Monday, November 05, 2007

Baseball is unfair

I'm having a hard time coping with the Indians' playoff loss to the Boston Red Sox.

I understand that you can't win them all, and I don't want to minimize the Indians' achievement. I'm very pleased they won a tough division and destroyed the Yankees in four games in the first round of the playoffs.

But it's tough to take a 3-1 lead in a best of seven series and then lose. It's even tougher to lose when your team has almost overcome a rigged, unfair system and has fallen just short.

Think I'm exaggerating when I complain that Major League Baseball is rigged? Consider a few facts.

The New York Yankees have the highest payroll in baseball, followed by the Boston Red Sox.

The 2007 playoff teams were the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians and Angels.

The 2006 teams were the Yankees, Tigers, Twins and Athletics.

In 2005, it was the Yankees, Red Sox and two others. In 2004, the Yankees, Red Sox and two others. In 2003, the Yankees, Red Sox and two others.

Do you sense a pattern here?

It sounds to me that George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees, can go out a buy a playoff berth every year, much like I go to the supermarket every few weeks to buy a bag of onions.

It's almost as much of a lock for Boston. In most years, you can reserve two playoff spots for the two richest teams.

It's worth looking at actual payroll numbers, just to see how unfair the system is.

The American League has 14 teams. The Yankees, rounding off the payroll to the nearest million, had a payroll of $190 million. The Red Sox got by with $143 million. The Cleveland Indians' payroll was $62 million, less than 1/3 of the Yankees.

When the seventh and deciding game of the Indians-Red Sox series was played, the Sox sent Daisuke Matsuzaka to the mound.

The Red Sox paid about $51 million in 2006 just for the right to talk to Matsuzaka, the best pitcher in Japan. (Notice that's about 80 percent of the entire Indians payroll). The six-year contract for the plutocrat pitcher cost another $52 million.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays' payroll in 2007 was $24 million.

Does anyone believe Tampa Bay will make the playoffs next year?

How would you like to be the marketing guy in charge of selling Tampa Bay Devil Ray season tickets?

You have to wonder what the direct mail appeals say.

"Join our team in the American League East cellar in 2008. Plenty of good seats remain available!"

It doesn't have to be this way. The National Football League has demonstrated that in a fair system, everyone benefits.

The NFL has a hard salary cap that ensures that no team can automatically buy a playoff berth every year. (Major League Baseball has a "soft," useless salary cap).

No manmade system is perfect, so smart NFL general managers can figure out creative ways to deal with the salary cap, but the gross inequities of baseball just don't exist in football. Even the fans of lousy NFL teams can hold out hope for a turnaround.

Since NFL team resources are nearly equal, bad teams can be fixed if they can find smart management and a good coach. The New Orleans Saints, once a national symbol of pigskin failure, made the playoffs last year. Even the sorry Cleveland Browns have a winning record as I write this.

Is it just a big coincidence that the NFL is the most popular sport in the country?

Yes, it's an exciting sport that looks great on television.

But some of the popularity must come from knowing that your NFL team has at least a chance to wind up in the Super Bowl, regardless of what city it represents.

NCAA football also has become more competitive, with teams I had never heard of before such as Boise State and South Florida suddenly becoming major powers.

Fairness in baseball would benefit nearly everyone.

Maybe the Boston Red Sox fans who crowd into the team's silly Arena Baseball stadium, the one with the tiny left field, wouldn't care for it. Maybe the arrogant New York Yankees fans who believe an annual World Series berth is their birthright wouldn't like it either.

But fans of most teams would like it just fine if their teams were treated fairly.

And baseball would benefit, too. A fan who believes his team has a chance to win it all is a fan who will buy tickets.

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