The Slate Gist

Major League Baseball

Sportswriters perennially complain that Major League Baseball’s greedy owners are corrupting the game. The owners gripe that players are destroying it from within by demanding too much money. Recent developments have escalated the doomsaying. MLB’s top executive proposed two weeks ago that the century-old distinction between the National League and American League be erased, and that the teams in the leagues realign. Last week, the Atlanta Braves superstar pitcher Greg Maddux accepted a five-year contract worth $57.5 million, the biggest ever. Is MLB in decline or, as some claim, in the midst of a golden era? How are the economics of baseball changing? Are fans tuning out the televised game? How is the game itself changing? And is the current crop of players as good as those who played in the halcyon days of the ‘30s, ‘50s, and ‘60s?

Baseball hasn’t reigned as the “national pastime” for decades. It was displaced long ago by a combination of other leisure activities, including TV, computer games, and the more telegenic games of basketball and football. Although attendance was damaged by the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995, attendance is now approaching pre-strike levels. Overall attendance is strong: MLB attracted 60 million fans in 1996 with 28 teams, compared to 24.3 million fans in the golden year of 1967, when there were only 20 teams.

The perception of declining fan interest causes owners to tinker with baseball traditions from time to time, mostly in the hopes of attracting more fans. In 1969, each league was cleaved into two divisions, creating four ticket-selling pennant races instead of just two. Division winners were pitted against one another in post-season play, with the victors advancing to the World Series. In 1973, the American League added the designated hitter, a player who bats in place of the pitcher but does not play in the field. The DH increased scoring, which pleases fans. In 1995, each league was further divided into three divisions, creating six pennant races, and post-season play was expanded to involve eight clubs, as two “wild card” teams joined the pennant winners in the playoffs. This year, MLB instituted interleague play, scheduling National League and American League teams against one another in regular-season contests for the first time. Of course, pandering to fans is in the baseball tradition. Examples: night games, fireworks displays, giveaways, ladies’ nights, mascots, etc.

Soaring attendance for interleague games prompted MLB’s top executive, Bud Selig, to propose the realignment of the two leagues. Under his plan, baseball’s six divisions would be reduced to four divisions in two different leagues. The teams would be grouped geographically, with 15 teams switching leagues. Proponents of realignment argue that it exploits natural regional rivalries and decreases travel time for players. Opponents complain that it upends tradition. Owners will likely vote on the plan in September. One negative ballot will be enough to veto it.

MLB hasn’t promoted itself as successfully as pro football and pro basketball (it collects about half as much from the sale of hats, shirts, and other paraphernalia as does either the NBA or NFL), but baseball has aggressively expanded into new markets. In 1960, MLB had 16 teams. With the addition of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays next year, the count will reach 30. The game has also gone global, with teams aggressively recruiting stars from reliable talent pools south of the border (Sandy and Roberto Alomar) and, more recently, in Asia (Hideo Nomo).

Baseball has always been about money, but even more so since the 1975 repeal of the “reserve clause.” The reserve clause bound players to teams (or the teams they were traded to) for life. Today, players can shop their talents to the highest bidder one year after their contract expires. Salaries have escalated since the repeal of the reserve clause. In 1975, the average player made $35,000. In 1989, he earned $512,000. This year, the average player salary is $1.37 million.

MLB owners blame their red ink (an estimated total of $185 million last year) on big payrolls. MLB’s wealthiest team, the world-champion New York Yankees, spent $66 million on payroll in 1996. The Montreal Expos spent the least, $19 million. But high-priced free agent salaries don’t necessarily correlate to competitiveness. Drawing on their excellent minor-league affiliates for cheap new talent, the Expos finished second in the National League East last year.

Even so, big-market teams like the Orioles, Braves, and Yankees stay in contention by purchasing free agents, so two years ago MLB assuaged complaints about the rich/poor gap with a moderate revenue-sharing scheme. Wealthy teams like the Yankees pay a “tax” on every payroll dollar above $51 million. The tax is distributed to teams who spend less, usually teams in smaller markets like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Last year, the Yankees paid around $6 million in revenue sharing.

The NFL and NBA decreased the disparities between large- and small-market teams with salary caps that limit player salaries. MLB has no salary cap, and attempts to impose one sparked the 1994-1995 strike by the players union, resulting in the first cancellation of a World Series in 90 years. In 1995, the owners retreated from the salary-cap issue, eventually signing a contract that expires in 2000.

Like its football cousin, baseball depends heavily on television money. But MLB complains that it’s not getting enough. The NFL’s current four-year contract for national TV broadcasts pays it about $2.5 billion, while MLB’s contract over a similar period earns about $1 billion. But the comparison isn’t relevant because MLB teams also sell nonnational games to local broadcasters and cable channels, pocketing millions more. (The Yankees have a 12-year, $486-million cable deal.) Once again, it’s the teams playing in small markets that suffer, because they can’t command an audience big enough to attract big TV contracts.

Because baseball is an entertainment industry, media conglomerates have purchased teams, potentially complicating future TV-rights negotiations. Time-Warner obtained the Atlanta Braves this year when it bought Turner Broadcasting Inc., Walt Disney Co. holds an interest in the Anaheim Angels, and the Tribune Corp. owns the Chicago Cubs. And Rupert Murdoch (of Fox TV) recently bid an estimated $350 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers and their stadium. Because it is in the interest of the media moguls to pay as little as possible for broadcast rights, some critics worry that small-market teams will get the shaft when the media-mogul owners use their inside-the-clubhouse influence to drive down the size of national-TV contracts.

Although owners complain about annual losses, there is no shortage of bidders willing to pay record sums for existing teams or new franchises. One reason for the high value of MLB teams is the prospect of new, publicly financed ballparks. Owners in Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, and Texas have all reaped major profits from these new facilities, built at little or no cost to the teams. (New parks are scheduled for Detroit, Seattle, and Phoenix.) The most lucrative amenity at the new parks are the sky boxes, luxury suites rented to corporations at exorbitant prices. Also filling team coffers are fancy food courts and merchandise concession areas. Team owners have also boosted ticket prices at the new parks, charging about 35 percent more than they did at the old parks.

W hile it’s true that expansion temporarily diluted the talent pool, the DH artificially increased offense, and players have gained the economic upper hand, there is a widespread consensus that the quality of the game itself is as good as or better than ever. Improvements in hitting have been matched by craftier pitching (by such hurlers as Atlanta’s Greg Maddux and Baltimore’s Mike Mussina). The rise in the number of home runs (a record of 4,962 last year) has been paralleled by increased strikeouts in every year of this decade. The exorbitant salaries have inspired modern players to train year-round, building strength and stamina with their new regimens.

Baseball is certainly more competitive today than it was in the dynasty decades of the New York Yankees. Many small-market teams (Oakland, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Seattle) and expansion teams have cobbled together contenders in the ‘90s to do battle with the dynastic clubs from the big markets. Only the Atlanta Braves have had consistent success in this decade, making them the first team since the New York Yankees of 1960-1964 to appear in four out of five consecutive World Series. Other teams have gone from world champions to cellar-dwellers within five years.