Time to find money players
KEVIN BAXTER , mailto:email@example.com
H ere's a story about New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner you probably haven't heard.
After Game 4 of the World Series, which the Marlins won on Alex Gonzalez's 12th-inning home run, a disappointed Steinbrenner, trailed by a couple of other team owners and Major League Baseball security officials, crowded into a second-floor elevator at Pro Player Stadium. The elevator operator, recognizing Steinbrenner, broke into a chant of "Let's go, Marlins!" But instead of an angry glare, Steinbrenner responded with a laugh and told her he liked her style.
When the elevator finished its one-floor run, Steinbrenner peeled off $200 and handed it to the stunned woman, saying "Thanks for the ride."
We mention that because baseball is about to enter its free agent signing period, when owners are supposed to suspend rational thought and hand out lots of money for no apparent reason. Judging from the free agents available, from Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejeda to Bartolo Colon and Javy Lopez, the amount of money thrown around this winter could be staggering.
Don't count on it, though. Spending on free agents dropped precipitously last winter, inspired in part by a dearth of talent. Although this year's crop is one of the best and deepest in years, few teams appear ready to open their checkbooks as widely as in years past. And that could lead to another acrimonious feud with the players' union.
Of the 11 highest-payrolled teams, only the Yankees and Chicago Cubs have promised to be active in the free agent bidding. But they will be chasing different targets. The Cubs are looking to add a catcher, leadoff hitter and perhaps some bullpen help, while the Yankees' priority is starting pitchers.
The New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers, free spenders in the past, say they plan to reduce salaries, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose $115.7 million payroll was second only to the Yankees this past season, are awaiting the approval of a new owner and aren't likely to spend wildly, either.
With fewer clubs willing to spend, there's little incentive for teams to bid against themselves to drive up salaries -- and that, says the union, smacks of collusion.
The union has been working with agents for nearly a year to gather information from negotiating sessions that, together with ownership documents the union has obtained, has convinced the leadership that clubs have worked in concert to hold down salaries offered to free agents. And when the bar on free agents comes down, so do the salaries offered to nontendered arbitration-eligible players.
Even though the average player's salary rose 7.2 percent to $2,555,476 last year -- behind the NBA ($4.54 million) but ahead of the NHL ($1.64 million) and the NFL ($1.25 million) -- the number of players making $1 million went from 425 in 2000 to 413 in 2002 to 385 in 2003.
What's more, the median salary dropped to $800,000, nearly 20 percent lower than three years ago.
Although it's naive to believe owners aren't talking among themselves, suspecting collusion and proving it are two different things. This is why the union appears split on whether it should file a formal grievance against the owners and risk fracturing the game's fragile labor peace or simply threaten to do so in an effort to scare owners into toeing the line.
Last winter, teams blamed a sluggish economy and a weak free agent class for holding down salaries -- excuses that won't apply this year.
A more likely explanation is higher salaries no longer equate with success. The Yankees set payroll records every year, but they haven't won a World Series since 2000.
The team that beat them this fall, the Marlins, have what general manager Larry Beinfest calls a "reasonable payroll" of $51 million, while Oakland and Minnesota, who rank in the bottom half in salary, have won consecutive division titles.
The union has reason to fear the example of those successes, says author Michael Lewis, whose best-selling book Moneyball examines baseball finances.
"If all 30 guys who run baseball teams all went through a kind of corporate re-education where they all sat in a room and got drilled into them a lesson in sound financial mangement and rational arguments of what you pay people to play baseball and how you value baseball players. And they all went out with this new enlightened understanding of how to run their affairs, I think it would break the back of the union," Lewis said.
"Then all of a sudden you wouldn't have these huge bidding wars for players who weren't worth what they were about to get paid. "It is collusion. But the way I put it is an extreme way of putting what will probably happen anyway. The dumber guys get washed out of the game and the smart new people come in to run the teams, and eventually you do get a more rational structure."
A rational salary structure in baseball? Stranger things have happened. Let's hope elevator operators don't wind up feeling the pinch.
Updated on Sunday, Nov 2, 2003 8:34 am EST