Sports Nut

The End of New York’s Gilded Age

Gotham’s teams can’t help spending themselves into oblivion.

The New York Rangers’ acquisition of Eric Lindros is big, dumb, and, for everyone outside of the Big Apple, a special treat. It confirms the appealing notion that the rich can always be relied on to spend money in stupid ways. More than that, it fits neatly into a trend that should delight sports fans all across the country. By virtue of their self-destructive, dot-comlike spending habits and their obsession with name-brand players, New York’s teams are unintentionally correcting the problem that a lot of us feared might ruin professional sports: the Hegemony of the Big Market.

A few years ago, everyone thought that the big market teams would lock up all the plum free agents—and the New York teams, rooted in the biggest of the big markets, would be the prime beneficiaries. In MLB and the NHL, the leagues that don’t limit player salaries, the New York clubs could simply offer the best free agents the most money. In the NBA and NFL, where paychecks are constricted by the salary cap, New York teams could offer exposure and endorsement contracts you couldn’t get in, say, Salt Lake City and Jacksonville.

At least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. The New York clubs spent big money, all right, but to the salvation of the Oaklands, Clevelands, and New Orleanses they’ve established a nice track record of spending it on the wrong players. They became addicted to big-name, high-priced free agents, and in pursuit of them, they have all but forsaken the concept of player development. They never realized that New York’s big draws—the fame and big dollars—would elevate the superstars and the mediocrities, forcing them to pay through the nose for both. It has led to a kind of desperate cycle for which the only answer seems to be, “Sign more free agents.”

The sorriest New York outfit of them all is the Rangers. After watching Jaromir Jagr slip away to the Washington Capitals, Rangers management felt compelled to pull off a blockbuster deal to save face. Why the urgency? Last season, the Rangers spent more than any other team and, despite a system in which nearly two-thirds of the NHL qualifies for the postseason, somehow managed to miss the playoffs. Enter Lindros, a once-great player who now gives new and vivid meaning to the term “damaged goods.” The former Flyers star has sustained several injuries over the years, including six concussions, and he hasn’t even stepped on the ice in more than a year. It’s possible he may recover and become an effective player, but it’s not possible that he’ll single-handedly pull the aged and overpaid Rangers out of their five-year tailspin. Yet the Rangers gave up their best prospect (Pavel Brendl) for him, and then rewarded him with a whopping four-year, $37 million contract.

The situation with many of the other New York teams is less dire, but weirdly similar. The Knicks started the summer by signing Allan Houston to a six-year, $100.4 million deal, the maximum allowable under the league’s salary arrangement. Houston’s top dollar stats: 18.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. (The Knicks’ thinking must be that if they pay Houston the wage of an NBA superstar, he’ll start playing like one.) And even when the team looks like it’s on the verge of doing something right, it once again falls prey to Big Market Syndrome. Last week, the Knicks hoodwinked the Houston Rockets into taking Glen Rice, himself a broken-down, overpriced acquisition from the season before. They even received two serviceable players, Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley, in return. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Anderson and Eisley arrive with their own outsized contracts that make Houston’s pact look like a bargain. (At least he’s a starter.) Meanwhile, small-market teams like Sacramento and Toronto are free to spend their salary cap money on actual superstars like Chris Webber and Vince Carter, who by virtue of the league’s salary agreement will receive almost identical contracts to Houston’s.

Likewise, NFL teams in markets small and large ought to feel good about the money the Giants lavished on pretty-boy cornerback Jason Sehorn this offseason. Sehorn is the most overhyped football player on the planet. Even the pass-averse Baltimore Ravens felt emboldened to go after the Giants’ cornerback in the Super Bowl, and they burned him bad. But because Sehorn was once an elite player (before tearing his ACL three seasons ago) and plays in New York, the Giants gave him a six-year, $36 million deal, plus a $10 million signing bonus. Because of the NFL’s salary rules, the bonus will count against the Giants’ salary cap even if they release or trade him.

Even the Yankees, winners of three straight World Series, fall prey to Big Market Syndrome. They just compensate for it by sheer volume. With a hefty local TV contract, the Yanks can purchase so many players—through trades, free agency, or just resigning their own free agents—that they’re never far away from their next World Series. For every Roger Clemens and Bernie Williams, there’s a David Justice, a Denny Neagle, and a Kenny Rogers. But if the Yanks recent acquisitions, which have tended toward the latter, are any indication, there’s a glimmer of hope for Steinbrenner-haters on the horizon. For starters, The Boss has started blowing major-league money on minor-leaguers, such as former University of Michigan quarterback Drew Henson (now slumping in Columbus) and Cuban refugee Andy Morales, who received a $4.5 million deal but was cut loose after he couldn’t solve Double A pitching.

This season’s veteran acquisitions really take the bacon. The famously unstable Mark Wohlers may have come relatively cheap, but given how he’s pitched, he isn’t cheap enough. And how about the Yankees’ last, desperate move before the trading deadline, the acquisition of dead-armed Sterling Hitchcock from the Padres (2-2 with a 7.52 ERA since joining the team)? Now, the Yankees are talking about trading for Mets third baseman Robin Ventura. Ventura, in his day, was a fine player, but his average since June has sunk so far below the Mendoza Line that it’s almost slanderous to invoke poor Mario’s name here. But he’ll almost certainly drag his aching body through one more season, since the Yankees or Mets will owe him a staggering $8.25 million next year.

The reason that the Yankees go for the likes of Ventura and Hitchcock is that, just like Lindros, Houston, and Sehorn, they are established players, known entities. They save their franchises from the terror of a youth movement, which has become unimaginable in New York. In the biggest of the big markets, you have to pretend that you’re never more than a season away from winning it all. That’s a fiction you can’t sustain with a roster full of rookies and no-names. Contrary to popular opinion, failure is tolerated in New York, but only if you’re aiming impossibly high. And spending as much as you possibly can.