pressure of New York got to them, or maybe they just weren’t that good anyway. But the Yankees were more of a nuissance than anything else. They stole your players, then they still finished last. That’s worse than the 1970s, when they’d occasionally steal a player, and always win the Series.

The Yankees rose from the dead in the late 1990s and started winning World Series again. But the funny thing was, they did it largely on talent they found themselves. Sure, Paul O’Neill was an acquisition, but they traded for him, before he became a name. The same went for David Wells. John Wetteland was a free-agent signing, but they replaced him with Mariano Rivera, who was a home-grown talent. Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettite were players the Yankees developed.

Later, the Yankees started adding players, but the core of the team didn’t change much.

But I think there’s a difference. The Oakland A’s developed a good, young, home-grown team using basically the same strategy the Yankees did: a combination of shrewd trades for underappreciated players and homegrown talent. But as the two teams’ stars grew pricier, the Yankees were able to afford to keep them, and add additional stars (Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, and Chuck Knoblauch, to name a few). The A’s by and large had to let their free-agent stars go. When Jason Giambi signed with the Yanks, they replaced him with Scott Hatteburg–a former backup catcher for the Boston Red Sox whom management felt had never gotten a chance and was better than his numbers showed. Turns out they were right, but Hatteburg still isn’t Jason Giambi.

I still don’t think money buys you championships, at least not from scratch. But I think it lets you keep them. The Cleveland Indians’ rise started a little before the Yankees, but aside from an aging Omar Vizquel, there’s nothing left from their late-’90s glory days. The Indians could finish last this year. Three years ago they were a lock to win their division. Like the A’s, they couldn’t afford to re-sign Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, or Matt Williams, to name a few players who signed higher-priced contracts elsewhere.

The Yankees’ freespending ways could still backfire. Alex Rodriguez has never played in a large market. He has to adjust to playing in New York, and he has to adjust to playing third base. I don’t know how well his ego can handle being pushed aside by Derek Jeter, who can be occasionally briliant (people remember Jeter for The Throw–if you saw it, you know what I’m talking about) but he doesn’t have the range or the arm of either A-Rod or Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra. He also doesn’t have their bat. Frankly, Jeter’s the second-best shortstop on the Yankees now, and at best, he’s the fourth-best shortstop in the league and it won’t be long before the Royals’ Angel Berroa and Minnesota’s Cristian Guzman eclipse him.

Jason Giambi’s injuries may keep him from playing first base, which will be a problem because the Yankees don’t have a first-tier first baseman to replace him anymore. They traded Nick Johnson for pitching. Frankly, Giambi’s facing the same kinds of injuries that did in Mark McGwire, but at a younger age. He may have to lose weight, which will hurt his home run totals, or he may have to retire. Either way, he’s not helping the Yankees as much as they expected.

Bernie Williams can’t play center field anymore, which may pose a dilemma. For now, he’s penciled in at DH, but he’s not happy about it. He may wind up on first base so Giambi can DH. But Williams has always played center field. Moves from the outfield to first base often work, but not always. Both players are in their prime, salary-wise, but their best playing days are behind them. The same could be said for many of the Yankees of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Part of me wants to think the problem is starting to correct itself. Greg Maddux is certainly one of the top three pitchers of his generation, and he never found a team to meet his salary demands. Finally, with spring training starting, he signed with the Chicago Cubs. Certainly the Cubs upped their offer, but Maddux waited much longer than he would have liked. While he was the last really big name to go unsigned, it would be hard to imagine a Greg Maddux waiting until February for a contract most other years. Few other players got pay raises this year; many of those who did had to sign with last-place clubs in order to get it. Some players actually took pay cuts, even after having good seasons.

Maybe, it seems, after 30 years of spiraling salaries, teams have had enough. But then I read about Placido Polanco getting $4 million a year. Polanco’s a good player, no doubt. But that’s like paying $30,000 for a Honda Civic.

I don’t really have any answers that haven’t been thought of already. Bob Costas wrote a great book several years ago with suggestions that would make baseball much more exciting by restoring competitive balance and make the game more accessible. His suggestions have been largely ignored.

Meanwhile, we’ll get to watch lean, mean teams beat up on the billionaire boys club that is the Yankees. Well, one can only hope.

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8 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  February 19, 2004

    Did you see where the Cardinals and Albert Pujols have agreed on a 7 year 100 Million dollar contract? Makes him the fastest player in major leauge history to reach the 100 million mark.

    I like my Cardinals and all, but wow! Though in this day and age, I’m not sure what any teams choice are. They’ve done it to them selves by giving these enormous salleries. I just can’t see it not biting them in the butt some day. Seems similiar to a company over expanding too quickly at times.

    Of course if the Cards hadn’t signed him, the Yankees would have, and probalby turned him into a pitcher or catcher.

  2. Anonymous

     /  February 19, 2004

    I’m a Red Sox fan (by birth) but I have to admit John Henry’s comments regards a salary cap struck me pretty funny (as in sad). It is certainly true money won’t guarantee a world series title. It is even more true regards buying a single high priced talent, regardless of ability. More often it is a detriment to team performance, and A-Rod in Texas is the best example, even though he fullfilled his end of the deal. The successful Yankee teams of the 90′s were notable not only for a lot of home-grown talent but a lack of strong egos and attitude. I think a balanced roster of B+ level "professional" ballplayers that function well as a team competes well against any collection of A level talent divided by ego, for far less money (the 2002 Angels).

    On other notes, it will be interesting to see if Giambi or anyone else falls from the top tier as a result of the Steroid investigations now making headlines. If the sport truly gets cleaned up I will be glad. Pro athletes may not ask for the job of role model but it is thrust on them nonetheless. Like it or not, they (and the teams that pay them) have an obligation to be sensitive to the impact their conduct has on their young fans. It pains me but any one watching Garciapara at the end of last season and the during the playoffs has to wonder if he’s still one of the elite short stops. Jeter, if he takes his role of Captain and team leader seriously, may yet admit he is the one who should move to 2nd or 3rd.

    Dave, I’m glad you’re talking baseball again. April can’t get here soon enough.


    Some things you must love because they’re impossible to like

  3. Anonymous

     /  February 19, 2004

    Baltimore won the World Series in 1983, not 1982. The winners in 1982 were the Cardinals. I know, I know, what kind of St. Louisan am I?

    The kind who roots for the Kansas City Royals, that’s what kind. :)

  4. Anonymous

     /  February 19, 2004

    In the past few years, I have truly become a diehard baseball fan. I’ve always like baseball, but only as I have gotten older have I learned about and appreciated the game’s subtleties.

    I don’t think baseball really needs a salary cap. Players (like "Pay-Rod") choose to play for the Yankees for more than just money (although that’s the #1 reason); they do it because of the Yankees historical legacy and "mystique", if you want to call it that. Also, it’s about being in the bright lights, big city, big media market thing, although that can certainly backfire. As for New York, A-Rod won’t have any trouble adjusting to the big city; in fact, I think he’ll thrive on it, that’s just his personality.

    Don’t think that I’m an A-Rod fan, however. I’m a Seattle Mariners fan, and we don’t take kindly to him choosing the Texas Rangers and his outrageous contract with them over playing for a contender. Trust me, next time he shows up at Safeco Field in a Yankees uniform, he’ll be booed, and booed LOUDLY. His first return to Seattle in a Rangers uniform resulted in Monopoly money and (real) coins being tossed onto the field. We hate the Yanks, and we hate A-Rod.

    I’m looking forward to April as well, as the Mariners have made some good changes in the off-season, adding Scott Spiezio at third base to replace the ineffective Jeff Cirillo, and Rich Aurilia at shortstop. Losing Kazuhiro Sasaki was unfortunate, but Eddie Guardado should fill in nicely (I know, "stolen" from the Twins). I still think that the Mariners need a solid power hitter if we really want to be contenders, but mostly this year is about keeping what we already have (Edgar Martinez, Boone, Olerud) and adjusting to our Mike Cameron-less outfield. Anyway, sorry for the rambling, bring on MLB 2004!

  5. Anonymous

     /  February 19, 2004

    As long as the fans will pay the cost, why deprive the players of their salaries? It does drive the ticket prices up but that keeps out the riff raff.
    If you have to cap something, cap Teacher’s salaries. They are always hollering about bread and circuses and how nations fall.

    • Anonymous

       /  February 20, 2004

      Teachers certainly deserve a decent salary, probably more than they get. But whether you’re talking teachers, ball players or store clerks, you want someone who cares about their job and isn’t just chasing a pay check.


      Some things you must love because they’re impossible to like

  6. Anonymous

     /  February 20, 2004

    If you get a chance – watch a minor league game. We have the Lancaster Jet Hawks (formerly a Mariner’s single A affiliate, now Diamondbacks). Their games are also instructive as the players are students themselves. Plus they are cheap games and just plain fun. Willie Bloomquist – now a Mariner utility infielder, played here, and although he may be marginal as a big leaguer, it was easy to see why he got his "cup of coffee". He was always doing the little things – backing up throws, getting into position to make plays – a real team player who got the most out of his ability. I enjoyed watching him. As a Boston fan I have my own complaints about A-Rod but honestly no one twisted the Ranger’s arm into giving him that absurd contract that was light years more than any other offer he got. Texas back then was trying to buy a pennant, they also had I-Rod, Rafael Palmero, and later got Juan Gonzalez back – on paper a formidable lineup with no pitching. They then went and overpaid for Chan Ho Park who rarely won outside Dodger Stadium – All in all, lot of money for a laughingstock team. Unlike some high-buck ballplayers, A-Rod at least produces like he was paid for, and as far as I know, without the stink of steroids. I too like the Mariners but prefer the Angels. They too can be accused of buying hired guns but in this case I think the new Hispanic owner is also trying to build a team with some real Hispanic stars to represent the Hispanic population in the Anaheim fan base. I think that’s not only legitimate but smart and about time. Honestly, the formerly Disney owned Angels were a pretty "pale" team.


    Some things you must love because they’re impossible to like

    • Anonymous

       /  February 21, 2004

      I have been to a minor league one time: in 1999 (?), I saw a game between the now-defunct Portland (Ore.) Rockies and the Everett Aquasox during a Northwest League [Short-A] game at Portland’s Civic Stadium (now PGE Park). It wasn’t too bad, but the Rockies lost the game. (oh well) (currently, Portland has the AAA Beavers).

      I agree about Willie Bloomquist being a great utility player. Every MLB team needs some players like him if they want to succeed. Heck, he got more playing time last year than Jeff Cirillo (who never did live up to his potential in Seattle). The nearest short-A teams to where I live are the Everett Aquasox and the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Someday, I’d like to go to a Tacoma Rainiers (AAA) game, as I’d consider them my home AAA team and they’re relatively close.

      The Anaheim Angels should be one of the contenders in the AL West this coming 2004 season.

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