Sports Nut

A Piece of the Pennant

Baseball is more competitive than ever. So why are we pretending it’s not?

Photograph of Detroit Tigers pitcher Todd Jones
Major League Baseball throws up its hands

The Detroit Tigers have three games to go in their season, and unless they drop them all, they won’t out-lose the reigning champs of futility, the 1962 New York Mets. So the Tigers probably won’t have the distinction of being called the worst team in two centuries; they’ll just have to settle for being the worst team so far in this century—go, Tigers! Predictably, Detroit is being used to bolster the argument that baseball needs more revenue sharing and spending restrictions. But in fact, and contrary to both the commissioner’s office and most of the baseball press, Major League Baseball has become more competitively balanced over the past 100 years, not less.

In 1901, for instance, in two eight-team leagues, two teams finished with a won-lost percentage over .600 (the Pittsburgh Pirates topped the major leagues at .647), and five teams finished under .400. In 1909, five teams finished over .600 (the Honus Wagner-led Pirates, fielding one of the great teams of all time, finished at .724), while four teams finished under .400 (the lowly Washington Senators were the worst at .276, 10 points better than this year’s Tigers).

In 1927, with the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees leading the way at .714, three big league teams finished above .600 and three finished below .400. Same thing in 1936, three teams above .600 (paced by the Gehrig-DiMaggio-Dickey Yankees at .702) and three teams below .400. The gap between best and worst continued to narrow throughout the century, till by 1968, just one team, the Detroit Tigers, finished above .600 (at .636) and not a single team finished below .400—and that was out of 20 major league teams.

There was one blip on the screen: In 1977, six teams finished above .600 and five finished below .400, but then baseball’s equilibrium had been shaken up by both expansion (there were 26 teams) and free agency. For the next two seasons, there were just two teams finishing above .600 and two below .400. In 2000, with an all-time high of 30 teams, for the first time in the game’s history not one team finished above .600 or below .400. And with a straight face, in November of 2001, Commissioner Bud Selig went in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and said, “An increasing number of our clubs have become unable to successfully compete for their respective division championships. … [A]t the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half of our 30 clubs.”

The illusion of the lack of competitive balance became the owners’ dominant theme in the months that led up to the near-strike of 2002. The sports press, taking its cues from Selig, began sounding the refrain, and as anyone who reads the sports pages of the New York Times or Daily News can attest, it hasn’t dropped it yet. Selig’s argument, of course, was that the competitive-balance problem would be solved with some kind of mechanism that held down players’ salaries. The inference has always been that “big-market” teams hold a distinct and unfair advantage.

By large-market teams, Selig apparently meant only teams that spend a lot of money, not teams that make a lot of money. He couldn’t have meant the New York Mets (who, after cutting their payroll drastically at midseason, will fit under the $117 million threshold), or Philadelphia Phillies (potentially the biggest-market team in baseball, as they play in either the third- or fourth-largest population concentration in the United States but don’t share the territory with another team), the Chicago Cubs or White Sox (who, between them, haven’t won a World Series in more than 160 seasons), the Angels (who have won just one World Series in their first 42 seasons and aren’t going to win one this year), or even the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Detroit Tigers play in a fairly substantial market, not as big as the Chicago White Sox (although Chicagoland is shared with the Cubs) but certainly bigger than the markets of the other three teams—Minnesota, Kansas City, and Cleveland—in their division who are ahead of them in the standings. The Dodgers play in the second-biggest market in the country (though, if you want to assume that there are large numbers of Dodger fans both north and south of Los Angeles, you might consider it as the biggest potential market). Which is the biggest disgrace, that the Tigers are wrapping up one of the four or five worst seasons ever or that the Dodgers are 13 1/2 games behind the San Francisco Giants, not merely a small-market team but one that has to share its fan base with the Oakland A’s? Wouldn’t it be a reasonable assumption that the problems of both the Tigers and the Dodgers have something to do with mismanagement of available resources?

The competitive-balance problem, which never existed in the first place, was the reason that we very nearly had a ruinous strike forced on us last year. It’s the reason most commonly offered for baseball’s current ills, real or imagined. Is there anything at all to the charge of baseball’s lack of competitive balance? Well, once again the Evil Empire in the Bronx has the best record in the American League, but is there anyone who has followed the Yankees since the All-Star break who thinks they’re a shoo-in when the playoffs begin? And since when did the second-place Red Sox, whose owner can buy and sell George Steinbrenner, qualify as a small-market team?

Anyway, yes, it’s clear that the Yankees and Red Sox have a decided edge over Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. In the AL Central, the White Sox clearly play in the biggest market, but given that Chicago hasn’t won an AL pennant in more than four decades, is that such a crime? In the AL West, it’s back to business as usual after last year’s Angels’ aberration: The two smallest-market teams, Oakland and Seattle, are trouncing the two biggest-market teams, Anaheim and Texas. In the NL East, as almost always, the Atlanta Braves—in the unique situation of being a small-market team that produces large revenue—are on top. Montreal, the smallest-market team, is fourth, 15 1/2 games ahead of the biggest-market team, the Mets. Until last night, Florida and Philadelphia battling for the wild-card spot. In the NL Central, Houston (midmarket) and the Cubs (a big-market team with a small-market complex) left St. Louis (midmarket) in the dust. We’ve already talked about the NL West.

Why then does the media continue to regurgitate MLB’s propaganda about the lack of competitive balance? For all Selig’s whining about how most teams enter spring training without a chance to win, the simple fact is that from 1981 through last season, Major League Baseball has had 30 different teams in the postseason to the NFL’s 31; the NFL has had 19 different teams playing in the Super Bowl to baseball’s 21 playing in the World Series. This is in spite of the fact that for most of this period the NFL has had 12 playoff spots to baseball’s eight, and that baseball throws one fewer season into the comparison, not having had a postseason in 1994. And in the period of Yankee dominance, from 1996 through last season? Nine different teams have played in the World Series, while 10 different teams have played in the Super Bowl.

The relentless hammering of baseball from both the press and the commissioner’s office for lack of competitive balance might make sense if baseball was any less competitive than it has ever been, or if it was less competitive than other major sports, particularly professional football, which is usually held up as the model baseball should aspire to. Well, last season the Detroit Tigers were 55-106 for a won-lost percentage of .342 while the Detroit Lions were 3-13 for a won-lost percentage of .188. This year’s Tigers, horrible as they are, are still playing about 70 points better than last year’s Lions. The NFL has complete revenue sharing and a strict salary cap, all the things MLB is trying to force on its teams and players. If the Lions are that lousy this season, maybe Commissioner Paul Tagliabue should consider petitioning Congress for deregulation.