Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

Does Baseball Have a Problem; Yankees/Red Sox vs. Milwaukee

This year’s flurry of activity, with teams filling open spots in their lineups irrespective of the cost and others dumping high priced productive players because of budgetary concerns, once again raises serious questions concerning baseball’s present structure. By way of example, looking at the Yankee/Red Sox operation and comparing it to the Brewers problems may be enlightening, although nothing said here is going to come as a great surprise to any devoted follower of the game. Milwaukee was in trouble a few years ago, with dwindling attendance and a club which had difficulty competing. To solve their problem they needed to find a way to increase their low payroll. A new ballpark was determined to be the answer. Other clubs had reached the same conclusion. However, unlike the singular San Francisco effort, but in accord with the experience of other teams which were playing in new parks, the Brewers wanted someone to build it for them, namely,tax payers. In 2001 this was accomplished and Miller Park was opened.

It did not take long, however, for disillusion to set in. After an initial surge, attendance began dwindling. The team still wasn’t winning. Losing teams are not a great attraction. It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain payroll even at it’s relatively low level. It may still be an open question whether the Brewers’ problems were the result of inefficient management, as many contend. It may be that Milwaukee is simply not a good baseball town. It may be a combination of the two, and determining which has the major responsibility is not an easy call.

One thing, however, is certain. This is a franchise in trouble. The team has proposed to reduce it’s payroll from 40 million dollars to thirty million. They traded their one outstanding player,Sexson, to assist in accomplishing this. They will not be better next year than they were in 2003. Attendance will continue to dwindle. Problems will continue to mount.

Fans, tax payers and legislators are justifiably angry which may add to the fans reluctance to come to the ballpark. The team had agreed to increase payroll if a park was built for them. Apparently, this was not done to a significant extent. As a result, the team has agreed to allow a task force of chief executives of major Milwaukee companies to examine the finances of the team going back ten years. It will shortly issue a report respecting it’s findings. The likelihood is that it will conclude the Brewers cannot afford a payroll higher than 30 million dollars, as the team insists. Baseball’s ownership will then have some tough decisions to grapple with. A 30 million dollar payroll and a not very smart management is not a pleasant prospect. Owning one team is enough of a headache.

The Brewers may not be the only team with what appears to be similar problems. Major League baseball is the owner of the Montreal team as a result of that team’s past attendance problems. It only takes a slightly discerning eye to come up with a few others which appear to be financially non-competitive, with the result that they can no longer compete on the playing field. The reason for the apparent financial non-competitiveness, however,may be not so obvious.

It is probably only doing what is self-evident to examine what has been going on with the Yankees/Red Sox this past month. These are two clubs which clearly do not care how much it costs to enable them to field a team certain to play post-season, with a very good chance of going all the way.

The Red Sox are considering the possibility of trading Ramirez for A-Rod. They would then look around for someplace to dump Garciaparra, possibly to the Dodgers for Kevin Brown. They would then be an odds-on favorite to win the American League East. Adding Brown, if healthy, to their present staff, along with A-Rod, would be enough to give Steinbrenner nightmares.

Boston would have to assume the still monstrous remainder of Alex Rodriguez’ salary. That doesn’t seem to bother them. However, Boston would like Texas to assume part of Ramirez’ contract and Texas appears reluctant to do that. The Sox feel they are doing enough by picking up A-Rod’s remaining 7 years. We are talking big, big money here.

How many teams, other than the Yankees and Sox can even begin to think in such money terms?

The Yankees have already committed themselves to Sheffield. They will pay whatever it takes to keep Vasquez on the team , having in mind he becomes a free agent after 2004.

Whether the Yankees or the Red Sox deserve the appellation of Evil Empire is up for grabs. Perhaps they have an equal right.

When all of this is said and done, what does it add up to? The Yankees and the Red Sox will point to the Mets and Texas. These are two teams which have spent millions for playing talent and come up empty handed. The Evil Empires, they contend, are not evil. They are smart, understand the game and know how to run a franchise successfully. It might be added that they also play in a television area which produces more money than they can spend.

What does this mean for the game? The game’s interest, for the average fan, requires the team to have a reasonable chance at a playing field which, if not exactly level, gives a smart, well run franchise an opportunity to make a run at one of these well- heeled-
Evil Empires. After all, the Yankees didn’t look very good against the Marlins in October and Florida’s payroll wasn’t that much greater than the Brewers.

There can be optimism that the game will continue to be competitive despite the disparity in income. There is a reasonable hope that the franchises which don’t have as much money to spend will make it up in smarts.

There is a point though, where the money is so inadequate that all the smarts in the world cannot compensate for it’s lack. Montreal was such an example. It was, and still is, not a baseball town. But Montreal is not the same as Pittsburgh, for instance. The Pirates need to field a decent club. The fans have come out in the past and they would again.

It is true that it is tough going against the Steinbrenners but it can be done. That is reason for optimism.


1 glenpark { 12.05.03 at 9:47 pm }

Ed, great points on the disparity among franchises. I would like to offer to you a consideration that the disparity is actually in the business modeling, ambitions, and motivations of the ownership groups much more than in the inherent nature of the individual markets.

Seattle was at one time as low as Milwaukee is now. Presently Seattle is an exemplary operation. SF was in dire straits, actually headed to Tampa in a casket shortly after a WS appearance, and now SF is leading MLB in attendance with the mega KNBR machine airing them 24 hours across the entire Western states. Both Seattle and SF have new ownership which understood the value of superstars and made the efforts to sign them and keep them. Both want to excel, on the field and in the marketplace. Both are loyal to their home base. Both are committed, thoroughly. And their fans love them because of that committment.

Philadelphia was a perenial loser until recently, but is about to enter a sold out season in a new park with what looks like a sure fire division winner. Pittsburgh has no such corporate identity or goals. Cleveland was an awful excuse for a franchise until the Jacobs experience put them at the top before 3 + million every year.

The point is, rather than look at cities and class them as non MLB communities, I think it is more accurate to look at the ownership groups themselves — and grade them the same way players are graded. If you swap the Kansas City ownership with Detroit’s I believe the baseball product and fan base would also follow suit. If you swapped the Marlins ownership for Pittsburgh’s likewise results, in my opinion.

Bud Selig is a poor excuse for an owner — his conspiracies with Pohlad during the contraction efforts were basically felonious. His handling of the Miami-Montreal-Boston exchange has a furious Montreal group in court against MLB, and this is a primary reason why the Expos are struggling so much at home. Granted, the dollar exhange and the depressed Quebec economy is not helping, but people in Montreal are furious with Selig, for basically stealing their franchise, so it can be auctioned off . A tragedy, because the Expos’ baseball product is, and always has been, just wonderful.

We all are familiar with statistical analyses of players –what if we measured ownership groups by their performance, by their committments to winning, by their drive to be champions, by their pride in ownership, by their long term ambition to building the net worth of their assets, on the field and in the bank accounts? It is easy to bash Steinbrenner, but it is clear the man despises losing baseball games — and it is clear the man is loyal to his players and to his fan base — isn’t that why his local media rights are worth twice that of the complacent, defeatist, embarrassing Mets organization? Why exactly can Boston afford to compete at this high level? because the New England population senses the goal to win and supports a highly profitable regional media rights package and steep ticket prices in an antiquated stadium.

Conversely, how can Cincinnatti be viewed as a non MLB city when under different, committed ownership, the Big Red Machine was the class of all baseball for many years?

When a player looks at strike three with the bases loaded in the 9th inning of a deciding playoff game, we seem to remember that forever — maybe its time we look at those owners who are striking out on their communities. And maybe this is the reason beautiful new parks like those in Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cincinnatti are standing empty before the paint is even dry.

2 Ed { 12.06.03 at 5:14 pm }

I believe you are absolutely correct when you lay the blame on ownership. As you point out, the Yankees and the Mets are playing to the same fan base. One team is highly successful, the other throws good money after bad. We love to pick on Steinbrenner but that is basically because he is a winner. No point picking on a loser. Ownership makes the difference and the examples you gave made the point. The one place where I think a strong ownership may still have had problems is Montreal. They have had more than their share of atractive young players over the years and have been forced to sell them off because the club couldn’t draw. The Montreal culture may be more addicted to hockey than baseball. Bud Selig was a disaster as an owner. He didn’t do his daughter any favors when he turned the club over to her.

3 Anonymous { 09.22.07 at 1:14 pm }

4 Anonymous { 09.22.07 at 1:51 pm }

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