Selig's conundrum: Parity vs. popularity

While most years it represents little more than five days of standing by potted plants waiting for the underwhelming to finally occur, periodically, the baseball winter meetings actually reflect the mood of the game. The 2000 meetings in Dallas represented such a moment, when the combination of American economic muscle fueled by booms in technology stocks and the housing market and a game reinvigorated by new stadiums, steroids and home runs, translated into a baseball spending frenzy.

Over four days, four players accounted for more than a half-billion dollars in spending: Mike Hampton drew eight years, $121 million from the Rockies. Darren Dreifort re-upped for five years, $55 million from the Dodgers. Manny Ramirez signed with the Red Sox for eight years, $160 million, and finally, Alex Rodriguez signed with Texas for 10 years, $252 million.

The message was clear: The strike was a fading memory, baseball was back, and in different ways across the country. In the Midwest, McGwire-Sosa was fresh in the public mind. On the East Coast, the Yankees were in the middle of a dynasty, the Mets had just lost to the Yankees in the first subway World Series since 1956 (Giants-A's 1989 notwithstanding), and Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra had revived the Red Sox.

Out west, the San Francisco Giants, after decades of threatened moves and frustration, had finally opened a jewel of a ballpark. New, publicly financed parks had opened in Houston and Detroit, and, the year before, in Seattle. Unemployment was low, times were good and fans were again spending their disposable income on baseball. The clouds of 9/11, BALCO, Jose Canseco's book and the House Government Reform Committee baseball hearings had not yet formed.

A decade later, the recently concluded meetings in Orlando provided a similar moment for baseball, and this time the big business of baseball has put commissioner of baseball Bud Selig in a serious rhetorical quandary. Selig has long positioned himself to be sympathetic to the small markets of the game, but the big markets in Boston, New York and now -- despite a World Series title in San Francisco -- a new superpower in Philadelphia have further cemented influence to the east.

Earlier in the summer and again in the postseason, reinforced by ratings and grousing, the television networks made it clear to the commissioner's office and other high level baseball officials that the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers were the only real universal, moneymaking assets in baseball. No other teams -- not the rising Rays, the intriguing Rangers, pitching-rich Giants or streaky Rockies -- moved the ratings needle. The World Series, despite being played in Dallas and San Francisco, two of the biggest TV markets in the country, was the lowest-rated ever and for the first time, a regular-season NFL game beat a World Series game head-to-head in ratings.

Not surprisingly, baseball has indirectly responded to these realities. Momentum increased during the postseason to expand the playoffs. The cited reasons -- change, parity, fairness -- were less compelling than one obvious result: With an added slot in the playoffs, both the Yankees and Red Sox would be virtually guaranteed of the postseason each season. As it is, in the 16 years since the 1994 strike, the Yankees or Red Sox have made the playoffs every season and in half of those years, both have qualified.

In Orlando, the Red Sox, who missed the playoffs by six games, spent as though next season were the franchise's last on earth. Few teams are as clever as the Red Sox in their historical positioning as underdogs, but this offseason the Red Sox shed any pretense of being anything but a superpower.

Boston is, as Tampa Bay executives privately call it, the "Just as Evil" Empire. In the last two seasons, the Red Sox signed John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract, Josh Beckett to four-year, $68 million extension and Adrian Beltre to a one-year, $10 million deal; acquired Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres; and netted Carl Crawford for seven years, $142 million.

They even offered a contract to The Great One, Mariano Rivera ...

Boston spent lavishly and mirrored the old Yankees strategy -- following the 1978 season when New York signed pitcher Luis Tiant. Not only did the Yankees acquire a tough, veteran performer, but, in the words of the Boston captain Carl Yastrzemski, they tore out the heart and soul of the Red Sox clubhouse.

The Red Sox did the same this month to Tampa Bay, signing not only Crawford, but also the veteran hard thrower Dan Wheeler. Free agency dissected the Rays. Carlos Pena is a Cub, and it is unlikely Matt Garza or closer Rafael Soriano will be on the Opening Day roster. Free agency beat the Rays worse than the Red Sox ever could on the field.

Meanwhile, the December narrative that the Yankees have somehow lost their magic shopping touch ignores the Yankees spending $80 million on Derek Jeter and Rivera. At $200 million in payroll, the Yankees are an A.J. Burnett 18-win season away from again being a World Series favorite.

The Superpowers -- and the Phillies through excellent management, a new ballpark and a talented roster have filled the National League power vacuum -- exist within the confines of the rules. Selig, who remained silent while three rising teams -- Tampa Bay, San Diego and Texas -- were weakened this offseason, must know whatever visions of cost controls he or his successor may seek from the players' association will be received with laughter.

Selig understands combining the words "salary" and "cap" is the same in his sport as adding the word "match" to "gunpowder." As a result, he has placed the impetus for competitive balance on the political leaders of smaller cities, telling them if they fund ballparks their teams will compete. It is an argument that fails to take into account the enormous gap in local television revenue, evidenced by new ballparks in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Milwaukee that haven't closed the payroll gap. But in truth, both he and the owners still want a salary cap.

Kansas City, by trading Zack Greinke to Milwaukee, just undermined the entire point of signing Gil Meche to a $55 million deal four years ago. Washington -- in perhaps one of the stupidest deals ever -- signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal while simultaneously losing Adam Dunn to the White Sox. Neither the Royals nor Nationals improved.

And neither pennant winner, Texas nor San Francisco, built on their championships, both spurned so far by the big-money free agents. Texas lost on Crawford and Cliff Lee, while the yet-unsigned Beltre said no to overtures from the Giants.

Yet if the networks that run the game want big money, marquee talents, especially in an expanded playoff system, they're not looking for parity. And neither is the public according to viewing preferences.
They want superpower teams in New York and Boston, not a salary cap or any type of controls on spending which would limit the ability of the super teams to dominate. Neither television, the Red Sox nor Yankees would seem to embrace the NFL-style parity Selig has long said he's craved for baseball.

This is Selig's dilemma. Just as in 2000 when general managers left the Wyndham Anatole hotel convinced the game was flush with cash, the message being sent this offseason was that the small just got smaller. The Padres led their division for virtually the entire season, came within a game of a division title or a one-game playoff and for it lose their best hitter without receiving a big league player in return.

Perhaps Padres general manager Jed Hoyer is such a shrewd judge of talent that over time the Gonzalez deal will be viewed more evenly, but as of today, the deal represents another example of the gross inequities of the system. The coziness between the Red Sox and Padres is nothing new; the small market A's and Blue Jays seemed to swap players annually when friends Billy Beane and J.P. Ricciardi were running the clubs. Whatever message Hoyer was attempting to send to his fan base about competing in 2011 was an inadequate one.

The myth of rebuilding through the farm system is also dead, evidenced by none other than the Rays. The team that did everything right, that only two years ago played in the World Series, sees its window of opportunity with that pennant-winning roster closed. For small-market teams, there is no long-term future. Every year is the one-time future, because winning seasons with star players will immediately fuel the impending exodus.

Maybe there is nothing Selig can or wants to do. Maybe a salary cap is inevitable. Baseball has been a money game and nobody has earned more for his owners or himself than the commissioner, who himself earns $19 million per year. But it should be remembered the split between the large and small markets contributed in large part to the 1994 strike, and the rich have never seemed more powerful than they are now.

The San Francisco Giants are champions, yes, but the message being sent by offseason moves is that year in and out, there is only one game in town, and it is being played along Interstate 95 North.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.