Next year isn't here this year
By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

Ah, mid-February, that magical time of year when arbitration hearings wind down, agents cry collusion, and valets and chauffeurs report to spring training. Why, you can almost feel the snow melting at your feet, can't you?

Actually, that's your dog down there, Sparky. He needs to go out for a nature walk, while you ponder how godawful your local small-market team is going to be.

That's the thing about 21st century baseball: It's great, provided your standard metropolitan statistical area, your market demographics and your Nielsen ratings are up to speed. In other words, if you spend half your life in a Southern California traffic jam or ride John Rocker's favorite subway to work.

Hideki Matsui
While other teams are left scrambling for Steinbrenner's spare change, the Yankees can sign Japanese star Hideki Matsui.
On the other hand, if you're punching a clock in Milwaukee, you can't wait for the Packers' first mini-camp. If you're retired in Tampa, you'd rather play the blue tees than watch the Dreadful Rays. And if you're flipping the dial in Kansas City, you just heard George Brett say the Royals are your basic waste of time. Unless, of course, you like five-buck beers and two-bit baseball.

I know, I know, it's only been six months since the truce in Bud Selig's war to end all wars. We need to see how this plays out. We need to give the new collective-bargaining agreement some time. The one that was supposed to restore some semblance of competitive balance to the game.

Right. As if a few years are going to make any difference. As if some luxury tax is going to keep George Steinbrenner from putting hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. He tips his pool boy more than he does the Pirates.

In case you haven't noticed, the Evil Empire -- Larry Lucchino's term, not mine -- is expanding. The Boss couldn't find enough American players to take his money this winter, so he imported two from Cuba and Japan. And you thought love was the international language.

Good for you, George. I'm sure the Yankees' intrasquad game will be worth the price of admission, what with each side having four proven major-league starters and a sprinkling of future Hall of Famers. It's their opponents I'm concerned about. You know, the little guys, the small markets. Bud's Kids.

I can't help it. I live in Denver, where the Rockies' principal owners are considering making a cash call to their minority partners. You remember the Rockies. Record-setting attendance, new retro ballpark, cool purple unis ... all in all, a model franchise. In fact, the commissioner once used that very term to describe them.

Not anymore. The honeymoon is over in Colorado, and the divorce lawyers are circling. Season-ticket sales that peaked at 34,000 in the mid-'90s are expected to dip below 15,000 this year. And it's not like things are any better in some of the game's other have-not markets. Spring training is upon us and, as usual, the big markets get the palm trees and the little guys get the cactus.

Albie Lopez
The Yankees signed Cuban star Jose Contreras; the Royals signed one-game winner Albie Lopez.
In Milwaukee, the thrill of watching a retractable roof open and close has given way to widespread cynicism over the Brewers' ability to simultaneously walk and chew tobacco. In San Diego, the Padres' projected starting rotation will make less than half what the Boss will pay his trusty setup man, Steve Karsay. In Detroit, the Tigers are bracing for what figures to be another 100-loss season.

There's a lot of that going around among Bud's Kids. Four teams -- the Devil Rays, Tigers, Brewers and Royals -- lost 100 games last season. Nothing noteworthy there, of course, except that it had never happened in the history of a game whose roots trace back to the Civil War.

The Twins and Expos, you ask? The commish himself has assured us that any success they may attain is purely an aberration. As far as he's concerned, each would be better off disbanding. In fact, he tried to get rid of them last year, only to have the politicians get involved at the 11th hour.

It sure is nice to know, in these troubled times, that we have steady-handed leaders around to reassure us that all is well between the white lines. Take Don Fehr. He says there's nothing to get alarmed about, that it's always been about the big markets, that there isn't much difference between today's game and the one the Yankees dominated for most of 20th century.

He's right, of course. The little guys have never had a chance. Kind of like Bill Mazeroski never hit that home run. The Royals of the late '70s? They were just a Yankee farm club. Harvey's Wallbangers? A bowling team from Kenosha, for all the Gen-Xers know.

Selig keeps talking in Biblical terms, about how the small markets need faith and hope for the game to survive. Sorry, Bud, but it's too late for that. Don't look now, King George, but the colonies are rebelling. People in the small markets are so fed up, they're finding other things to do.

Take Denver, for instance. While the Rockies frantically try to pay their phone bill, the local Arenaball and -- no really, I'm not making this up -- pro lacrosse teams are playing to full houses in the Pepsi Center, the place Patrick Roy calls home. Moral to the story: The market isn't the problem; the Rockies are the problem.

And the thing is, it's only going to get worse for the small markets. Baseball's current economic system was built on the false economy of the '80s and '90s, when the Dow was rolling and the Internet was going to make everyone Steinbrenner-rich. Fast forward to today, when millions of people are out of work and millions more will follow, pending the first bomb falling on Iraq.

In this climate, when every disposable dollar counts, it's not enough for a town to have a team. At these prices, the team has to be worth watching. In the old days, when things went bad, we used to laugh and say "Wait till next year." The problem in baseball's small markets is that next year never gets any better.

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.



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