Competitive Balance Better Than Ever

With the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players due to expire after the 2001 season, Major League Baseball has once again launched a bizarre public relations war against its own product.

Last November, Commissioner Bud Selig told Congress that the gap between Major League Baseball's best and worst clubs had grown so great that “at the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half of our 30 clubs.“

Just what you’d want to hear if you were trying to sell tickets for the Marlins or Royals, right? Only an organization as dysfunctional as MLB would instruct its most visible spokesman to proclaim, over and over, that fans in most of its markets are only fooling themselves to believe their teams have a chance to win.

But there’s a method behind this madness. The owners are preparing once again to demand a salary cap or punitive luxury tax, so they’re painting these measures as the last chance for small-market teams. Never mind that comments like Selig’s will only make matters worse for these clubs by discouraging their fans – for frustrated owners who have been repeatedly outnegotiated by the MLBPA, that’s a small price to pay.

Although lazy reporters quickly echoed Selig’s “competitive balance” lament, in fact the 2000 season featured the smallest top-to-bottom spread in major league history. No club won more than 60% of its games; no club lost more than 60% of its games.

Baseball looks even more balanced when compared to the other major sports. In the NBA and NFL, more than half of all teams fall outside this range – and the NBA and NFL salary caps haven’t stopped the Los Angeles Clippers and Cincinnati Bengals from plummeting to depths of sustained incompetence not seen in MLB since the early New York Mets.

In MLB, the “competitive balance“ lament always starts with the Yankees. But even though the Yankees won their fourth World Series in five years, they were an old, very beatable team. On their way to an 87-74 record (ninth best in the majors), the Yankees experienced their second straight double-digit decline in the Wins column, and nearly lost their first-round series to an Oakland team earning a third as much.

Moving beyond the Yankees, there’s no obvious link between payroll and performance. Three of the 10 highest-salaried clubs made the playoffs...but so did three of the 14 lowest-salaried clubs. Two of the “poor teams,” the Giants and White Sox, finished with the best records in their leagues, with the Giants and Athletics winning with their divisions' lowest payrolls.

Overall, the eight playoff clubs ranked first, third, sixth, 11th, 14th, 17th, 25th and 26th in Opening Day payroll. The six last-place clubs ranked ninth, tenth, 13th, 16th, 20th and 30th. Two of the six, Texas and Tampa Bay, spent more than the average postseason qualifier.

Conveniently ignoring these facts, Selig painted himself as a prophet by citing his 1994 testimony that “in many of our cities the 'competitive hope' that is the very essence of our game [is] being eroded.” He then identified nine markets -- Montreal, Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Florida, Kansas City, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati -- where “it is beyond debate that competitive imbalance is causing serious issues“ today.

But these can't be the same cities he was referring to in 1994. That year Tampa Bay didn't have a team; Florida was a second-year expansion club which had drawn over three million fans in its first season; Montreal had the majors' best record; Pittsburgh had won its division in three of the previous four years; and among them, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Toronto had won the past four World Series. Only Kansas City and Selig's own Milwaukee Brewers were mediocre in both eras.

Although the Brewers play in MLB's smallest market, that doesn't excuse their perennial ineptitude. Last year Milwaukee the Brewers spent more on players than the division-winning White Sox or Athletics. No salary cap or luxury tax can address the real “competitive balance” problem: front-office incompetence.

Copyright © 2001 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 2001 issue of Boston Baseball.

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