Earlier this decade, it seemed like Major League Baseball, having survived a number of work stoppages, had finally reached its goal of parity. The Florida Marlins won a World Series in 2003, and other mid-market teams (Colorado in 2007 and Tampa Bay 2009) won pennants. When the New York Yankees saw their championship-less streak extend through the new millennium, capped off last season when they failed to qualify for the post-season, it appeared the goal had been achieved.
No longer did money guarantee titles. Now, well-run, moderately financed clubs could compete with franchises with far greater resources. This year, however, has seen a step backward. In the first week of September, four of the six division leaders - the Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and the Los Angeles Dodgers - have the biggest payrolls in their divisions. In the wild-card chase, the Boston Red Sox, fifth overall in spending, were leading the way in the American League. Only the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets were out of play-off running among the biggest spenders. Money talks. And more often than not, it can win you ball games.
Undoubtedly the downturn in the American economy played a role. Well-run teams with budgetary limits like Milwaukee and Minnesota had to make do with less. And deep-pocket franchises could take advantage of a market that offered players for less. Lifting smaller franchises - and thus, creating a competitive balance - was a central goal to the last collective bargaining agreement. But the fear now is that the fix was temporary. Not only are the big-market teams leading their divisional races, but they were also at the forefront of deadline trade activity. The Red Sox got Victor Martinez prior to the non-waiver deadline, then added shortstop Alex Gonzalez and reliever Billy Wagner after July 31.
The Dodgers could afford to take on Jim Thome's remaining salary and the Angels made a deal for Scott Kazmir, who has more than US$20 million (Dh73m) remaining in salary obligation. The return of the big market-small market schism is sure to bring back calls for a salary cap when the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011 season. Already, some owners are using the developments of this season as the rationale for instituting some sort of drag on salaries.
Two teams stand as prime examples for why a cap might be necessary. The Cleveland Indians reached Game 7 of the 2007 championship series, but have since spiralled out of contention. A combination of poor performance and the economic slump in Ohio have dealt a twin blow to the Indians' fortunes, forcing them to sell off Martinez and, in a separate deal, pitcher Cliff Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Tampa Bay are another example. After exceeding expectations by reaching the World Series, the Rays are likely to finish third in their division, without having had much of a bump in ticket sales following their dream season of 2008. If the Rays, who have drafted smartly, cannot generate year-after-year success, then it may be hopeless for other teams. Then again, some teams are the victim of perennial mismanagement. The Pittsburgh Pirates have had 17 consecutive losing seasons, but have no one but themselves to blame. Ditto the Baltimore Orioles, who have the resources - but evidently, not the acumen - to build a winner.
The more prudent view would be to consider this season something of an aberration. But if the trend continues in 2010 and beyond, it may be time to revisit some methods to fix the game's competitive imbalance once and for all. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org