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Baseball a complete mess

Special to

Jan. 12
There is literary precedence for this perceived state of baseball, found in the first 100 pages of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." There is a historic precedence, as well, from Tammany Hall to Huey Long's Louisiana. There is baseball precedence, as the owner of the Yankees held the mortgage on Fenway Park as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold one player after another from Babe Ruth to Waite Hoyt to New York in order to finance Frazee's theatrical interests.

A bank once affiliated with the richest owner in the game (Carl Pohlad of the Twins, also the richest man in Minnesota) who wants to fold his Twins rather than let anyone else own them, loaned money to two other owners. One of the borrowers was the de facto commissioner (Bud Selig, at the time owner of the Brewers) and now is not only the commissioner but the crusader to buy and fold Pohlad's franchise. The other borrower, Jerry McMorris (owner of the Rockies), championed the concept of contraction.

In St. Louis, there is a report that Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, a Cincinnati native, secured a loan from a bank affiliated with Reds owner Carl Lindner. In Boston, the Attorney General and a large group of media members are alleging that Selig rigged the sale of the Red Sox to a group headed by Selig allies from Florida and San Diego, while the AG himself is a close friend and associate of the lawyer representing Charles Dolan, and part of the media slant is driven by a juicy war between the New York Times Corp. (which owns the Boston Globe) and the Boston Herald.

It's all in the money
Here are some figures on the salary gaps between players:

Top 10 percent
2002 commitments: $765 million (39%)
Total commitments: $3.074 billion (40.9%)

Top 20 percent
2002 commitments: $1.230 billion (62.7%)
Total commitments: $4.308 billion (57.4%)

Top 30 percent
2002 commitments: $1.549 billion (79%)
Total commitments: $5.223 billion (69.5%)

Bottom 30 percent
2002 commitments: $79 million (4%)
Total commitments: $414 million (5.5%)

Bottom 20 percent
2002 commitments: $37.7 million (1.9%)
Total commitments: $170 million (2.3%)

Bottom 10 percent
2002 commitments: $18.9 million (1.0%)
Total commitments: $66 million (0.9%)

  • 2002 players include all players signed as well as arbitration-eligible projections
  • Total commitments include all guaranteed contracts
  • Projected average salary is $2.8M
  • Projected median salary is $1.8M
  • In 2002, 4.3% of the players will earn $10+M, 21% of all commitments
  • 63% of players will make less than the average but account for 24% of the commitments
  • Meanwhile, the commissioner is trying to arrange the sale of the Marlins to Expos owner Jeffrey Loria so Florida owner John Henry can get the Red Sox, which means that Major League Baseball will have to own and operate the Expos (hold the Vladimir Guerrero-Elvis Pena trade jokes, for now). Of course, as of the weekend, there was no deal, because Loria was holding MLB to forcing a swap of spring training facilities so Loria could move the Marlins to Jupiter, Fla.

    Expos personnel -- right down through the minors -- have been told they're moving to the Florida organization, and some minor-league free agents signed this winter by the Expos have agreements that they will go to Florida along with current Expos manager Jeff Torborg. But one month before pitchers and catchers are to report, but one month before pitchers and catchers report, the Expos don't have a front office, manager, office personnel, minor-league organization or scouting staff.

    The Dodgers and Angels, whose owners pay baseball their national television packages (Fox and Disney, which owns ESPN), are for sale, but the owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Vince Naimoli) won't leave, no matter how much he's pressured.

    We have agents accusing other agents of paying outlandish bribes to players to jump from one agency to another, without the threat of regulation, reprimand or suggested code of conduct from the Players' Association. We have general managers accusing at least one team -- and perhaps more -- of running kickback operations in foreign markets.

    Politicians, seizing the moment, have jumped in. For instance, this actually appeared in the Boston Globe: Senator John Kerry told the paper it may be time to re-examine the sport's antitrust exemption. "I think baseball is out of control," said Kerry, who told the paper that "skyrocketing salaries and ticket prices are pushing the price of attending a baseball game beyond reach." Kerry spends most of his leisure time on Nantucket, where membership in the golf club approaches $1 million, and on the family island given by the state, where common taxpayers may not tread. His grasp of the obvious makes one realize that the most coherent statement about the business was made recently by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura: "This game is screwed up."

    Understand, when former commissioner Fay Vincent was undermined and overthrown a decade ago -- two years after the pay-for-performance scheme, two years before the World Series was cancelled and the next season started only by a court order -- the sense among owners was that the only way a consensus could ever be achieved between 28 different teams was to have the one owner who was there for the first strike of '72 try to run it. Selig has had monumental successes. They include interleague play, the expansion of international markets, forms of revenue sharing and record attendance. But with the game's class structure beginning to resemble those of a banana republic and this offseason's attempts to affect some NFL-style socialization, Selig's big picture has turned into Bonfire of the Vanities II.

    No one will even be talking about who's driving the plane if the people running the airline didn't obsess about everything but the game. It should be noted that the players and their union have remained above it all; Donald Fehr and Gene Orza refused comment on any charges of conflicts and have kept all thoughts private, save for when Fehr felt that he was double-crossed on contraction.

    Look, Selig is hardly the problem, but there are forces that make his perception the problem. All the way back into last season, with the Basic Agreement negotiations impending, there were players suggesting that all roads led back to Milwaukee, be it middle-market relief or realignment that put the Brewers where they always wanted to be. Even when the commissioner rolled out all those numbers that clearly painted an economic picture reflecting his bankers' unhappiness, it was greeted with as much disdain as sympathy.

    Unfortunately, Selig does not hear many voices, especially those of people who dearly care for the game. Few blame him, but rue the perception of Tammany Hall/Kingfish Long corruption that "one of them" creates. Many long for some far-reaching independent reformer, a Sen. Kent Conrad (D-So. Dakota), Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky) or Bruce Reed (president of the Democratic Leadership Council), who could be empowered by the owners and players to realize that the public trust is business issue No. 1, and with that power untangle the maze of owner, agent and international schemes. Perhaps more practically, others long for a Dick Parsons-type of CEO to amplify the work of MLB executives Tim Brosnan and Paul Beeston.

    We are nearing the Ides of January, and we can't buy tickets for a season whose Opening Day is 11 weeks away. Ninety percent of baseball's principle news is on the front pages, not the sports pages -- antitrust exemptions, contraction, illegal loans and allegations of a rigged sale. And all this when we are coming off a glorious Barry Bonds/Randy-'n-Curt season in a time period that likely has a higher level of talent than any its history.

    The owners have lost control of this. So have the players, who need to think less about setting new contract records and more about the fact that the salary structure is unbalanced. Looking at all future commitments, 40.9 percent of players' total salary is tied up by only 10 percent of the players, 5.5 percent of total salary is headed toward 30 percent of the players, and in 2002 just 4.3 percent of the players will pocket 21 percent of the league's total salary.

    Both sides need to think about perception and the fact that this is a very different economy and entertainment market in 2002 than it was in 1995. The attention span of the audience can, and likely will, turn elsewhere when the lilacs bloom if the game is shut down and if the idea of selling contraction and alleged scandals rather than Jason Giambi and Curt Schilling is continued. Twenty years from now, David Halberstam can write a riveting book on how Major League Baseball mirrored the U.S. automobile industry and turned The National Pastime into the NHL.

    OK, we had all the Yankees' publicity for their stealth reconstruction. Then came the Mets -- and when they got the back pages, George Steinbrenner bought up David Wells and actually jumped into the Juan Gonzalez sweepstakes for a fleeting moment -- and then the Rangers.

    But that is about all the baseball we've heard this offseason. Instead of projecting the impact of potential rookie third-base stars Sean Burroughs (Padres) and Hank Blalock (Rangers), debating Adam Dunn's (Reds) ceiling or guessing the eventual American League numbers of youngster Jack Cust (acquired by the Rockies from the Diamondbacks for left-handed reliever Mike Myers in early January), we're left to speculate who will play while lawyers in and around baseball collect more fees than the GNP of Paraguay.

    For instance, here are two legitimate Hot Stove questions that don't have to be answered by Bud, Donald or Bob DuPuy:

  • With all the hype about the Mets' improvement, are the Braves in danger of not making the playoffs for the first time since 1990? With the Cardinals, Cubs and Astros in the NL Central and the power teams in the West, the NL wild card could be a most interesting race. And Braves GM John Schuerholz says, "The Mets get more ink here in Atlanta than we do."

    Not so fast. OK, the Braves won only 88 games and scored fewer runs (729) than all but three NL teams, and their offseason free-agent signings have been Vinny Castilla and Albie Lopez. "What gets overlooked," says a rival executive, "is that they signed John Smoltz, they signed Andruw Jones, they signed Javy Lopez and they still have that farm system working. They have to be beaten by the Mets."

    Some may not be enticed by Castilla's .290 on-base percentage since leaving the Rockies, but even if Schuerholz doesn't trade for Gary Sheffield, the Braves' GM believes this year's team will be much better. "To start with," says Schuerholz, "we get Rafael Furcal back, healthy, and we saw what he brought to us two years ago. We'll take a long look at (20-year-old) Wilson Betemit in spring training, and, who knows, he may do what Furcal did two years ago. Marcus Giles can be one of our best clutch hitters, and I think Mark DeRosa is a player a lot like Mark McLemore. I keep being asked about first base and we believe that if we get Wes Helms (.222, 10 HR, .728 OPS in 216 AB) a minimum of 400 at-bats that he's going to be a major producer. I think that now that Javy Lopez is healthy again he'll make a major comeback, and our outfield (Chipper Jones, Brian Jordan, Andruw Jones) is outstanding."

    If Jason Marquis and Odalis Perez blossom into the frontline, quality starters that manager Bobby Cox believes they will and rookie reliever Tim Spooneybarger provides depth in front of Mike Remlinger and Smoltz, the pitching after Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine should be fine.

    Since the Dodgers decided late Thursday night to try to deal Sheffield, there have been rumors the Braves would entertain a deal for Sheffield and Eric Gagne involving Jordan and either Marquis or Perez, but that hasn't been confirmed. Sheffield, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Lopez in the middle of the order would be very powerful, especially if Furcal gets on base close to the .394 OBP he had in 2000.

  • Have the A's been passed by the Rangers? Not if the commissioner's office, further piqued with owner Tom Hicks for reporting the Chan Ho Park signing at $65 million when the office claims it was closer to $71 million, makes the Rangers hand Blalock over to the A's for tampering with Grady Fuson, who was hired scouting director away from Oakland but interviewed for a different position.

    Do the Rangers have the potential to have the best lineup in baseball? Yes. Have they improved their pitching? Of course. Park is a No. 2 or 3 starter, and if John Rocker comes back to the level he performed at before being dealt to Cleveland, with Jeff Zimmerman, Todd Van Poppel and Jay Powell they have a chance to have the kind of bullpen that can hold onto those 8-6, 12-8 games. Yes, Oakland lost its star and ballast in Jason Giambi, as well as Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen ...

    Again, not to fast. "We allowed 645 runs last season (323 fewer than Texas)," says A's GM Billy Beane. "And if we're healthy, we're going to have as good, if not better, pitching than last year, and the last time I checked, pitching gives you a chance."

    It is no secret that Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito comprise the best young Big Three in the game. Beane looks at Cory Lidle's numbers (170 hits, 188 innings, a 118/47 SO/BB ratio) and insists he is no fluke. He has lefty Mario Ramos coming out of the minors with a 30-9, 2.88 lifetime record compiled for the most part in hitters' parks. He got Billy Koch to replace Isringhausen, and this winter he has brought in Chad Harville, minor-league free agent Rocky Coppinger and lefty Mike Holtz in hopes that they will contribute.

    Obviously, players such as Eric Chavez, Terrence Long, Miguel Tejada and Adam Piatt have to mature. But if David Justice is healthy, he will help those kids immensely. Beane thinks Scott Hatteberg will hit close to 20 homers with 400 at-bats as a 1B/C/DH, and if he can acquire either a young third baseman or right-handed-hitting corner outfielder to throw in with right-hander Luis Vizcaino, he thinks he can get Cust from the Rockies. He has Randy Velarde and Frank Menechino to play second until 23-year old Esteban German -- who had a .430 on-base percentage between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento -- is ready.

    As for reports that Jermaine Dye has aftereffects from his postseason broken leg, Beane says, "That couldn't be farther from the truth. He's going to be ready for spring training, although we want him to take it slowly so he doesn't rush his arm or anything like that. In fact, we're talking to him about a long-term deal, and he seems interested."

    Beane has looked into signing Kenny Lofton and several other veteran players whose markets have been flat, but there isn't a lot of money left -- as if there ever is money in Oakland. Seattle is still very good, whether or not it signs Pedro Astacio. With Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier joining the three young pitchers (Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and Scott Schoeneweis), the Angels will be dangerous, especially if Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon bounce back and they're able to get a $500,000 bargain in Dante Bichette.

    So there's nothing easy in front of the Rangers and manager Jerry Narron, even with four potential Hall of Famers on their team -- Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez -- as well as Carl Everett.

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