A lost tribe wandering in the baseball desert during the late 1970s -- a chronic noncontender suffering from 90-loss seasons, an eroding fan base and a fractious clubhouse -- the St. Louis Cardinals were led to the promised land of playoffs and 3 million attendance in the 1980s by Whitey Herzog.
Arriving midseason in 1980 as manager and adding the GM's job that September, the White Rat assessed his underachieving team and took decisive action, trading away half his roster at the December meetings and continuing to deal the next year while posting the division's best overall record in a strike-shortened split season. A world championship followed in 1982, with two more trips to the World Series in '85 and '87, before Herzog resigned in mid-1990.
Now retired after an early-'90s stint as the California Angels' director of baseball operations, Herzog fishes, golfs, skis and travels, leading a comfortable life in South County. But he still watches plenty of baseball with his satellite dish, and he increasingly dislikes what the television reveals. Kept from his leisure pursuits by an Achilles-tendon injury last year, Herzog decided to share his gloomily dark thoughts on the game -- and shed some light on some potential solutions to its ills -- with a book co-written by journalist Jonathan Pitts: You're Missin' a Great Game (Simon & Schuster, 314 pages, $25).
Returning to find baseball worshiping mammon and moon shots -- a sport corrupted by money and beset by problems both on and off the field -- Herzog fulminates on the page and in person with an anger worthy of an Old Testament patriarch, and he wants to help set the game back on the path of righteousness. You're Missin' a Great Game serves as his commandments.
Herzog, during his abbreviated stint with the Texas Rangers, his three division championships with the Kansas City Royals and his decade-long tenure with the Cardinals, earned a deserved reputation as a no-bullshit, blunt-spoken hard charger, a man willing to tell the truth and take action, whatever the consequences. Bill James, perhaps the most cogent and influential baseball analyst in a game where every fan styles himself an expert, had this to say about Herzog in Bill James's Baseball Guide to Managers from 1870 to Today: "Whitey Herzog's career was a long series of controversies, battles. Poorly chosen words. He spoke frankly. People would often ask him what he thought, and he would tell them, and very often people hated him for that."
You're Missin' a Great Game is unlikely to earn Herzog many new friends. In it, he excoriates players, agents, owners, executives, umpires and even milquetoast TV announcers who refuse to call 'em like they see 'em. He rails against wild cards, interleague play and balanced schedules; he laments the lack of fundamentals and the abundance of home runs; he talks openly about player arrogance, owner stupidity and universal greed. He names names, cites damning evidence and builds a devastating case against baseball as it's misplayed and mismanaged at the millennium's turn. "I'll be honest with you," he confesses in a sure-to-be-quoted summary statement in the book's introduction. "A lot of things about the big-league scene today make me want to throw up."
The book, of course, isn't all bile: Herzog shares fond, illuminating stories of mentors, former team members, past employers and -- especially fascinating to St. Louis fans -- key Cardinal players of the '80s. Even better, Herzog and Pitts don't string these anecdotes together haphazardly but use them illustratively and metaphorically, to make and clarify points.
Less positively, You're Missin' a Great Game indulges in the expected self-glorification and selective memory of any autobiographical work: Herzog's view of the era in which he played is obscured by nostalgia, and his aggressive, speed-over-power style of managing with the Royals and Cards -- Whiteyball -- receives an overvaluation compared to the home-run offense that is today's currency. Nor are all of Herzog's proposals to redress baseball's problems well thought out, and a few -- for instance, a neutral-site World Series stadium that would be alternatively used as a mega-bingo hall -- are downright loopy.
But as an antidote to last year's baseball fever, in which the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homer race induced a hallucinatory dream of game-wide prosperity and goodwill, You're Missin' a Great Game is strong and necessary, if at times unpleasant, medicine.
In an April interview at the restaurant at Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill. -- a surreal but appropriately evangelical setting, given his missionary zeal -- Herzog, looking fit and still sporting his familiar blond flattop, explains the motivation behind You're Missin' a Great Game: "I wrote the book because I'm concerned about baseball," he says simply. "The issues aren't being discussed. Baseball's in trouble as it now is if they don't change some rules.
"I think the home-run race last year was great for the game, but when you look at all the major-league clubs, per game the attendance was still down 2,000 people (from the high of 31,337 established before the strike that ended the 1994 season and erased the playoffs and World Series). What really should bring everybody to their feet is when you've got the winningest New York team in the history of baseball playing in the World Series, and your ratings are down.
"I don't expect everybody to agree with a lot of things I say," Herzog admits. "I'm just trying to bring some things out that should be discussed -- try to sit down and talk about our problems and try to correct some of them before the new labor agreement comes due in 2001. We're in a situation where we've already had eight work stoppages in about 26 years. In 2001, if we have another one ... You know, people don't want to hear about millionaires on strike, and that's basically what it would be. That could really kill the game."
You're Missin' a Great Game is Herzog's attempt to get a conversation started about baseball's failing health before it expires. "This is really what's best about Herzog's book," says James. "It's not that the things he suggests are that good -- some of them are pretty far-out -- but at least he's willing to talk about how to fix these things. I just thought that was wonderful -- to have somebody, an intelligent person, step forward and say, 'All right, guys, we've got some problems. What are we going to do about them?'"
The problem that casts the largest and most ominous shadow in You're Missin' a Great Game is the widening competitive gulf between the haves -- the high-revenue, major-market clubs -- and the have-nots. Although Herzog identifies plenty of on-field ugliness that would benefit from cosmetic surgery, this imbalance in teams' basic ability to pay and thus win is a quickly metastasizing cancer that requires immediate treatment.
The abyss separating haves from have-nots is growing to Grand Canyon-size proportions: Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of Baseball and Billions, reports in this week's issue of Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal that the difference between the top- and bottom-revenue teams increased "from roughly $30 million in 1989 to $130 million in 1999." That vast difference in revenue, in turn, creates an equally large disparity between top and bottom payrolls, from the Yankees' record-setting $88.2 million to the Expos' paltry $17.6 million. And that difference in payroll, finally, appears to translate increasingly into wins: Last season, according to figures from the exemplary ESPN.com series "State of Baseball," the eight playoff teams all had payrolls of more than $48 million, and in the past three years only four of 24 playoff teams -- one of them the 1996 Cardinals -- had payrolls of less than $40 million. Perhaps most damning, of the 15 teams in the bottom half of total payroll in 1998, only a single club managed a record better than .500.
Herzog puts the situation in typically plain terms: "Ten million (in payroll) can't compete with $88 million. Really, to be honest about it, $35 million can't compete with $88 million. The only way today that you have a chance at all is to be in the $45 million-$55 million range and hope you get lucky or be in the right division." (Herzog notes that the Cardinals remain in the hunt because they and their most likely competition in the National League Central, the Cubs and Astros, all fall within that range.) Although a lofty payroll certainly provides no guarantee of success, as the woeful performance of the high-priced Baltimore Orioles proves, the penny-pinching clubs just as clearly have no realistic hope of winning. The gap in salary -- and, implicitly, talent -- between the high flyers and bottom feeders has simply grown too large.
"In modern baseball," says James, "I think there are about eight teams that are strongly advantaged, about eight which are strongly disadvantaged, and the rest are in the middle where they can compete if they do enough things well." Depending on who is doing the evaluation, the clubs in the top tier might include Atlanta, the New York Yankees and Mets, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas and Colorado; all are located in major population centers (which guarantees significant money from local and cable TV for broadcast rights), are owned by large media companies (which means the team has value beyond baseball as programming) or benefit from recently built stadiums (which infuse, at least temporarily, new revenue from luxury boxes and increased attendance). The cash-strapped cellar dwellers are clubs, primarily from small markets, such as Montreal, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Florida, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The teams between these extremes remain theoretically competitive depending on their intelligence and good fortune, but over time they are more likely to head toward the basement than to ascend to the penthouse.
There are any number of reasons for the widening gap in revenues between teams -- the new-stadium monies already mentioned, naming rights and signage for those facilities, higher attendance figures because of market size, pricier tickets, better merchandising -- but the primary wedge that continues to split the haves and have-nots ever further apart is local-TV revenue. Although baseball shares its national television money from ESPN, Fox and NBC, the local broadcast revenues are kept by the individual clubs, and the differences are huge: At the top end, the New York Yankees receive $70 million annually; toward the bottom, the Kansas City Royals take in less than $5 million.
"The gap is just bigger than in any other sport," says NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "Local broadcast revenues are insignificant in football, and the enormous network broadcast revenues are equally shared. In baseball, if you're in New York, not only the straight broadcast revenues but the cable possibilities are so much larger than for a team like Milwaukee or Kansas City."
Although the debate over competitive imbalance appears one-sided, the Players Association remains an important dissenting voice. "This is just a new way for baseball owners to claim poverty," asserts Marvin Miller, the former head of the union. "They always find a way. In good times and bad, it doesn't matter, they're always complaining about something. The fact is that, while I don't consider the state of competitive balance in baseball to be perfect, it is so much better than it's ever been that it's absurd to be talking about this terrible problem.
"In the period since free agency -- before these last three years when the Yankees won two of three World Series -- you had more contenders from so-called small markets than you ever did before. I used to read one columnist after another telling me, 'Well, the owners say and it looks like it's true that the big-market teams are just absolutely going to dominate this game.' I would look and say, 'When the devil was the last time a New York team won, a Chicago team won, a Los Angeles team won? What are you talking about?'"
Miller is correct: Since the 1960s -- and accelerating after the advent of free agency in the mid-'70s -- baseball has moved consistently toward greater competitive balance, breaking the stranglehold that a handful of clubs had on baseball pennants in the '40s and '50s. "The complaint that today's imbalance is this terrible problem is insulting," says Miller. "It indicates that the people who are saying this think they're talking to people who can't read or who have no memory or who don't have access to the record books."
But James, who is notoriously cautious about drawing conclusions without a sufficiently large statistical sample, disagrees: "I believe we are heading toward a very serious problem of competitive imbalance. The standard deviation of winning percentage in baseball has gone down every decade in this century -- it's always gotten more and more and more competitive -- and that is still true in the 1990s. But sometimes you can see where you're headed before you get there, and I have no doubt that this is in danger of becoming an extremely serious problem."
Adding further legitimacy to the assertion are the opinions of sports economists such as Zimbalist and Mark S. Rosentraub, frequent critics of Major League Baseball's owners and their cries of impoverishment. Rosentraub, author of Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It, declares unequivocally, "We have a disastrous situation in terms of revenue imbalance. The hard data are there; the point is well sustained. I've talked about it extensively; Andy Zimbalist has talked about it extensively."
Costas dismisses the union's objections:
"The Players Association right now is in a position somewhat similar to where the owners have been over the last two or three decades," he says, "which is saying things that any reasonably intelligent person knows are preposterous simply because it's in their interest to put that point of view out there. What they're saying now is, 'Well, more teams won with free agency and under a wide-open economic system than used to.' That's true, but very clearly there's been a significant sea change in the last five or six years. And it's not coincidental.
"I've heard the Players Association guys say things like, 'You know what? What about in the supposed golden age of sports in the 1950s? The Dodgers won almost every year in the National League, and the Yankees won virtually every year in the American League.' Yeah, but no one who was a fan of the Chicago White Sox thought that the Yankees won because the White Sox had no chance to win. If you're a Red Sox or Cubs fan, you may think that the baseball gods have conspired against you, but no one thought that their team was out of it by virtue of the system itself. They may have been doomed by stupidity or circumstance or other teams' having once-in-a-generation players, but that's way different from what prevails now."
This systemic problem -- the revenue disparity between clubs -- is a big stone that creates ever-widening ripples when dropped in the talent pool available to clubs. Most fans readily recognize that having less money to spend means fewer signings of the high-salaried major-league free agents, veteran players free to negotiate with any club. Less apparent is the effect at the other end of what Cardinals president Mark Lamping calls the "player pipeline": "The worst-case scenario is to have a small number of teams having a competitive advantage at both ends of the player pipeline," says Lamping. "Some could argue that's what we have right now. There's only a few teams that can afford the premier free agents at the major-league level, and there's only a few teams that have the ability to pay the signing bonuses and the guaranteed contracts necessary to sign free agents coming into professional baseball."
More and more, the highest picks in the amateur-free-agent draft -- which was intended to help enhance talent distribution by eliminating the ability of wealthy clubs to corner the market by offering lucrative signing bonuses to the best prospects -- are commanding major-league salaries. Two years ago, for example, when the Phillies were unwilling to meet the demands of J.D. Drew, the Cardinal rookie outfielder, he held out, playing for an unaffiliated minor-league club, and re-entered the draft the next year. The Cards picked Drew fifth and took the risk of signing him to a big-money contract.
"Why has the free-agent draft gone the way it has?" Herzog asks in exasperation. "Why are people who haven't played or pitched an inning of professional baseball getting the kind of money they do? That's something that hasn't even been addressed. Let's take Drew. Drew got $7 million. Next year somebody's going to get $9 or $10 million. Before they ever play. You've got very few guys that can come from college and play. They've still gotta play in the minor leagues, and some of them never make it."
"A draft is a crapshoot in any sport," says Costas. "We know it's more of a crapshoot in baseball. If you look at the first 10 players selected in a baseball draft over the last 10 years as against the first 10 players in a football or basketball draft, I think a smaller percentage of the baseball players pan out as real starters because it's just less reliable. You're going to think twice about laying out millions of dollars for a first-round draft choice. Some teams that don't have financial means are going to back away, like Whitey is saying, and take the most prudent and economical route."
The system is similarly weighted in favor of the high-revenue clubs on the international level, where players are not subject to the draft. "Forty percent of the players in professional baseball are from outside the country," notes Sandy Alderson, vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball (MLB). "That means 40 percent of the players are not subject to the draft, which means that if you have money and are prepared to take a risk, you have access to players that other clubs do not. If you're spending a million dollars and that represents 1 percent of your revenues, you're willing to take a slightly different risk than if it represents 5 percent of your revenues.
"There are only a few ways that you can acquire players," summarizes Alderson: the amateur draft, international signings, trades, major-league free agency and six-year minor-league free agency. "The big-revenue clubs have an advantage at every one of those entry points. The good players fall to the big clubs in the draft because players are demanding higher and higher signing bonuses. The big clubs dominate the international amateur-talent market. The big clubs are able to make trades for players who are approaching free agency or making so much money in salary arbitration that a smaller club can't afford to hold onto that player. And they also have an advantage, of course, in the free-agent market: They have the money to spend. The only place where a smaller club has an advantage is in this six-year minor-league free-agent market. Why? Because the currency there is not money; the currency is opportunity, playing time. And that's something that the smaller clubs are able to offer because their better players are constantly migrating to the bigger-market clubs."
Access to money -- not good scouting, not baseball smarts -- is increasingly the sole determinant in building a quality club. "The ways in which the teams that couldn't overspend for free agents in the past used to be able to remain competitive, even those means are drying up," says Costas.
"Part of the difficult-to-explain-but-we-all-understood-it-as-kids appeal of baseball was the idea that a combination of guile, resourcefulness and luck could lead any team to win. There's a big difference between making a shrewd trade and just piling the biggest pile of cash in front of (LA Dodgers pitcher) Kevin Brown. Some combination of farm system, key free-agent acquisition, good trades -- that feels like real team building instead of just like acquiring more toys."
So what results if the big kids -- the Yankees' George Steinbrenner and the Braves' Ted Turner and the Dodgers' Rupert Murdoch -- won't share those toys? Most obviously, it reduces the drama of pennant races and diminishes or out-and-out eliminates interest in the cities whose clubs cannot contend. "We're going to have opening day this year," says Herzog, "and we already got 18 teams with no chance of winning out of 30. Maybe two or three more could get lucky, with the divisions set up the way they are -- they could get in the playoffs or be a wild card, but I doubt that. You got 18 teams that can't win."
And some teams, in Costas' estimation, have explicitly foregone the notion that they're in the business of winning pennants. "It has occurred to several teams over the last two to three years," says Costas, "that if you have to spend a minimum of $45 million-$50 million to even have a chance to compete, and if our payroll is at $32 million but that's about as far as we can push it, why not spend $20 million? Why not roll back to $25 million or $20 million, and give away Beanie Babies, and make sure that the grass looks nice at the ballpark, and make sure the ushers are polite, and hope to get people in for that reason? Just sell the baseball experience and don't try to kid anybody about trying to be competitive."
Herzog offers an example: "Say you lived in Minnesota and they announced, 'We're going to have a $10 million payroll, and if we draw a million people, we can break even.' Is that the way you're supposed to run a professional sports team? Weren't you supposed to say, 'We're going to try to win'?"
Without the lure of a pennant race, fans might still turn out in respectable numbers to watch a bonafide star like a McGwire, a Barry Bonds or a Ken Griffey Jr. But for small-market teams, such players are becoming harder and harder to retain. "We've reached a situation now where no matter how much a player makes," Herzog says, "that player, if he's not on a team that has a chance to win, is going to leave that team. A lot of those teams don't have superstars anymore because they've already left, and some of them have retired. You don't have (George) Brett in Kansas City, so why do they want to come out and buy a ticket? You don't have (Kirby) Puckett in Minnesota, so why do they want to buy a ticket? You don't have any of them left in Montreal -- as soon as they're eligible for arbitration, they've got to trade them -- so why do those people want to buy baseball tickets?"
"Just think about it," Costas laments. "You think of a team like the Oakland A's right now. You can imagine them being competitive, but it's very hard to imagine them being a true contender under this system anytime in the next 10 years. And yet, less than 10 years ago, they were the best team in baseball for a stretch of three or four years. That just can't be done now. And their fans and teams of fans like them know it.
"This is one of the things that (Commissioner Bud) Selig is right about: that you sell faith and you sell hope. The idea isn't even so much how many pennants did you win over the last 10 years; it's how often when the season began did we think we had a chance, because that's what the appeal and the illusion is."
Herzog and others who recognize the problems he identifies have some proposals to restore hope, to give every team that chance of which Costas speaks.
As a means of redistributing talent, Herzog looks to the past for future direction. "I think what we have to do is we've got to go in reverse," he says. "We have to implement some rules that used to work." To bring the cost of amateur free agents and international signings back to affordable levels, or at least limit the number of quality players a big-money team could hoard, Herzog wants to reinstitute baseball's old bonus rules: If a player is paid more than a specified sum to sign, the team would be required to carry him on its major-league roster for the year. "Put the bonus rules back into baseball," Herzog insists. "You give a guy over $500,000 -- if that was the figure -- he has to stay on your 25-man roster for two years. Now how many can you sign like that?"
Although Costas, Alderson and Lamping all see some value in the bonus-rule notion -- James thinks it's irrelevant -- the proposal is essentially doodling in the margins. Rather than experiment with bonus rules, some would prefer simply to expand the draft to include foreign-born talent. "Bringing international players into the same system, which ensures there can be an equal dispersion of talent at the beginning of the pipeline, would be a great step forward," Lamping says. Alderson agrees: "I think that's a must. If some of these big-revenue teams only have one draft pick, just like some of the smaller-revenue teams, then what's really valuable is the pick itself, where they have to make choices among players. Now, it's just a question of, 'Gee, if I can get five or six of these guys, it doesn't bother me to spend $10 or $15 million on those players.'"
Alderson also finds merit in economist Zimbalist's proposal to weight the draft in favor of low-revenue teams. "I think that is a realistic prospect," he says. By giving smaller-market clubs more early draft picks, he notes, "you take the pressure off them to sign all those draft picks and maybe even give them the opportunity to trade those draft picks to bigger-market clubs who are now effectively shut out of the top number of selections and would have to trade already established talent to get access to those players." Lamping is less enthusiastic about the plan's ultimate benefit: "That sounds like a sump pump on the deck of a leaking ship," he says. "It certainly will help, but it does nothing to address the real fundamental problem, because we've got a hole in the hull."
How, then, do you patch the hole in the hull -- the disparity in revenue? Simply generating additional money won't solve the problem, in Herzog's estimation. "Revenue's not the answer," he says, "because there's no end to the escalation in the players' salaries. When they got the new TV contract and the TV money went from $11 million to $16 million (per team), hell, within two years that extra $5 million was gone." Similarly, the potential extra funds generated by new stadiums, which have been embraced as a panacea in many cities, serve only as stopgap measures, not long-term cures. "Will the Brewers and the Pirates be better off with new ballparks?" speculates Costas. "Yes, they will, but only by degree. It doesn't change the fundamental problem. Even if you increase the ability of Pittsburgh to pay somebody $6 million instead of $4 million, they still can't pay Kevin Brown $15 million, and the next Kevin Brown goes to $20 million. Once you've built your new ballpark, how much more blood can you get from that stone? Let's put a decal on every player's uniform, and each team will get an additional million dollars out of that. That's another fix for a junkie."
Still, if baseball doesn't require a bigger pie, it desperately needs a more equitable means of slicing it. "Even the worst complainants in Major League Baseball no longer claim that the revenue stream over all is inadequate," says Miller. "Even Bud Selig, who is not the brightest man in the world, can write as he did a week or two ago that if the problem does get worse, the solution is more revenue sharing -- on a real wholesale basis -- than the very small start of revenue sharing that we've got." Rosentraub agrees: "The question simply becomes at this point, 'How do you share revenues?' Baseball currently shares 39 percent of revenue. If you say that football has a better model -- and it clearly does -- should it come closer to the 80 percent rule that football has, which does equalize the playing field quite a bit more?"
What's essentially required is a way of redistributing the local-TV money that accounts for the major difference in clubs' revenue. "Twenty-five years ago," James notes, "these were marginal revenues, little tiny stuff, and no one really thought through the implications of how they would be sold. So they made an agreement in which the teams, in addition to their main sources of revenue, could also sell off their broadcast rights in their local markets. It's the same thing that starts wars: People make agreements without thinking through the implications of the agreement."
Having created the problem through its lack of foresight, baseball now seems equally blind to its solution. "The answer to this is so obvious that it's unbelievable that people have to talk about it," James says. "When two baseball teams play a baseball game, it is natural and normal that they would both expect to share equally in the broadcast rights of that game. That's what you would expect to have happen. Thus the natural rule is that, whatever rights you get from broadcast in any form, 50 percent go to the league and then are split by the league among all the teams in the league. If they would just do that, the problem doesn't entirely go away -- the Yankees still have a huge advantage over the Minnesota Twins, but it becomes a 3-to-1 advantage rather than a 10-to-1 advantage."
Sharing TV revenues, however, is not the entire answer, in the view of many, because owners are so profligate in their spending, helping escalate salaries at a rapid clip. Herzog offers an example: "When the last strike occurred, (Chicago White Sox owner Jerry) Reinsdorf was the guy who was telling them all, 'Don't do this' -- he was for the strike -- and soon as the strike's over he goes ahead and signs Albert Belle for $10.5 million a year. Now, the highest-paid ballplayer up till that time was Bonds at about $7.5 million. So he skipped $8 million; he skipped $9 million. He went to $10.5 million. Now, five years later, we're already up at $15 million. There's just no end to it."
The problem is further compounded by deep-pocketed owners who can continue to spend freely even if they're compelled to share a portion of their substantial revenues. This is especially troublesome in the case of clubs owned by media corporations. Because they regard their baseball holdings, at least in part, as software -- programming -- they're potentially much more willing to overspend to ensure a winner, which boosts both ratings and the price of commercial airtime.
"You know," says Herzog, "if I were in the Western Division of the National League, and Rupert Murdoch comes in and he's going to be in my division and he offers $310 million to our good friend Peter O'Malley for the Dodgers, before you let him in, you gotta say to him, 'Well, are you going to share your pay-TV revenue with us? Are you going to share your cable-TV revenue? Otherwise, we're going to vote against you, because we know you're going to blow us out of the tub.' He's already doing that. I'm not saying the Dodgers are a shoo-in to win, but he's already given Kevin Brown $105 million (over seven years); he's already got his payroll up to $85 million. If they don't get in the World Series this year, his payroll will be over $100 million, because he's going to keep spending money on ballplayers because he doesn't care what his salary structure is. Basically, he wants the Dodgers to be the best team in baseball, and he doesn't care about the other clubs."
Not everyone agrees with Herzog: Lamping -- seconded by economist Zimbalist -- questions the notion that corporate-owned clubs such as the Dodgers, Braves and Cubs will inevitably behave irresponsibly. "If you have a publicly held company that owns a team, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to not slash shareholder value," says Lamping. "I think you have to be careful that people don't overreact just because a large company happens to buy a team. Yes, it might present some risks, but at the same time -- it's going to sound strange -- it could bring more discipline."
"Discipline" is the key word: Many in baseball would like to enforce it with a salary cap.
"We have to be looking at a number of things," says MLB's Alderson. "Start at the top, and that would be some sort of luxury tax, possibly a salary cap. The key is to slow people down. I don't know that you're ever going to stop the growth of payrolls -- I don't think that's necessarily the goal. But creating disincentives even for someone at the top end like the Dodgers is, I think, conceivable."
"This will never work without some kind of salary cap," Costas asserts. "This is where the Players Association has never been publicly challenged in a thoughtful way. All they do is make these proclamations about how America is based on a free market. Wait a minute -- the notion that a league is the same as other business is nonsense, total nonsense. Does General Motors trade its chief executive to some other automobile company? And yet these guys, the Players Association, agree to conditions that allow a league to be a league. The idea that all members of a league are like separate businesses is ridiculous. In a league, the competitors must simultaneously be partners. And it's not just for their own benefit -- it's for the benefit of all the players in the league. Because in a team sport, outside the context of a league with its ongoing structure and its history, the performances of the players have no meaning. When the big markets and the Players Association recognize that -- and recognize there's no heresy in some sort of modifications of a free market so that you can have a viable, competitive league -- that's when this thing can get straightened out."
Costas also points out that a salary-cap system could even prove beneficial to many in the Players Association. "In any system that I would approve," he explains, "you would have not only salary caps, you would have salary minimums. A team would be required to at minimum pay $40 million. If you capped it, let's say, at $60 million -- I'm making these figures up, the figures are obviously negotiable -- you would also want a rule that says the least the team could spend is $40 million. That would benefit a majority of the players. All you'd be asking is that people who are potentially as rich as sultans -- the top superstars -- be content to be only as rich as emperors."
The distance between identifying a solution and implementing it, of course, is often as vast as the gulf separating MLB's haves and have-nots.
The Players Association, for example, looks with skepticism and disfavor on owner proposals to limit salaries through a cap. "It has no logic," Miller flatly asserts. "The problem is not the salaries. That's an absurd kind of concept. Whatever limitation you're talking about -- whether it's a salary cap, whether it's an absolute ceiling on the percentage of revenue that can go to salaries -- these are all provisions which separate competitors cannot, repeat cannot, cooperate with each other on under the antitrust laws unless there is a union there and they get the union to agree. So what they're trying to do is to get the union to agree to provisions which would result in a salary structure lower than if the union disappeared. That's illogical -- unless you've got a company union, like you do in basketball or football. Then anything's possible." Miller even speculates that in agreeing to such limitations, "the union would be violating its mandate under the law."
Miller can be forgiven his umbrage: Since the union's inception, baseball's owners have pleaded poverty without ever opening their books and have endeavored -- with absolutely no success -- to break the Players Association or bend it to their will. Despite continual cries of impoverishment, owners over the years have failed to offer any evidence of real loss.
"Not once," emphasizes Miller. "Not once. You know, when I first began, we were dealing with salaries that were a pittance compared to what we have now, yet every time I would talk to reporters, I would get this business: 'You know, don't you, that two-thirds of the teams are losing money?' This was when the average salary was $19,000 a year. I was new to baseball at that time, and I would say, 'What evidence do you have of that?' And they would say, 'Well, I talked to this guy ...' 'What guy?' 'Well, he's a scout in Davenport, Iowa.' 'He's a scout, and he told you that? I'm told' -- and this was true at the time -- 'that not even the commissioner of baseball gets reports from those companies, that they won't tell him, and you're going to write a story about the poverty of baseball based on what a scout told you?' That kind of nonsense continues to this day. People who have never seen a financial report of a ballclub, and if they did they would not understand how to analyze it -- I'm not denigrating them, it's a technical job -- still will write a report that says X number of clubs are losing money, this percentage of clubs can't make it, etc., and it's based on nothing except allegations."
Because of this deep-seated -- and entirely warranted -- distrust, Rosentraub says, "The gap in confidence between the owners and the players is probably the largest in baseball of all the sports, given a much longer history, a much more bitter history in labor relations than exists in the other three sports. You can go back in history to the 1870s and find players and owners fighting over players' getting too much money. So this problem is still festering. This is a hurdle to any resolution to the issues we're talking about."
Rosentraub points out that if MLB is going to institute a system of talent and revenue sharing, the Players Association -- according to their basic agreement -- has to approve the plan, but the owners traditionally have excluded the Players Association from the decision-making table unless absolutely compelled. As Herzog says, "The owners go into a meeting, and they come out and they have a press conference, and they tell them all the things they're going to do. They haven't discussed it with the union. If I was Donald Fehr (current head of the Players Association) and the owners would do that to me, I'd be mad, too."
But as supportive as Herzog is of the union's inclusion in discussions of baseball's future, and as thankful as he is for the benefits it's won over the years, he believes compromise is now in order. "I'm sitting here talking to you," admits Herzog, "and I'm very happy. I'm retired; I get as much pension from baseball as Iacocca gets from the Chrysler Corp. Never in my days when I was a player did I ever dream that I'd get anything like that. I can't knock it -- the union's done a heck of a job -- but they've got to start looking at some other things."
Costas echoes those sentiments: "Historically, I've always been a players guy," he says. "I think Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame. I think that these guys have been intellectually and morally correct over almost the whole course of the battle. The Players Association, if you go back to the days of Curt Flood, these guys were fighting for what was morally right. They were fighting for dignity, fighting not to be exploited, fighting for a fair share. Now you would think that to these guys as a group the only principle that matters is the ability to make the largest sum of money possible."
Making "the largest sum of money possible" is equally a problem on the other side of the table: The lucrative big-market clubs want to maximize their revenue and see no compelling reason to share. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, for example, appears unlikely to accede willingly to revenue sharing, as his statement in a USA Today season-opening feature makes clear: "There's disparity in the world and in this country. There's disparity between General Motors and some little company. You can't say, 'Well, let's all share everything equal,' or else we should be over in Russia. And it didn't work over there."
Alderson admits that the major-revenue teams have yet to acknowledge the need for change; they're more likely to adopt a ruthlessly Darwinian approach that calls for only the strong to survive. "I'm not saying they don't recognize some problem," says Alderson, "but I don't think those teams see the problem as being as threatening as Kansas City or Montreal would see the problem. In some respects, they would say, 'Look, we don't even need those teams. There's nothing magic about 30 teams. We could just as easily have 28 or 26 or 24, whatever's good for scheduling. We don't need 30.' So I don't think there's a sort of universal appraisal of the problem."
"The big markets are clearly in the minority right now," observes ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer, "and people say to me, 'Why can't the small markets just gang up on the big markets and basically force them to have some sort of revenue sharing?' I suspect the answer is that it would be litigated for years and years and years. The Steinbrenners and the Murdochs would take it to court and nothing would ever happen. Essentially there is no good economic reason for the big-market clubs to submit to revenue sharing, because they don't think long-term. They're not thinking 15 or 20 years out, because that's just not the way businesses work."
Motivating baseball -- owners and players -- to think in the long term is ultimately necessary, of course, but what in the short term will spur change? Self-interest, which causes many of the problems, may also factor into the solution.
From a player's perspective, says Alderson, these trends will eventually take their toll. "I don't think it's a good idea to see a trend where a team like Minnesota takes its payroll from $35 to $25 million or Kansas City does the same thing," he says. "I don't think that's the kind of distribution of resources that even the union would like to see."
"Competitive balance," amplifies Costas, "is a working condition in the same way as padding on the outfield walls, charter planes instead of commercial flights, not playing 22 straight days without approval of the Players Association, how many times a guy can be optioned -- all those things. Competitive balance is an important working condition. Why in the world do I want to be in a league and do I want to be part of a union where we're not only sanctioning but encouraging conditions under which two-thirds of us are consigned to teams that have not a lesser chance but no chance to compete? That's just crazy!"
Similarly, if franchises begin to fold, jobs are lost: "What happens if Montreal collapses?" Herzog asks. "What happens if Kansas City throws in the towel? All of a sudden you've got 50 ballplayers looking for jobs. Maybe that will have to happen to wake everybody up. I hope it doesn't come to that, but we're on that road right now." A baseball club going under, of course, remains entirely within the realm of the hypothetical. In the past, underperforming franchises have simply relocated, and it's possible that some of the current small markets will eventually be abandoned. Miller doubts a team collapse is imminent or even likely: "You can never say never," he admits. "While anything is possible, the odds are very high against this. I give you one evidence: The price of franchises when they change hands in baseball, or when each new expansion-franchise price is set, is always, always higher than before. Every time somebody comes into this game, they're willing to do so by paying a premium. Now, if that's a sign of collapse in the future, then I don't know what I'm talking about."
But the days of ever-escalating franchise values may well be over. "When you look at how long it's taken to effect a sale of the Kansas City Royals," Costas says, "you realize that part of the incentive for selling teams even in the recent past has now been removed. In the past it always was true that 'Hey, they're complaining that they're losing money, but when the team goes up for sale, there's no shortage of buyers and usually they make a profit on the equity.' But I don't know that that holds true indefinitely."
If the value of certain franchises is indeed declining -- a contention that Zimbalist also makes -- eventually their shaky status could begin to erode the value of the wealthier members of the league. Miller says that only when this point is reached will revenue sharing become a reality. "If you began to have clubs that just couldn't compete," he says, "you'd begin to face bankruptcy and disruption of all kinds, and you'd begin to find that the 'have' clubs' revenue stream would begin to dry up as well. Now, that being so, when this is a real problem instead of a make-believe problem, it would be up to the have clubs in their own self-interest to be pushing a reasonable revenue-sharing proposal that would meet these problems."
Not everyone, however, wants to sit bleeding in the ER waiting room until the big-market clubs begin to suffer; they're interested in alleviating their own immediate pain. "I was watching ESPN last night," Herzog says, "and the owner from Pittsburgh was on, and he said something that I never thought of. He said that if the haves don't agree to some kind of revenue sharing, then the have-nots are going to start moving their ballclubs close to the haves and cut in on their TV revenues."
That notion may not be viable -- the lack of venues and MLB rules would serve as serious impediments -- but Bill James says a variation of the basic concept isn't without merit: "What happens," he asks, "if the Minnesota Twins say, 'OK, you don't want to share the money -- we ain't comin', we're not playing'? Suppose the small-market teams have a meeting among themselves and say, 'OK, we've had it, if we don't get half the TV money, we're not going to New York, we're not going to Los Angeles.' There are three things that can happen. One is that the large-market teams cave and agree to share the money. The second is the small-market teams cave in and struggle along, which will eventually lead to some of them going bankrupt. And the third is that they split: You get two competing major leagues. Not American League and National League, but two genuinely competing leagues which hate each other, one consisting largely of the small-market teams and the other of the big-market teams."
James believes such a small-market league would get along handily. "I'm sure it would," he says. "It might not be as strong a league as the other league, but college basketball is not as strong as the NBA, the teams aren't as strong, but nonetheless it's absolutely commercially viable. Thinking of it from the other end, would I as a Kansas City Royals fan be more likely to go watch a Royals game if the Royals are in a superior league that they have no chance whatsoever of winning, or if they're in a major league that maybe is not of the same quality but they have a fair chance to compete in? Obviously I'd rather be in the smaller league because they have a fairer chance to win. What the hell's the point of being in a league you can't win?"
Rosentraub is also a proponent of aggressive action, but he believes that host cities, not just the small-market teams themselves, should attempt to force MLB into a revenue-sharing plan. "It's going to take cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh to basically say, 'We want to build stadiums, but we're not going to do it until you guys move on this issue,'" says Rosentraub. He's particularly keen on seeing St. Louis step up to the plate because of its unique status. "The St. Louis community has the highest per capita attendance of any baseball market in this country," says Rosentraub. "Hands down, baseball has to concede that this community has supported baseball more lavishly than any community in this country. You're the poster child for this issue, and if you let it go, then I don't know where it gets resolved."
Rosentraub outlined his plan in some detail in an op-ed piece in the April 11 Post-Dispatch. In broad strokes, he says, "They should declare their intention to build a new stadium in full partnership with the leagues, the Players Association and the owners. If baseball will not as part of that partnership come forward with a revenue- and player-sharing program, then St. Louis city and county will ask the Missouri delegation, the Minnesota delegation and the Pennsylvania delegation to hold hearings on the status of baseball and ask for congressional action."
Herzog wants to stimulate debate on the game's problems with You're Missin' a Great Game, and no doubt he's encouraged that others such as Rosentraub are grappling with them, but he remains pessimistic about the eventual result. "You can say a lot of things that should be done," he notes. "It's almost like Ross Perot at election time. He's got all the answers, and some of the things he says are very true, but if he became president he couldn't implement them.
"Right now we have no trust in baseball. The owners don't trust each other, the owners don't trust the union, the union doesn't trust the owners and the fans are in the middle: They can't trust either one of them. That's a problem."
James is no less dismayed: "I don't see how you can be too optimistic," he says, "because there's no process for resolving these problems. No one has the power to decide what ought to be done and implement it. Everything has to be negotiated among 16 power centers -- you've got the big-market owners, the small-market owners, the players' union, the umpires' union, the TV networks. There are very obvious solutions to almost all of baseball's problems, but there's no mechanism to implement any of those obvious solutions. If you can't solve your obvious problems, how optimistic can you be, realistically? I don't think baseball will reach the point where it begins to solve its obvious problems until it has a real crisis, something worse than '94.
"Baseball today is like a bus with everybody steering," James concludes. "When you come to a corner, you vote: Do we want to turn left here, do we want to turn right, do we want to speed up? And everybody has to agree before you do anything. Sooner or later, you crash."
But not everyone is depressed about baseball's future, and it's perhaps a sunny portent that Miller and Alderson -- representatives of labor and management -- are upbeat. Miller is pleased that the commissioner is promoting more widespread revenue sharing: "Now, I am mindful of the fact that Mr. Selig is not just the commissioner but also the owner of a small-market team (the Milwaukee Brewers)," says Miller, "so his self-interest is fairly obvious. Nevertheless, it's encouraging that he's peddling that kind of thing rather than the nonsense that baseball's going down the drain." Alderson also sees positive signs: "I'm actually optimistic because I think we've gotten to the point now where the fans understand what's most important: Can my team win or not win? This has become an argument over competition and not over money, and I think that, explained in those terms, most people believe something needs to be done."
Costas puts the situation even more basically: "Everyone has to take a step back," he claims, "and say, 'Look, what is the basic principle in any sport?' If we were in the schoolyard -- if you and I are playing a schoolyard game -- what's the objective? To make the sides as even as possible so that the game is fair and interesting. If I get to take the best player, then I also have to take the youngest and littlest player. Now, pro sports can't and shouldn't work exactly that way, but that principle has got to be acknowledged.
"When it is, then everybody -- owners and players -- can help to craft a system in which the players are still going to be fabulously wealthy but the money is going to be distributed a little more equitably among the players and every team will have a reasonable chance to contend."
"It takes two teams to play," Herzog concludes, reducing the problem to its fundamentals. "That's the thing.