Decline is first since 1995

NEW YORK -- Just a few days into the season, baseball
already has produced a startling statistic: The average salary
dropped for the first time in nearly a decade.

Not that major leaguers will be sweating to make their mortgage
payments. Despite the 3 percent drop from the start of last season,
players on opening day rosters averaged $2.49 million, according to
a study by The Associated Press.

"Maybe that's going to be the trend. Maybe it's going to start
going down," said Seattle designated hitter Edgar Martinez, whose
base pay was cut 25 percent to $3 million.

The New York Yankees bucked the trend, pushing their payroll up
to a record $183 million, led by Alex Rodriguez, whose $21.7
million salary topped the majors for the fourth straight year.

Boston, forever chasing New York in the standings and at the box
office, was second at $125 million.

And then came everyone else.

Anaheim was third at $101 million, just ahead of the New York
Mets. Philadelphia, fifth at $93 million, has a payroll almost half
that of the Yankees.

Milwaukee, the team controlled by the family of baseball
commissioner Bud Selig, has the lowest payroll at $27.5 million.
Tampa Bay is 29th at $29.5 million -- but that includes $7 million
the Devil Rays are getting reimbursed by St. Louis to pay nearly
all of Tino Martinez's salary.

The average salary, which was $2.56 million at the start of last
season, hadn't dropped since 1995, immediately following the
7½-month strike that wiped out the World Series for the first time
in 90 years.

"There are a number of factors involved. Certainly, the economy
is a big one," Selig said. "Teams had to tighten their belts
because of debt."

Baseball's new labor contract, agreed to late in the 2002
season, had new debt regulations and also imposed a luxury tax.
Last year, the Yankees were the only team that had to pay the tax.

"I think if you go back in history, the year following any type
of a new labor agreement being put in place, there's always a
market correction," said Yankees first baseman Tony Clark, a
member of the union's negotiating committee.

Since the start of the free-agent era after the 1976 season, the
only other times salaries dropped were 1987 -- when owners were
found by an arbitrator to have conspired against free agents -- and

The players' association has spent more than a year considering
whether to file a new collusion grievance, but no decision has been
made. Union head Donald Fehr wouldn't address the salary drop.

"Until we have an opportunity to do the numbers, I'm not going
to comment," he said.

NBA players have the highest average salary, $4.9 million this
season, according to the preliminary estimate by their union. NHL
players averaged $1.79 million in 2002-03, the latest season in
which their union has figures available. NFL players averaged $1.26
million last year, according to their union.

Both the NBA and NFL operate under salary caps.

For years, it seemed like the only direction for salaries was
up. For now, they've gone into reverse.

"Attendance is down, it's harder to sell sponsorships and
signage," Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane said.

Players take heart from what's happened on the field in recent
seasons. Florida won the World Series last year with a $56 million
payroll, 20th among the 30 teams. In 2002, Anaheim won the title
with a $62 million payroll.

"Maybe owners are seeing that you don't need to spend $110
million to win," San Francisco pitcher Kirk Rueter said.
"Whatever the chic thing is, that's what people tend to follow."

The number of players making $1 million, which had been 425 in
2001, dropped for the third straight year, to 374. The median
salary -- the point at which an equal amount of players is above and
below -- remained at $800,000, below the 2001 high of $975,000.

Figures for the study included salaries and prorated shares of
signing bonuses and other guaranteed income for the 827 players on
official opening day rosters as of last weekend; for some players,
parts of salaries deferred without interest were discounted to
present-day value.

The AP's study also showed:

  • Rodriguez took a cut of about $250,000 as part of the February
    trade that sent him from Texas to the Yankees because he deferred
    $1 million without interest to 2011.

  • Just behind him on the highest-paid list were Boston's Manny
    Ramirez ($20.4 million), Toronto's Carlos Delgado ($19.7 million),
    the Yankees' Derek Jeter ($18.6 million) and San Francisco's Barry
    Bonds ($18 million).

  • The Yankees have four players among the top 14 and seven among
    the highest 26.

  • In their first full season under new owner Arte Moreno, the
    Angels increased payroll by more than $20 million.

  • Philadelphia, which moves into a new ballpark next week,
    raised its payroll by more than $20 million. San Diego, also in a
    new stadium this season, went up by about $4 million.

  • Texas cut its payroll nearly in half, to $55 million.