Along with “pitching is 75 percent of the game” and “It ain’t over till it’s over,” “What’s wrong with baseball is the Yankees” has now become one of baseball’s primary axioms. You hear it every morning and every night, blared at you by some WFAN announcer. In Baltimore – a town that was regarded as a “big market” city until its ace, Mike Mussina, decided he wanted to pitch for a winner – fans now greet the Yankees with shouts of “Satan’s team!” And at the last Subway Series, even some Mets fans (whose team would seem to have access to the same resources as the Yankees) were yelling, “Go buy another championship, George!”
Die-hard Mets fans notwithstanding, New York’s love affair with the Yankees has never been more passionate. The Yankees’$2 2002 season is shaping up as one of the most exciting in team history, with game after game decided by wildly improbable late-inning heroics, and attendance at Yankee Stadium is pushing toward 3.6 million.
But instead of reveling in the team’s success, the local sports media treat each new victory as a harbinger of doom. Pick up a Daily News, and Mike Lupica is preaching that “baseball is dying because there is too much cable-television money for teams like the Yankees and not enough money everywhere else.” After the Yankees swept Tampa Bay in the season’s first home stand, the headline for Murray Chass’s column in the Times read NY GOLIATHS TOO RICH FOR TAMPA BAY DAVIDS. (Apparently someone there forgot who won the biblical encounter.) On July 2, the Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians, 10–5; the next day’s headline read FREE SPENDERS CLOBBER COST-CUTTERS, conveniently negating the fact that only a few years ago, it was the Indians who were signing superstars to long-term contracts while the Yankees were castigated for failing to keep up.
But Yankee dominance is not what’s hurting baseball. In fact, having the Yankees on top has traditionally been good for baseball. Long before cable TV and debates about revenue disparity, the Yankees ruled. For 44 years, from 1921 to 1964, the Yankees were the biggest winners in American sports and the most hated team in baseball, winning twenty championships – nearly one every two seasons – and baseball thrived. After the Yankees faded in ‘65, “baseball went into its deepest slump since the Depression,” says Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “In 1976, baseball came back in a big way, largely because of the coming of free agency and the return of the Yankees as winners.”
The other accusation, that the Yankees simply “buy” championships, not only runs contrary to fact but belittles an amazing run of clutch performances, the best of which might have been Derek Jeter’s astonishing on-the-run backhand relay to home that helped the Yankees beat Oakland in last year’s divisional series. Since 1996, the Yankees have won seven postseason series against teams that had better records. Unlike the Ruth-Gehrig ‘27 Yankees or the DiMaggio-led ‘36–’39 champs or the ‘61 Mantle-Maris team (of whom it was said by Red Smith, “Rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel”), recent Yankees champions have been no more dominant than numerous other contenders. Except for 1998, no recent Yankees team even had the best record in baseball. The 2000 team went into the playoffs with only the ninth-best record in the Major Leagues.
Critics are right about one thing, though. The Yankees do have the biggest payroll in baseball. But the players were given big contracts after they produced championships. They weren’t paid to win; they were paid for winning. Despite the acquisition of the occasional superstar – Jason Giambi is the first superstar slugger the Yankees have signed since Dave Winfield more than two decades ago – the recent Yankees dynasty has been carefully constructed the old-fashioned way: around homegrown talent like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and, most recently, Alfonso Soriano, not to mention shrewd deals for aging players like Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and Robin Ventura, whom other teams were eager to part with.
The Yankees are baseball’s newest bête noire. They are at the center of an increasingly bitter war between the owners, led by commissioner Bud Selig, and the Players Association. A strike is increasingly likely, and the issues are the same as in every work stoppage since the players won the right to free agency in 1976: The owners say they fear that the richest teams will destroy “competitive balance,” while the players regard this as a ploy to lower salaries. Under the current plan, teams spending beyond an established payroll are obliged to pay 20 percent of their overage to a pool that’s distributed among so-called smaller-market teams. The Players Association contends that the system has worked fine, doling out $674 million to poorer teams over the past six years. Selig says that this is not enough, and more revenue sharing is needed in the form of a larger luxury tax – say, 50 percent.
The players balk at this figure, and according to Marvin Miller, they are completely justified in doing so. “George Steinbrenner is willing to pay the tax at 20 percent to acquire Jason Giambi,” says Miller, “because he figures that Giambi will sell enough tickets and merchandise to more than cover the tax. But if Steinbrenner had to pay a 50 percent tax on top of Giambi’s salary, he probably wouldn’t sign him at all, and there would be no new revenue to contribute to the pool for the poorer teams. The purpose of a 50 percent tax, then, would not be to raise more revenue for sharing, but to simply hold down players’ salaries.” And whatever sins Steinbrenner has been accused of, holding down salaries isn’t one of them.
The rulers of baseball have been crying poverty since the beginning of the game. Selig’s recent P.R. campaign is the most elaborate yet, but his claim of imminent financial disaster isn’t corroborated by independent studies by Forbes magazine or the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). In fact, when Selig was forced to open baseball’s books before Congress last year, it turned out that his own team, the Milwaukee Brewers, had not lost money as claimed but, largely because of revenue sharing, had turned a profit of more than $16 million. What angers the players is that teams like the Brewers have pocketed the windfall instead of reinvesting in the team.
Of course, no one doubts that some teams lose money. Some teams always lose money. The Philadelphia Phillies are a financial disaster, with just one World Series victory to show for the entire twentieth century, despite nearly 50 years as the only team in baseball’s fourth-biggest market. Clearly the Phillies’ biggest problem is mismanagement, but there are other teams in smaller markets that legitimately suffer from a comparative lack of revenue.
“No one can deny that baseball makes enough money,” says SABR’s Doug Pappas. “Last year, Major League Baseball’s revenues topped $3.5 billion, with nearly $2 billion going to players’ salaries. Clearly that $1.5 billion isn’t distributed fairly. The problem is that small-market owners see this as a reason to go to war against the players when they ought to be going to war against the large-market owners.”
In other words, blame the Yankees. “Let’s be careful we don’t kill the golden goose,” says Yankees announcer John Sterling. “Has anyone noticed how much money the Yankees are already spreading throughout the league?” Sterling has a point. The Yankees are far and away baseball’s biggest road attraction, bringing in an average of more than 7,000 extra paying customers per game to other Major League ballparks. In six interleague games with the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres, the Yankees were estimated to have sold nearly 150,000 extra tickets and pulled in perhaps $6 million in extra revenues for their hosts. That money, combined with the money the team pays out as its share of the league’s “luxury tax,” makes the Yankees the biggest revenue distributor in baseball.
The owners don’t want to share more of their wealth, or tamper with the arcane, anti-trust-exempt structure of their business in any serious way. Not if they can just squeeze the players. Meanwhile, as the Yankees wait to see how the millions of dollars they already generate will be distributed throughout the rest of baseball, the team finds itself on a strange road to nowhere, playing hard to win in a no-win situation. If they don’t win it all, they go down as the most overpaid and overrated team in baseball history. And if they do win, in the eyes of many fans and of their own hometown media, they drive a nail into the coffin of baseball.