Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The return of small-money ball

One of my main issues with professional baseball is its lack of parity. The NFL's revenue-sharing program ensures that every team has a shot every year — or, at the very least, that a few deep-pocket teams don't always have a built-in advantage over smaller-market teams. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has widespread income inequality which, to paraphrase Bob Costas, means only a few teams are truly competitive and the rest are just selling ballpark ambience. In 2014, the Royals were 19th out of 30 teams with a payroll of about $92 million (the A's are even lower at 25th and $83.4 million, so maybe I should have pulled for them over the Royals). By contrast, the first-place Dodgers clobber everyone at $235 million (the second-ranked Yankees are near $204 million, and the figures drop off sharply from there). 

Contrast that to the NFL's salary caps: This year, the Bills lead all teams with $145.8 million and the Jets bring up the rear with $109.4 million — a total swing of $36.4 million. The top two MLB franchises alone are divided by $31 million, with another $23.8 million separating the Yankees from the third-place Phillies. Moneyball, indeed.

(Speaking of Moneyball, it's a film about how a poor Major League Baseball franchise can get the best bang for its budget, while Draft Day involves NFL teams all clamoring for the best picks with salary concerns far in the background. Very telling of each league's respective structures.)

During my time in Missouri, I remember the Kansas City Royals being the punch line for many a small-market joke. They were the textbook definition of a beleaguered team cashed out of competition. In 2011, the year I left the state, the Royals were dead last in the majors with a microscopic $36 million payroll. With that they had to play the likes of the $201 million New York Yankees. It's no shock that the most cash-stacked teams, the Yankees and the Phillies, had the best records that season.

Does this mean teams in the majors can buy championships? Well, it didn't help either the Yankees or the Phillies make it to the World Series in 2011. And the cash-strapped Tampa Bay Rays (second-to-last in payroll) fared well that year. But more often than not, the lack of parity goes a long way toward narrowing the playoff scenarios from the outset.

The Royals certainly had other woes besides a weak payroll that has kept them out of the playoffs since their World Series championship in 1985 — the longest drought in American pro sports. But the way baseball's finances are set up, it's no shock that something like that would happen, even if it's an outlier.

So, yes, I'm happy to see the Royals snap that streak with a win tonight and wish them more scrappy-underdog luck going forward. My dream World Series would pit them against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who at 27th and $78.1 million make the Royals look rich. I'd be happy if either team won that best-of-seven, but since Pittsburgh has advanced four times since the Royals' last stand, most recently with a deep run last season, my edge is to Kansas City.

Play ball!

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