Some baseball owners call for salary cap
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Some baseball owners say it may be time to reconsider a salary cap after the New York Yankees spent nearly a half-billion dollars on free agents during a recession that may cause some teams to retrench.
"I would ask, if it's such a bad idea, what sport doesn't have a salary cap other than us?" Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said Wednesday.
A salary cap isn't on the agenda of the major league owners meetings this week. But it could become an issue when the present collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011 season -- especially if the economy worsens.
"I think there's a lot of owners that would like to have that right now," Oakland owner Lew Wolff said. "I think the parity is what we're looking for, and the more ways you can get to parity the better. I think it's pretty good now, but I think it could be better.
"It's a very good question, because maybe this recession, depression, whatever we're in may be a change for a lot more years," Wolff said.
The bleak economy was on the owners' minds as they gathered at an exclusive mountainside resort to begin two days of meetings. Owners compared notes on ticket sales and sponsorships and other indicators of the economy's squeeze and were set to consider proposals Thursday to eliminate the possibility of rain-shortened postseason games and to change the method of determining sites of tiebreaker games to head-to-head record rather than coin flips.
Wolff said the Athletics' ticket sales are down about 10 percent from a year ago. The Brewers lost Mercedes-Benz as a sponsor but added a presenting sponsorship agreement with Potawatomi Bingo Casino -- part of an expected double-digit percentage gain in sponsorship revenue.
The Chicago Cubs are for sale, but the economy hasn't cooled the ardor of the club's long-suffering fans. Chairman Crane Kenney said the waiting list for season tickets to Wrigley Field recently surged past 100,000. Kenney said the Cubs' recent playoff appearances have given fans hope that the team is poised to win its first World Series since 1908.
"I think our fans are starting to sense that the end (of the title drought) is coming, and they want to be there for the party," Kenney said. "We're in a real good spot. We don't take it for granted."
Some owners, especially those in low-revenue areas, say a cap would give smaller markets a fair shot at signing top talent.
"There's no question that, a market like Pittsburgh, a salary cap would be advantageous," Pirates owner Bob Nutting said.
The Yankees' offseason spending spree has sparked renewed talk of a cap, an issue owners haven't brought up in negotiations since the disastrous 1994-95 strike that wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years. But not all owners are critical of the Yankees' acquisition of pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and infielder Mark Teixeira.
"I have no problem with what they've done," Kenney said. "They've done it within the rules, within the confines of our agreement.
"And if you look at the reality there, they've got a $1.3 billion stadium coming online," Kenney said. "They were probably relying on Wall Street to fill a lot of those seats. And they missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. So their reaction is probably similar to what I would do, which is, you've got to put a compelling product on the field when you open the doors of that new ballpark, and that's what they did."
Wolff's team recently agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million year with Jason Giambi, who had bolted Oakland after the 2001 season to sign a $120 million, seven-year contract with the Yankees.
Asked if the Yankees' spending concerned him, Wolff replied, "I probably should say it does, but to me it doesn't because, frankly, the more visible they are -- they are baseball, traditionally. And they're not doing anything different than they've done traditionally for years.
"I think they benefit all of us more than they hurt us," Wolff said.
Indeed, New York's luxury tax payment -- $26,862,702 -- was just $141,000 shy of the Florida Marlins' entire 2008 payroll, which came to $27,003,450.
Attanasio said he wasn't bitter because the Yankees outbid Milwaukee for Sabathia, who joined the Brewers in midseason and helped pitched them into the playoffs.
"There's no sour grapes here," Attanasio said. "The Yankees are playing within the rules of the system. So you can't blame the team. You have to change the system."
Attanasio said a salary cap would make it easier for owners to control their payrolls.
"Obviously, by definition, if you have a salary cap you have some cost certainty because there are very clear parameters," Attanasio said. "So I think there are some merits to it."
One argument against a salary cap is the recent success of low-payroll clubs in the postseason.
Last fall, the Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series for the first time despite having the 28th-highest payroll -- $51 million, or about $171 million less than the Yankees. In 2007, the low-budget Colorado Rockies won the NL pennant. And the perennially pinched Marlins have won a World Series more recently than the Yankees.
It may take more than a salary cap to help Nutting's Pirates, who have had 16 consecutive losing seasons, tying the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies as the longest-running losers in major American professional team sports.
"You see opportunities, whether it was Tampa Bay, whether it was Colorado the year before, there certainly is a model that teams with lower payrolls, smaller markets have succeeded, can succeed, and that's where we need to focus our attention," Nutting said. "We need to find ways to succeed in the current economic environment, and we're not going to use the hope of a salary cap as a crutch or as an excuse."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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