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.
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.