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Competitive Balancing Act I [Mike:
2003-03-25 00:25
by Mike Carminati

Competitive Balancing Act I

[Mike: For the opening salvo in a series on competitive balance, I asked Chris DeRosa if I could post a piece of his that I had read in his annual baseball review. Chris writes the review and distributes it among his friends on a yearly basis. I was lucky enough to hear about it through my friend Murray. The review is a scholarly, scathing, and oftentimes hilarious appraisal of the game, all things that I enjoy tremendously. Please enjoy Chris's piece. Future posts in the series will be coming soon.]

Reinsdorf Award 2002

I'm the kind of Yankee fan who tries to understand the perspective of the person who doesn't get to go to a lot of ticker-tape parades. Last year though, they pushed me too far. Every year, for the amusement of my friends, I single out my least favorite person in baseball for a special distinction I call the "Reinsdorf Award" (previous winners include Bud Selig, JD Drew, etc.). I ended up giving the Reinsdorf Award for 2002 to my fellow fans - the fans whose bad behavior and whining undermine their cries of victimhood:

Fans who run on the field.

Fans who throw things when the Red Sox lose.

Fans who punch, gouge, and sue each other to get Bonds' 600th home run ball.

Fans who cheer fights in the stands, fans who attack first base coaches, fans who beat drums continuously throughout entire Indians games, fans who can't keep a beer upright, fans who beg for autographs, fans who force kids to throw back home run balls, and fans who stand up when everyone is sitting.

Fans who cast All-Star ballots for Cal Ripken Jr. as a .204 hitter, and then throw a fit when Derek Jeter makes the roster as a .315 hitter.

Fans who spend hours making and carrying around obsequious signs so they can be on TV for three seconds.

Fans who say Vladimir Guerrero is underrated, when half the sportswriters in the country willfully look right past Barry Bonds to say Guerrero is the best player in baseball.

Fans who sit next to me in the RF upper deck in Yankee Stadium and screech "F' you!" at the top of their lungs for three innings, as if this were not solely for the benefit of the people around them and actually could be heard by the Boston Red Sox down on the field.

Fans who threaten "fan strikes." [If that's how you feel, fine. Do it and shut up, already!]

But most of all, I'm giving the Reinsdorf Award to the fans who swallow and spit back baseball's Big Fat Lie: the ones who say that my team, the Yankees, has unfairly "bought" its recent championships, that New York has destroyed fair competition, and the sport is therefore hopeless.

When the 1996 Yankees won the club's first championship in 18 years, I heard the low level sniping: how could the Braves compete with a team that could keep an overpaid vet like Cecil Fielder on their bench? Up 2-0, sleek, model-organization Atlanta drew comparisons to the 1927 Yankees. Four games later, they were doomed have-nots for the lack of a fat pinch-hitter.

In 1999, a group of Royals fans in "share the wealth" t-shirts ostentatiously turned their backs to the field (where KC was in the process of beating NY), and marched out in protest of the fact that the Yankees were better than the Royals. In 2000, putative Yankee fan Bob Costas came out with a book, Fair Ball, saying that most baseball teams could no longer compete with the Yankees.

In 2001, even though the Mariners were taking down our precious AL win record, I enjoyed talking this big M's fan I know about how astutely Seattle had built its team, and what a great player Edgar the Hammer is. He was having a ball. As soon as we beat them, he told me he really hadn't been into baseball since junior high (please note passive-aggressive putdown), and baseball was pointless because nobody could compete with the Yankees' unfair advantages. Can't compete?! They broke our goddamn record! They won 116 games!

George W. Bush, the official First Fan, was polite enough not to number the Yankees among the axis of evil, but when he threw out the first ball after September 11th, he announced that he was rooting for "anybody but the Yankees." In the World Series two months after the attack, the nation rallied not around New York City, but behind an Arizona team that possessed but two home-grown players on its roster (I don't want your pity, I'm just pointing out the double standard). So MLB's September 11th video, shown in all parks including Yankee Stadium, has Luis Gonzalez blooping that pathetic hit off of Rivera while the voice-over prattles happily about baseball overcoming terror and comforting America (Yankee fans booed, rightly).

But all this pales in comparison to 2002. You know when the RNC gives out those talking points memos, and whole Republican Party goes on TV and says the exact same annoying thing, like incessant infield chatter? That's what the fans of 2002 sounded like. They got the memo: the Yankees have ruined baseball. First day of the winter meetings, the Diamondbacks and Rangers, among the biggest spenders around, were taking shots at the Yanks. Fans made lists of which teams can't compete in a season that hadn't even started. Whereas they used to say "big market teams" now they dropped the pretense and just said "Yankees." The part Red Sox-owning New York Times routinely called the team the "economic juggernaut," and "big market Goliaths." In game stories! As in, "the Yankees payroll was too much for the Devil Rays this afternoon at Yankee Stadium." It was totally nauseating.

The Big Fat Lie is the fantasy of choice for the hordes of Yankee-haters who can't bear the greatness of the late 1990s team and seek to devalue and delegitimize their championships. As Allen Barra pointed out, they are belittling an amazing run of clutch playoff performances in which the Yankees have defeated seven teams with superior records. Some Angel fan holds up a sign, "Half the payroll, twice the heart." Twice the heart! How can anyone question the Yankees' heart? Twice the heart of Mariano Rivera, the guy with the World Series record for scoreless innings? Twice the heart of Derek Jeter? They've overcome inning-inning or ninth inning deficits in postseason games eighteen times! Twice the heart of Orlando Hernandez? We led the majors in comeback wins last year too, with 63. Mr. Twice-the-Heart is just diminishing his own championship when he runs down the Yankees.

So that just burns me. It's not like we have the best record in baseball every year. Last year there were at least five teams essentially just as good as the Yankees, including obviously the Angels. But to hear fans tell it, the Yankees are on a completely different plane, winning 120 games every year.

Not that that would bother them if it weren't the Yankees. When the Bulls won six championships in eight years, winning 72 games one year, nobody said, "basketball is broken - we have to change everything!" No, basketball freaked out when there was a one-season power vacuum. Who will replace Michael?!? Oh, Shaq and Kobe, whew. All's well in the best of all possible leagues, despite inert franchises struggling to play .250 ball. Meanwhile in baseball, the Braves' utter domination of the NL East draws zero ire from the caterwauling fans who swear, every time the Yankees make a roster move, that they will never attend a baseball game again.
Fans' double standards are completely resistant to evidence. My favorite is the Jason Giambi signing, because that one ratcheted up the whining to its current deafening level. No matter that Giambi was willing to re-sign, but Oakland wouldn't give him a no-trade clause. No matter that he signed with New York for less money than Manny Ramirez got from Boston the year before.
How about Mike Mussina? That was another one that allegedly ruined baseball, making large numbers of fans take up stamp collecting or the WNBA. We got him from the Orioles, one of the richest, free-agent-signingest teams around. They'd recently finished messing up their team by signing Albert Belle when Mussina decided to bail.

OK, well how about... whoops! That's it! Those are the only stars the Yankees signed in their big run, and neither played for any of the four world champion teams. Point this out, and your smarter Reinsdorf-winning fans will start in about players on poorer teams for whom the Yankees traded. Aside from Hideki Irabu, there weren't many cases in which the team wasn't actually anxious to get rid of the guy. One was Roger Clemens.

The Jays didn't want to lose Clemens, but he could just have easily wound up with Houston. All the Yankees had to give up was an 18 game winner, a lefty reliever with a 1.67 ERA, and a fast back-up second baseman. In a world where Mark McGwire gets traded for TJ Matthews, you'll excuse me for not feeling guilty. And let's not forget how Toronto got Clemens in the first place: they signed him as a free agent, making him the highest paid pitcher in baseball history at that time. They got him when the Blue Jays were perceived as a quality organization. When the Yankees didn't have that going for them, they couldn't get the best guys either. In 1992, they tried to sign Greg Maddux, Doug Drabek, and Barry Bonds, and struck out. The stars turned down NY's money to sign with better-regarded organizations.

Unless you want to count scatter-armed head case Chuck Knoblauch, you have to go back to 1995 to find a real example of the Yankees trading for a true star off an actually poor team, John Wetteland. And Wetteland left us as a free agent two years later. Look, the Yankees have 25 roster spots like everyone else, and some of those have been occupied by people like Shane Spencer. We can't have destroyed all your teams. If every team in baseball had to give back their Expos products, half a dozen teams would have been worse off than the Yankees, starting with Boston and their ace, who Red Sox fans now believe they drafted out of the Cape Cod League or something.

Yes of course the finest whine comes not from Minnesota or Oakland, but from Boston, whose fans like to cast themselves in the ill-fitting role of underdog. After kicking our asses in 7 of our first 11 meetings, the Boston Herald previewed the late July NY-Bos series by saying that it was impossible to compete against the Yankees' 130 million dollar payroll, and the Yankees had no excuse for losing.

Then there's the Red Sox. They've always got an excuse. The Yankees just go out and get whoever they want, whined Johnny Damon, as if he hadn't come to the Red Sox as a free agent only months before. Interviewing a "stern and determined" Jason Varitek, the Herald writer was impressed to find the Red Sox willing to slog on even under these hopeless conditions. Quick, Jason Varitek is:

(a) a Dustbowl migrant worker, or
(b) a catcher on a professional baseball team with a 110 million dollar payroll?

The answer is "b." The Red Sox have a payroll almost as big as the Yankees', despite the fact that the Yankees' repeated champions naturally accumulated the league-leading figure. Sox fans set themselves up to win either way, while the Yankees are one of the only teams in baseball that tries to win a title without first preparing a soft cushion of excuses.

The players to whom Hubtown Johnny was referring were the Yankees mid-season acquisitions, Jeff Weaver and Raul Mondesi. The Yankees have "added another superstar," baseball fans howled. Superstar! First of all, it's Weaver, not Seaver. And to describe Mondesi as a superstar is ludicrous. Sammy Sosa is a superstar. Mike Sweeney is a star. Kevin Millar is a quality regular. Mondesi once was a quality regular who was hitting .230 and was available not because he was good, but because he was bad. Despite Damon's professed willingness to stand pat and face down Yankee Tyranny with his courageous little band of brothers, the We Happy Few went and got Cliff Floyd, a player palpably better than superstar Mondesi.

I can't stand it, but really, I'm loving it. Having everyone railing against us gives the season a thrilling edge. Every Yankee loss carries the extra bitterness of having gratified the baseball ignorami, and every win is sweetened because it sticks it to same. Even in Colorado in mid-June, the place is packed (they're like Europeans at McDonalds: they hate us but they come out all the same), and on TV you can hear the noise rolling out of the stands: "Yankees suck." Awesome - we've never even played them before! There are teams we've been beating up on for a century. Take a number and get in line!

But the Big Fat Lie threatened to do more than merrily cheese off a Yankee celebrant. For a while there, it looked like the owners were going to take their ball and go home. The high volume of anti-Yankee fan sentiment was, among other things, part of Bud Selig's brilliantly orchestrated campaign to destroy baseball. Shrewdly, Selig and friends avoided the usual owner tactic, to bash the players, and instead stuck to bashing the Yankees and George Steinbrenner. The fans were totally on board for that view of things.

For a year, Selig laid the groundwork. By repeating the Big Fat Lie over and over, he sold it to almost every corner of the baseball world: the Yankees had killed "competitive balance," and the teams were losing vast sums of money. After firing Paul Beeston and rejecting the players' offer of a no-strike/no-impasse pledge, it appeared that the owners wanted a bloodletting rather than a settlement. Selig threatened to wipe out two teams, and in a series of tactical coups, he maneuvered big market clubs like Boston, Atlanta, and the Mets into his camp.

The media did quite a credible job in getting the facts out about the owners' machinations. Journalists (Forbes most famously) reported that the owners have lied about how much money they make. Reporters spotlit Selig's lying to Congress. They noted his blatant conflicts of interest, his breaking of baseball's financial rules.

But the fans' anti-union-anti-player-anti-Yankee paradigm was impervious to all of this. An ESPN.com poll showed that 51% of fans were "pro-owner," 37% blamed both sides, and only 12% blamed the owners. Even though they knew the owners were lying! The position of the fans was that the owners might be lying, but that the players should cave in and agree to a de facto salary cap anyway.

The owner's victory in the public relations battle shouldn't have mattered. Strikers are always unpopular. If strikes depended on public favor to succeed, no American unions would ever try to strike. It wouldn't have mattered, if Marvin Miller were still in charge. But immediately after the players surrendered, player rep Steve Kline said it was either cave in or face "having our reputation and life ripped by the fans."

The same fans for whom the capitulation of the player's union was not enough! They're calling this sweetheart deal for owners an inadequate compromise! The revenues of all teams must be totally equalized! The same fans to whom a smidgen of economic leveling is totally anathema when it comes to a living wage and rudimentary health care, but confiscatory redistribution is just fine so long the beneficiaries are crybaby baseball teams like the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers!

I mean, forget "revenue sharing." Let's just go the more direct route of "run sharing." Every third run, no let's be certain of this, every other run the Yankees score will be donated to the opposing team. Fair ball for everyone.

I know most of you disagree with me, and you're in good company. Two of my favorite writers argue it the other way. Malcolm Gladwell, in an interview with Rob Neyer, said he loathed baseball because unlike the NFL, not every team has a chance to win the title every year. Bill James, in his masterfully revamped Historical Baseball Abstract, writes that the 1990s may be remembered when baseball separated decisively into big market and small market camps.

But the evidence that baseball is in a competitive imbalance crisis is scant. James himself devised an Index of Competitive Balance that shows that the 1990s were more balanced competitively than any decade in baseball history, including the 1980s. He notes that balance did take a dip in 1998. But 1998 was baseball's second expansion year of the decade, and as he has pointed out in other contexts, expansion effects can wash out over a few years. Isn't it a little premature to conclude that a crisis is upon us?
Hey, truth is, I'm in favor of priming the competition pump a bit. But New York having a good, lucky team for a few years is not serious evidence that baseball is going to hell in a hand basket. The Royals having a bad decade doesn't convince me either. If you've got thirty teams, doesn't it stand to reason that a couple of them are going to have bad decades? Most teams enjoyed some success in the 1990s. The fact that the Pirates were good in the early 1990s and bad now, while the Yankees were bad in the early 1990s and good now, is not compelling evidence that the state of the game was good in the early 1990s and bad now.

That there is no crisis hardly matters, because the owners don't really want competitive balance anyway. They want non-competitive balance. Like the NFL, they want a system where teams just hold their hats under the league money spigot, and have no responsibility to their fans to try to improve at the expense of one another.

And like Gladwell, today's short-attention span fans like it that way. They'd rather play the NFL lottery, where any team might jump up and win, than see their team struggle to build a winner the honest way, the Yankee way. You've got a whole generation of baseball fans now who grew up in towns that gave every kid in the little league a trophy at the end of the year. Of course their sense of entitlement is ever-expanding. But thirty teams can't all be good at once, and they only give out one trophy in the major leagues.

You know what I did when the Yankees lost to the Angels last year? I felt disappointed, and then I enjoyed the rest of the playoffs. I also enjoyed baseball in the years when my team was bad (The Era of Despair, 1989-1992). I didn't just complain about how my team had, sniff, no chance, and how it was so unfair that another team was good. Nor did I just wallow in Yankee crapitude. I watched local amateur ball, I got into cool teams like the A's and Blue Jays, I enjoyed close playoff games, I read about the history of the game, I pulled for the Phillies when I moved to Philadelphia, I gave out Reinsdorf Awards and stuff. There are plenty of ways for fans of bad teams to take pleasure in baseball, if only they would stop being such unbearable crybabies.

Chris DeRosa is a historian living in Long Branch, NJ, who writes season-in-review newsletters for all his baseball friends. You can reach him at christopherderosa@yahoo.com.


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