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Monday, December 17
Updated: December 26, 6:47 PM ET
December 2001 Archives

By Rob Neyer

I received a couple of e-mails last week, in quick succession, that made me smile, so I thought I'd share them with you today ...


    I just saw that the Mets traded away Robin Ventura for David Justice. What were the Mets thinking? Personally, I wouldn't trade for someone like Justice until the free-agent pool has been significantly reduced. With Bonds and Alou, there were better free agents that could have been signed, and with the New York market, they could easily afford to get one of the two.

    Adam Vincent

Then exactly 15 minutes later, this one:

    Justice for Ventura? What the hell are the Yankees thinking? Justice had an injury-riddled season and stands to bounce back much easier than Ventura, who hasn't done anything in two seasons. Now the Yanks have lost a left-handed DH/OF in place of a weak left-handed third baseman. What if Henson seems ready come June? Are they going to DH Ventura? I hope not.

    If the other pieces were in place, I'd be a little more accepting, but not much. While you couldn't count on Justice for 150 games, he did offer a flexibility between DH and outfield and has shown much more promise over the last few seasons than Ventura. Hell, I'd take Randy Velarde at a cheap rate and Justice over Ventura any day.

    Makes no sense to me.


Of course, a lot has happened since December 7, when the Mets and Yanks exchanged Ventura and Justice. With the Mets subsequently trading Justice to Oakland for Mark Guthrie, it's apparent that their goal all along was simply to dump Ventura's salary.

I happen to think that Ventura will fit in quite nicely with the Yankees. Yes, he's coming off a couple of rough, sub-800 OPS seasons, but he was playing great last year before suffering a thumb injury that killed his power in the second half. Yes, Drew Henson has a chance to be a special player someday ... but folks, he ain't there yet. Henson spent half of last season in Triple-A, and was completely overmatched (.249 on-base percentage). Sure, it's possible that Henson will be ready to play for the Yankees in the summer of 2002, but when you're trying to win yet another World Series, you don't bet on such things. The Yanks need a third baseman now, and they could have done a lot worse than Robin Ventura.

Further, with the Yankees since signing Rondell White and Jason Giambi, there wouldn't have been a spot in the lineup for Justice anyway, assuming that Nick Johnson is ready to step in as the club's regular DH.

As for the Mets dumping Ventura's salary, we can only assume that Steve Phillips actually has some sort of budget constraint. And anyway, with Roberto Alomar coming aboard, Edgardo Alfonzo needed a place to play, and third base was the obvious choice.

The Mets are still short an outfielder, but if they can add another bat, they look to me like the best team in the East next season. Alomar makes them better, obviously, and the addition of Shawn Estes -- assuming he's recovered from whatever ailed him in the second half of last season -- gives the Mets a lovely rotation.

And finally, in response to last Friday's column, a reader writes,


    Einstein actually said, "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awereness that created them."

    Peter Friberg
    San Diego, CA

    Thanks for the note, Peter. This one does sound better than the version I presented last week ("You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it"), and of course it's just as applicable to the situation at hand.

    I don't suppose that this disclaimer will get me off the hook, but let me stress something here as strongly as I can: I know that Major League Baseball's "problems" are but a tiny mite on an elephant's hindquarters, compared to the tragic events that have been taking place in the Middle East since long before I was born.

    That said, while listening to yet another story on NPR involving longtime combatants Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, I couldn't stop my mind from comparing them to Bud Selig and Donald Fehr. Arafat and Selig both came of age in the 1940s, and while both men are still active and alert, it seems fairly apparent that neither has much control over his forces. Sharon and Fehr are both battlers by nature, rarely willing to give even an inch because that would, in their minds at least, do nothing but show weakness.

    And there's more distrust between the respective leaders than you'll see in a typical episode of "The Sopranos."

    Yet these men continue in their roles, not because they're effective but because nobody wants to bother with, or can figure out how to go about, replacing them.

    You think that Bud Selig has done a good job as Commissioner? Well, some might point to interleague play and the current postseason format, both of which are seen in some quarters (though not this one) as positive accomplishments.

    Balanced against that, on the other hand, you've got the disaster in 1994, along with an ill-considered expansion that's left us with one team playing in a horrible "ballpark" before tiny crowds, and another winning a World Series but going deeply in debt in the process. Oh, and did I mention a $519 million loss in 2001, and approximately $3.5 billion of debt (both figures according to Selig himself) for MLB as a whole?

    For this performance, Selig recently was rewarded with a long-term contract extension that will reportedly pay him $4.5 million per year.

    You think that Donald Fehr has done a good job as head of the Players Association? Well, let's see ... he has to take some of the blame for the strike in 1994, which cost his players two months of their careers, not to mention millions of baseball fans two months of games, including the World Series. He's also helped bring about a system in which few of his union's members have a reasonable hope of reaching the postseason, and the lowest-paid members of that union make but a tiny fraction of what the highest-paid members make. And Fehrís neglect of minor leaguers is, frankly, execrable.

    Near as I can tell, Fehr's big accomplishment has been to make hundreds of young men fabulously wealthy ... but of course, those same young men would be fabulously wealthy if a half-witted chimpanzee had been running the union, so I'm not exactly sure how brilliantly he's performed.

    And yet, we've heard nary a rumble concerning the possible ouster of Fehr. Why not? Two reasons. One, the players who do have some power in the union tend to be among the union's oldest and richest members, so the future doesn't really concern them. And two, the players, just like the owners, figure that dumping the guy at the top would be a crippling sign of weakness.

    And so the war continues, a war where the only real victims are the innocents.

    FRIDAY, DEC. 14
    You know, it's not often that the Commissioner of Major League Baseball calls you on the telephone. In fact, it happened to me Tuesday afternoon for the very first time.

    "Hi, this is Rob. Leave me a message and I'll call you back."

    "Rob, this is Commissioner Selig calling. It's five o'clock, 5:07 in Milwaukee on Tuesday, December 11. I'd like to talk to you, and my number is ... So whenever it's convenient, please give me a buzz. Thank you very much. Bye."

    It's intimidating to hear from the Commissioner. I mean, think of Bud Selig what you will, but he is, by definition, a historic figure. Selig is just the ninth commissioner, and has been running the show for nearly a decade; three other commissioners have served at least six years, and all three are in the Hall of Fame.

    So when I did talk to Selig, I wanted to be prepared. I studied everything I could find about baseball's finances, and I came up with a list of questions for Selig. I also worried about Selig's attitude toward me; after all, beginning in October 1998, I've criticized the guy virtually every chance I've had. I've done this for two reasons. One, I honestly believe, as a baseball fan, that Selig is not serving the game well. And two, it's both fun for me and, I hope, entertaining for you. But I certainly wouldn't expect Selig to treat me as a friend, given what I've written over the years.

    And when we finally did speak, it quickly became clear that Rob Neyer isn't Bud Selig's very favoritest baseball writer. He had a print-out of Monday's column, and for the great majority of our 30-minute conversation, he went through said column virtually line by line, quibbling with specifics and expressing disgust with my conclusion that he had been something less than forthcoming in his testimony in Washington last week.

    I think what really made Selig mad was my concluding paragraph ...

    And I think that the men who run Major League Baseball will, just has they have been doing for the last 30 years, continue to behave stupidly and dishonestly in their dealings with their employees and their customers. Frankly, they just can't seem to help themselves.

    Unfortunately, I'm afraid I have to stand by that comment. If the owners had behaved intelligently, they certainly wouldn't be in the mess that they're in (or that they claim to be in). We know they've behaved dishonestly; remember collusion? To this day, owners constantly claim that building a new, taxpayer-financed ballpark will result in a long-term financial windfall for its host city, even though every economist who studies the issue will say it's simply not true.

    Anyway, when the Commissioner finished rapping my knuckles, he coincidentally had to take another phone call, which left me with my list of questions but no answers for them. I did try to reach him this afternoon, without success. But in case Commissioner Selig is reading and wants to get back to me, those questions are presented here; he can answer them at his leisure, but specifics would be appreciated rather than the generalities we're used to.

    Neyer: Most, and perhaps all, individual owners -- as opposed to media conglomerates like the Tribune Company and Disney -- buy baseball teams not because they're looking to make money, but because they're baseball fans, so one might argue that the joy of owning a team should be payment enough, especially considering that the great majority of the owners are quite wealthy outside of baseball. With that mind, I won't ask for specifics, but can you tell me how much money baseball's owners paid themselves in salary last season, across the industry?

    Neyer: On the other hand, a lot of profit-driven media conglomerates are buying baseball teams. If it's such a lousy business, why are these conglomerates in the business?

    Neyer: Looking at the local TV, radio and cable revenues that were released last week, we find that the Chicago Cubs earned $6.5 million less than the Chicago White Sox. Given the Cubs' national exposure on WGN, along with their greater popularity in Illinois, how is the Sox's advantage possible? I do know that superstation revenue is taxed by MLB, but can that tax really account for this discrepancy?

    Neyer: By all accounts, MLB and the Players Association were engaged in serious negotiations last summer. Donald Fehr claims that the Players Association made a significant proposal, one that included additional revenue sharing, in late June, but that instead of responding you broke off negotiations and haven't yet responded. Why the (supposedly) sudden end to negotiations in June, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in just a few months?

    Neyer: In your testimony last week, you suggested that there is no legal impediment to relocating a club to Washington, D.C. or northern Virginia. Are you saying that Major League Baseball is not worried about the reaction of Peter Angelos, if such a relocation were proposed? And if MLB isn't worried about Angelos, then why isn't a team moved to Washington, when so many studies suggest that it's probably the best market for a new (or old) franchise?

    Neyer: On November 6, you announced two things. First, you announced that the owners had overwhelmingly voted to contract two teams. And two, you guaranteed that there would not be a lockout in 2002. Now it appears that contraction certainly won't occur in 2002, if ever. But are you standing by your guarantee that the owners will not lock out the players next season?

    Neyer: One last question ... Albert Einstein once said, "You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it." Given that you were Acting Commissioner in 1994, and that in fact you've been involved with ownership for more than 30 years, might not one reasonably argue that you're part of the problem rather than part of the solution? That what baseball needs is new leadership rather than old?

    You know what's funny about this whole thing? When it comes to the players and the owners, I'm squarely in the middle. I believe that a number of owners really are losing money (some of them a lot of money), I believe that a salary cap would be a good thing, I believe that competitive balance really is a serious issue, I believe that the players really are sandbagging on revenue sharing, and I believe that the Players Association is run by a bunch of greedy men who care for almost nothing but their wallets.

    So it's odd to find myself quoted at the Players Association's web site, and credited with "insightful reporting" and doing "a strong job of breaking down Commissioner Bud Selig's testimony ..."

    Which makes me doubt, at least a bit, my own "insights." Bud Selig is one of the minds that created the problem, but so is Donald Fehr. If anyone associated with the Players Association considers me a fan, they should think again. Fehr is no better-equipped to solve the problem than Selig is; if the owners and the players really want a healthy industry, they should get rid of the guys at the top.

    It's often said that every person, like every snowflake, is unique.

    And it's true. Every human is a unique collection of physical and psychological qualities, with many billions of possible combinations. However, very few of those specific qualities are unique, or even particularly rare. While it's true that you won't find many women who are 6'2" and play the cello, you can find many thousands of women who are 6'2" or play the cello.

    What does this have to do with baseball? It's all a roundabout way of trying to understand a transaction last week that certainly didn't make any headlines ...

      Houston Astros -- Signed free agent outfielder Brian L. Hunter, who had been with Philadelphia Phillies, to a two-year contract.

    There are two sorts of players who are worthy of exceptional compensation.

    The first is the specialist whose specialty is particularly valuable. If you've got a Gold Glove-quality shortstop, he's worth good money even if he doesn't do much with the stick. If you've got a first baseman who hits 50 home runs, he's worth good money even if he's essentially a zero when he's not in the batter's box.

    The second is the all-around ballplayer. Roy White and Amos Otis, two outfielders from my youth, rarely led their leagues in anything, but they were good (or very good) at everything. A guy like that now is ... well, Mike Cameron comes to mind, except he is actually brilliant with the glove (as was Otis, come to think of it). But you get the idea, which is that if you're going to spend millions of dollars on a player, then he'd better do something important particularly well, or a number of things at least fairly well.

    The guys who should not get that kind of money are the ones who don't do anything particularly well, or who do do something particularly well, but that something isn't particularly rare.

    Which brings us back to Brian Lee Hunter.

    Make no mistake, Brian Hunter is a fantastic baseball player, relative to all the other baseball players in the world. Most of us would, I suspect, sell our souls to Mr. Applegate to spend just one year in Brian Hunter's shoes. Hunter is very fast, and puts his speed to good use in the outfield and on the basepaths. However, that combination of skills is not particularly rare within his professional sphere. You can't exactly find a player like Brian Hunter just by turning over the nearest flat rock, but an enterprising baseball executive certainly can find players like Brian Hunter by scanning a few Triple-A rosters.

    Who? Well, this is just off the top of John Sickels' head, but there's Mike Curry and Alex Sanchez and Ron Calloway and Chad Meyers, all of whom spent most or all of last season in the minor leagues. Gerry Hunsicker could likely have taken his pick of these fellows, and paid one of them roughly a fifth of what Brian Hunter's going to make.

    Instead, Hunsicker agreed to pay Hunter -- who is, after all, a Proven Veteran -- $2.2 million over two years, to play some late-innings defense and pinch-run for Daryle Ward when the game is close.

    While I certainly wouldn't do everything exactly as Gerry Hunsicker does it, I also believe he's one of the best general managers in the game.... and if one of the best general managers is committing $2.2 million to Brian Hunter, what do you think the worst general managers are doing?

    Major League Baseball claims that teams lost $232 million this season, even before interest payments (and amortization, which isn't real). As you know, I don't believe the teams actually lost that much money. So for the sake of argument, let's assume that they actually lost $100 million (after accounting for salaries paid to owners, phantom TV revenues, and all of the other things that Commissioner Bud doesn't want you to know about).

    Well, I could turn that $100 million into $60 or $70 million in about two years, simply by replacing the Brian Hunters of the baseball world with the Ron Calloways of the world. See, Bud Selig says the problem is "the system," and in some respects he's got a point there ... but you know, it's not "the system" that pays Brian Hunter more than two million dollars. The men who run the game pay Brian Hunter two million dollars, and yet somehow they expect relief from both us and their employees.

    MONDAY, DEC. 10
    Well, we're getting closer to something like the truth.

    Last Wednesday, preparatory to Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig's testimony before Congress, Major League Baseball released "detailed" financial information for each of its 30 franchises, and of course the numbers were not pretty.

    Major League Baseball "opened the books," and the books reveal a massive $519 million loss, more than half a billion dollars ... in 2001 alone!

    Well, sort of. According to MLB's own figures, the consolidated loss might be broken down like this:

    $112 million   Interest
    $174 million   Amortization
    $232 million   Operating Losses

    Amortization is depreciation, which as you may know is a paper loss, a lovely tax loophole for a franchise that's been purchased within the last five years. Ownership is allowed to write off 50 percent of the player contracts for five years, which is one of the reasons you see franchises sold so often; when the tax breaks run out, it's time to unload the club. The interest payments are something that the owners generally choose, because there are financial advantages there. So the only number that has any relevance at all is the $232 million.

    Now, the hearing of last Friday ... I feel like I've watched Bud Selig's testimony more times than Oliver Stone has seen the Zapruder Film. And I'm not sure which is uglier.

    Here's a tidbit from Bud Selig's opening statement:

    Selig: Since 1997, we have also provided the union with the results of the separate revenue-sharing audits that are done of each club's books each year by Pricewaterhousecoopers. Finally, the union has the right under our collective bargaining agreement to conduct its own audit of any of the club's revenues. It has never done so.

    The people at MLB absolutely love to say this, that the Players Association has access to some of the books, and hasn't availed itself of the chance to audit the clubs' revenues.

    But think about it for a second ... the issue isn't revenues, it's expenses. Anybody with a calculator and an Internet connection can fairly estimate MLB's revenues, because ticket prices and luxury-suite rentals and TV revenues are all, for the most part, a part of the public record. Similarly, everybody knew how much "Coming to America" made; where it got tricky was in how Paramount figured the costs involved with the film. And by the time Paramount's accountants got finished doing their numbers, "Coming to America" showed a small loss.

    Early on, Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) did ask a very pointed question, leading off a frustratingly fruitless exchange:

    Conyers: Failure to open books. We got some information from you at six o'clock last night; they're really way too general for us to consider them to be detailed, audited records. With all due respect, and I know you've got some good accountants, Big Six guys, but would you reconsider to provide this committee with some real records about each team -- the breakouts, among other things, the salaries, consulting fees paid to club owners, their family members, the extent to which owners are earning interest on stadium loans they proved, and other related party transactions? And we'll give you a lot of time to get that together.

    Selig: If I may, our figures are audited three different ways. Players Association gets all the numbers, including all related party transactions, all related party transactions. The Blue Ribbon Panel of the four gentlemen got the audited statements--

    Conyers: Don't you know the union can't give these statements to anybody? You just sent a letter, your lawyers, that you'd sue Fehr if he released--

    Selig: Congressman Conyers, you have the audited financial statement for six years; the only reason you don't have them for the seventh year, it's not over yet. You have all the information that Messrs. Volcker, Will and--

    Conyers: What about the stuff I just asked for, sir? We don't have that ... We don't have any numbers. Staff keeps whispering in my ear, "We don't have the numbers, we don't have the numbers."

    Selig: I'd like to know, since they've been audited three different ways, what information are you looking for?

    Conyers: Didn't you hear me?

    Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner: The time of the gentleman has expired.

    Thus, Selig was allowed to escape answering a question that he certainly did not want to answer, because it would look bad if everyone knew, for example, just how much money some owners pay themselves for playing with some of the biggest toys in the world.

    Later, Representative Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) continued Conyers' line of questioning.

    Watt: ... I have heard you say over and over that the system needs to be fixed. What are you waiting on to fix it?

    Selig: Our negotiation with the Players Association ... After all, we can't share revenue without negotiation, and we certainly can't impose salary restraint without negotiation. Those are subject of collective bargaining.

    Watt: So is there something you want Congress to do about that? ... Your testimony on the top of page five says over five years, only three teams ... were profitable. All the rest of the teams were unprofitable. So you're going to eliminate two this year, two next year, two the year after that, two the year after that ... I mean, at what point is eliminating teams going to solve this problem as opposed to fixing the system, which is what you said needs to be done? And if you have absolute authority to fix it now with an antitrust exemption, why have you not fixed it?

    Selig: Well, I, well, I, uh, let me make two points in response, Congressman Watt.

    Number one, I said it's going to take a myriad of solutions to fix the problem. Contraction is merely one of them. None of these will do it unilaterally. But two of these bigger issues that other sports have ... are subjects of collective bargaining. I can't do that by myself.

    Watt: How does contracting the number of teams fix the problem? You said, "The system needs to be fixed." How does contracting the number of teams fix the system?

    Selig: It's one of the things that when we've looked at it, and talked about it, it's one of the things that helps fix the system--

    Watt: How?

    Selig: How?

    Watt: You've got two less teams that are unprofitable, but the other teams are operating under the same system, and all of them except three are losing money, according to the testimony.

    Selig: But the two teams that finally get contracted are two teams that are subsidized by the other teams, because of revenue sharing. And in a system where you're losing $519 million, Congressman, the industry doesn't have the luxury any more --

    Watt: You told me revenue sharing was part of the fix.

    Selig: It is. It is, but we need to negotiate that with the Players Association. We're not doing enough revenue sharing today, Congressman. We don't have enough salary restraint.

    As Selig noted -- and as I just learned last week, when talking to a representative of Major League Baseball -- revenue sharing is subject to collective bargaining with the players; the owners cannot unilaterally institute a revenue-sharing formula of their choosing.

    If you'll allow a brief aside, I think baseball needs to a achieve a sort of paradigm shift when it comes to "revenue sharing." Essentially, I think that very term is, or should be, inaccurate. There is much discussion of the rich teams "sharing revenue" with the poor teams, but what if it weren't theirs to share? What if the issue were "revenue keeping" instead?

    Let me explain ... In 2001, the Yankees pulled in something like $56 million in local broadcast revenue, and most everybody agrees that it's necessary for them to "share" that money, to give some of it to other teams. But gosh, that doesn't seem fair, does it? Why should the Yankees be compelled to fork over their own money?

    Well, they shouldn't. But it's not their money. In a way, that money belongs to every team that plays against the Yankees, thus allowing the Yankees to sell their broadcast rights for $56 million (a figure that will increase greatly next year with their new YES network).

    Right now, MLB is saying to the Yankees, "Thank you for earning all that money, now let the rest of us have some of it."

    Instead, MLB should be saying to the Yankees, "You're lucky to reside in the biggest market in sports, but you did pay for that market and your expenses are considerable, so we'll let you keep half of the local revenues you and your opponents generated. You will, of course, still enjoy a sizeable financial advantage over your competitors."

    Frankly (one of Bud Selig's favorite words), the New York Yankees should be thrilled with that arrangement, because they'd still be the 600-pound gorilla outside a banana factory guarded by kindergartners. Financially, at least.

    Of course, you still have to get the Players Association to agree. But the truth is that everything is negotiable, with the exception of a salary cap.

    Watt: You've given some financial records to the union. You've given some financial records to this committee. Have you given us the same records that you've given to the union?

    Selig: The same audited financial statements? Absolutely.

    Watt: The same financial records, not audited financial statements.

    Steve Fehr: Can I get in on this?

    Watt: Yes, Mr. Fehr.

    Fehr: I believe you have received a fraction of what the players have received over the years. But as I indicated in my statement, things are not as simple as they appear. You don't need just a bunch of numbers dumped on you, you need some analysis of them.

    Watt: [Addressing Selig ...] So the question is, could we get ahold to the same information you've given the players over the last five years?

    Selig: The only thing I'm told that we haven't given you, uh, you have all the same information now that the Blue Ribbon Committee had--

    Watt: Well, the problem is the Blue Ribbon committee guy is now trying to buy into baseball ...

    Again Selig is telling a Congressman -- and by extension, us -- that we should all be happy with the information that we've been given. It's all that we need, and why can't we just trust the owners?

    A bit later, Representative Anthony Weiner (D-New York), after some intelligent commentary, tried again.

    Weiner: Let me ask just one final question. Will you waive the confidentiality agreement you have for the purpose of this hearing to allow the representative of the players to freely discuss information he has about the financial numbers? He has stated in his testimony he has been prohibited from doing that ... in the interest of full disclosure, would you free up the players to speak freely in this hearing?

    Selig: We have given you everything they have except many of our discussions with negotiations relative to many of the subjects that are at hand right now during our negotiations--

    Fehr: I respectfully don't think that's quite right.

    Selig: --Well, I can only tell you what our people have said. In the meantime, you have audited financial statements for every team ... You have all the other information, and I can't imagine what other information is necessary.

    Fehr: I've known Mr. Selig for a long time, with all due respect we didn't get an answer to the question.

    And indeed we didn't, which left Maxine Waters (D-California) to make one last effort ...

    Waters: Commissioner, you have a federal exemption, and you have a responsibility to cooperate with us. Will you give us the information that the union has in its possession?

    Selig: We have given, as I said before, this is, no American sport has ever given this kind of information--

    Waters: Commissioner, will you give us the information that Mr. Fehr just alluded to, the information that's in his possession.

    Selig: The only information that we have not given has to do with what we believe are collective-bargaining issues that we believe there should be confidentiality on.

    Waters: So you will not give us the information that you have given the union. Will you permit the union to give us the information?

    Selig: That's something that has to go on between our lawyers, but they have a confidentiality agreement, and I think that things that went on, are going on during collective bargaining should not be disclosed ...

    Fehr: Could I make a point?

    Waters: Yes, you may.

    Fehr: For example, I believe based on the information that you have, among these enormous losses occurring in 2001 ... half of the losses come from four clubs: the Dodgers, the Braves, the Rangers, and the Blue Jays. All thought to be well-to-do teams, all teams purchased within the recent past by media conglomerates. Ought that not to raise some questions as to what those losses are? Would you not like an explanation as to how they can take such losses? We'd like to give it to you.

    Now, this is a key point. As I've mentioned before, when the same corporation owns both a TV network and a baseball team, there's nothing to prevent, say, AOL Time Warner from paying less than market value for the right to broadcast Braves games all across the country via TBS.

    So are the Braves and the Cubs really receiving fair-market value for their broadcast rights, from their corporate parents? Well, consider the following figures:

    Tigers   $19 million
    Phillies $19 million
    Braves   $20 million
    Orioles  $21 million
    Indians  $21 million
    Cubs     $24 million
    Rangers  $25 million

    Now, does it really make sense that the Braves and Cubs broadcasts, regularly shown on cable systems all around the country, would be worth approximately the same as the local broadcasts of Orioles and Indians games? It certainly doesn't make sense to me.

    Continuing with Waters' interrogation of Selig ...

    Waters: We'd like an explanation. Let me give you a quote, and I'll read it to you. "Anyone who quotes profits of a baseball club is missing the point. Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss, and I could get every nationally accounting firm to agree with me." Paul Beeston, then a Toronto Blue Jays vice president, now baseball's Chief Operating Officer; this is 1979.

    Now you see why we're pursuing this? ... You have a federal antitrust exemption and you want to protect it ... But what you're saying to us today is, despite the fact you have this exemption, despite the fact we're asking you for this information, you're not going to give it to us and you're going to sue the players if they give it to us. Am I to conclude that that's what you're saying to us today?

    Selig: I don't believe I am.

    Waters: What then are you saying?

    Selig: I'm saying that we have given you all the financial information that all of us work with. You have all the numbers, all the statements have been audited except for this year --

    Waters: Let me remind you that you're under oath.

    Selig: You have audited financial statements for six years--

    Waters: Let me remind you that you're under oath. I'm going to rephrase my question--

    At which point Sensenbrenner broke in once again, because 1) Representative Waters' five minutes had expired, and 2) Sensenbrenner and Selig are both from Wisconsin.

    Politicians may be corrupt and ill-informed at worst, or myopic and way too busy at best, but they're not generally stupid, and they sure as hell know when they're getting the runaround. And in the long and dishonorable tradition of Congressional hearings, Bud Selig spent much of his testimony giving his questioners the runaround.

    You see what's going on here, don't you? MLB has supposedly provided Congress with the same numbers, the "audited financial statements," that they provided the Blue Ribbon Panel, but what does that mean? It doesn't mean anything at all. MLB has provided the Players Association with greater detail ... but the Players Association isn't allowed to share that information with Congress or anyone else. So what it comes down to is this: Major League Baseball has provided first the Blue Ribbon panel, now Congress -- and as it turns out, you and me -- with precisely the data they want us to see. And not a single number more.

    And Selig never did answer another basic question, which is, "How does contraction" -- by the way, contraction would certainly cost the teams at least $500 million to implement -- "solve any of baseball's problems?"

    As Governor Ventura said, "I cannot understand how eliminating the Minnesota Twins will help the Arizona Diamondbacks draw more fans, or prevent them from spending more money than they can afford on player salaries."

    Anyway, after reading everything I could find and listening to Commissioner Bud far more than I'd prefer, here's what I think.

    I think that baseball teams are losing money as a group, though the losses aren't anywhere near $519 million, and the real losses are somewhere south, quite likely far south, of $200 million. But I also think that most of those losses, and perhaps all of them, disappear each time a club is sold, generally for far more than its last purchase price.

    I think that the owners have once again not negotiated in good faith with the players, once again leaving the owners in a precarious legal position. If press reports are to believed, the owners unilaterally broke off negotiations last summer.

    I think that contraction has always been a negotiating ploy more than anything, intended to scare the players into concessions and the good people of Minnesota into ponying up for a new ballpark.

    I think that if MLB does somehow overcome all of the many obstacles to contraction and exterminates two franchises in 2002 or 2003, within five years MLB will sell two expansion franchises for between $200 million and $300 million per franchise. This, my friends, is why Bud Selig and his pals aren't interested in moving a franchise; it doesn't make them any money, while expansion would bring each existing club somewhere in the neighborhood of a $20 million windfall.

    And I think that the men who run Major League Baseball will, just has they have been doing for the last 30 years, continue to behave stupidly and dishonestly in their dealings with their employees and their customers. Frankly, they just can't seem to help themselves.

    FRIDAY, DEC. 7
    I promised another column for today about Major League Baseball's economic woes, real and imagined, but after watching all three-plus hours of the hearings in Washington yesterday, I hope you'll allow me a few more days to review the testimony and the numbers that MLB released. I will write on this subject Monday, but for now I'd like to touch on other matters which, while less important, are quite a bit more fun ...

      Hey Rob,

      First, I have to say that I was a big critic of yours back in the day, but the more I read your columns the more I understand where you're coming from. Anyhow, all this Hall of Fame talk has me wondering about Mark Grace. Assuming he retires after this next season, what chance does he have of making the Hall? Great fielder, great hitter, lifetime average over .300 (I think) and some postseason heroics. And perhaps the greatest chain-smoking first basemen of all time.

      I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Grace. Thanks and keep up the good work.

      Hua Hsu
      Cambridge, Mass.

    I get this questions many times each year, and frankly my answer is the same today as it was five years ago ... No, Mark Grace is not a Hall of Famer. He has been a very good player for a long time, and in fact it may reasonably be argued that he's never had anything approaching a bad season. That's impressive.

    However, Mark Grace has never been a great player, not even once.

    In 1989, when his Cubs won a division title, Grace finished 14th in the MVP balloting, behind teammates Ryne Sandberg, Mitch Williams and Jerome Walton.

    In 1992, when his Cubs finished fourth, Grace finished 16th in the MVP balloting, behind teammates Greg Maddux and Ryne Sandberg.

    In 1993, when his Cubs again finished fourth, Grace finished 18th in the MVP balloting, which was the best showing on the club.

    In 1995, when his Cubs finished third, Grace finished 13th in the MVP balloting, behind teammate Sammy Sosa.

    In 1998, when his Cubs finished second but won the Wild Card, Grace wasn't listed on a single MVP ballot. Grace's teammate Sammy Sosa won the award, closer Rod Beck got a few votes, and even Mickey Morandini picked up a 10th-place vote ... but not a single mention for Mark Grace.

    And that's the entire MVP story for Mark Grace. Granted, Grace hasn't generally played for good teams, but 1) doesn't he bear some responsibility for his team's performance? and 2) that's not much of any excuse anyway. In his long and productive career, Grace has earned MVP consideration only four times, and the best he did was come in 13th on the ballot, in 1995.

    The point, again, is that at no time in his career has Mark Grace been considered great, nor was he ever great. There are, to be sure, ballplayers in the Hall of Fame who lack a certain greatness, but if you're a fan of the Hall of Fame, then you should be arguing against enshrining those sorts of players rather than arguing for it.

      Rob, Enjoyed your article on the five players you would support for 2002 induction into the Hall of Fame. I was wondering if you had a top 10 of Hall of Fame players already inducted that you would vote out if given the choice? Bill Navarro
      Southern CA

    This is a touchy subject for a lot of people -- I once received e-mail from an angry man whose father's Hall of Fame qualifications I had questioned -- so let me first say that all of the players in the Hall of Fame were, in fact, good ballplayers. That said, every time you elect a player who was less than great, then you quite obviously diminish the institution itself. And as a baseball fan, my interest lies in the institution rather than any particular player or players.

    So while I might be repeating myself, here's a quick list of 10 players who don't really meet the standards of their fellow Hall of Famers:

    George Kelly (1B, Giants)
    Travis Jackson (SS, Giants)
    George Kell (3B, Tigers)
    Fred Lindstrom (3B, Giants) Chick Hafey (LF, Cardinals)
    Lloyd Waner (CF, Pirates)
    Hack Wilson (CF, Giants)
    Ross Youngs (RF, Giants)
    Rick Ferrell (C, Senators)
    Ray Schalk (C, White Sox)

    If you discerned a running theme here, you're right: there are far too many old New York Giants in the Hall of Fame. George Kelly, for example, wasn't half the ballplayer that Mark Grace is. Travis Jackson wasn't half the player that Dave Concepcion was, Fred Lindstrom wasn't half the player that Ken Boyer was, etc.

    Not coincidentally, all 10 of these fellows were elected by the Veterans Committee, which of course has been responsible for the great majority of the questionable selections.

    I have written, at least a few times, something like, "The BBWAA has done a fine job over the years. Sure, they've missed a few guys they should have elected, but they've elected very few (if any) they should not have elected."

    And the BBWAA has done a fine job ... collectively. But that's due in large part to the system. With the hundreds of voters essentially making their picks independently, it's relatively difficult for a candidate to reach the 75-percent threshold. The BBWAA voters do some strange things, though. Harvey Kuenn, who's nobody's idea of a Hall of Famer, garnered as many as 188 votes (in 1988, when 321 votes were needed for election). Marty Marion, who was a brilliant defensive shortstop but, again, is nobody's idea of a Hall of Famer, picked up 127 votes in 1973 (when 285 votes were needed for election).

    The point being that BBWAA voters are perfectly capable of making odd decisions, but unlike the Veterans Committee for most of its history, the BBWAA voters aren't encouraged to conspire on their oddities. The result? If you make a list of marginal (or worse) Hall of Famers, you'll find that virtually all of them were elected/selected by a small group of old men sitting in a smoke- or gas-filled room.

      Mr. Neyer,

      First, let me say that Jim Rice was my favorite player of all time, so I'm definitely biased. But in your recent column, you wrote that Jim Rice was helped tremendously by his home park. I'd have to disagree with you. Sure, Fenway definitely helps right-handed hitters, and it probably did help his batting average. But as someone who watched Jim Rice play every day, I think Fenway hurt his home-run totals significantly. Rice had tremendous power to straightaway CF, and hit many doubles or triples to the CF triangle that are home runs in most parks. And Rice was a line-drive hitter who did not hit many cheap home runs. The Green Monster turned many potential home runs into doubles or singles for Rice. It was quite common to see Rice hit line drives off that wall that would be home runs anywere else, more so than any other player I can remember. Just my thoughts,
      Mark Harriman

    This is like one of those urban legends that just won't go away. Every time I write about Jim Rice, I get at least a few e-mails just like this one, and so I patiently respond with something like the following ...

      Dear Red Sox fan,

      That's just flat-out wrong.

      Here are Rice's home and road stats from 1978 to the end of his career, including home runs (courtesy of Total Baseball):

             OBP  Slugging    HR
      Home  .379    .539     156 
      Road  .327    .456     139

      Convinced? You see, while it's true that Rice undoubtedly hit many line drives off the Monster, don't you think it's also true that he hit at least a few routine fly balls that dropped into the netting.


    Even taking Fenway Park into consideration, Rice was obviously a fine hitter for a number of years. But he was not a particularly good defensive left fielder, and in the 1980s he lost his speed and began grounding into an immense number of double plays. And those things count, too.

      Rob, I agree with you on Smoltz. Love the guy as a ferocious competitor but the Braves just got duped. Later on in the season we will hear how they spent so much money on pitching they had nothing left for a few players who can actually hit playoff-type pitching. I think it was a game of chess with the rest of the teams and their ludicrous interest in paying him the kind of money rumored.

      Rick Marcin

    I didn't make this point in Monday's column, but I certainly should have. In 2001, the Atlanta Braves ranked 13th in the National League in runs scored, ahead of the Expos, Pirates and Mets and behind everybody else. And a runs-starved team that's supposedly suffered "mammoth" financial losses simply doesn't have the luxury of spending $30,000,000 over three years on a closer with 10 career saves. The Braves are lucky, because they play in a division with a bunch of messed-up teams. And they do have some solid minor-league talent. But one of these days, management's inability to make wise financial decisions is going to leave them in second or third place.

    After moderately careful consideration -- hey, it's not like my opinion actually counts for anything -- here are the five Hall of Fame candidates, in alphabetical order, who get my vote this time around ...

    Bert Blyleven
    Gary Carter
    Goose Gossage
    Ozzie Smith
    Alan Trammell

    A few words on each of them ...

    A year or two ago, I wrote many hundreds of words about Bert Blyleven, who is on the ballot for the fifth time, having received scant support his first four tries. Blyleven, quite frankly, is overqualified for the Hall of Fame. Blyleven was, over the course of his career, a better pitcher than Ted Lyons or Early Wynn or Bob Lemon or Red Ruffing or Rube Waddell or Red Faber or Catfish Hunter or Lefty Gomez, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Blyleven was also a better pitcher than Luis Tiant or Tommy John or Jim Kaat or Ron Guidry, none of whom are in the Hall of Fame but all of whom have their supporters. More to the point, John and Kaat have both received more support than Blyleven from Hall of Fame voters.

    And there simply isn't any reason for that. It's not Blyleven's fault that he generally pitched for unspectacular teams that played in hitter's parks. In fact, Blyleven pitched for 22 seasons, and in only four of those 22 seasons did Blyleven's home ballpark favor the pitcher, statistically.

    I've written many hundreds of words about Gary Carter, too. It's very simple, folks. Gary Carter is one of the eight or 10 greatest catchers who ever lived. Unfortunately, just as Blyleven spent most of his career pitching in hitter's parks, Carter spent most of his career hitting in pitcher's parks; he played 18 full seasons in the majors, and in only six of those seasons did Carter's home ballpark favor the hitter, statistically.

    Unfortunately, the great majority of your Hall of Fame voters don't pay attention to such things, which is why neither Carter nor Blyleven will be elected this year.

    Goose Gossage, on the other hand, has essentially been victimized by lousy timing. In his prime, the late 1970s, you could lead your league with 25 or 30 saves, and in fact Gossage did lead the American League in saves three times, never with more than 33. But Gossage just pitched and pitched and kept on pitching, came up when he was 20 and was still pitching (and pitching well) when he was 43.

    Gossage pitched in 1994, and so wasn't on a Hall of Fame ballot until 2000 ... by which point closers were leading their leagues with 45 or 50 saves. And suddenly Goose Gossage, who was easily the most feared relief pitcher in the American League for close to a decade, didn't seem so impressive any more.

    There are, at this moment, two relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame. The first is Hoyt Wilhelm, whose career began in 1952 and can't really be compared to Gossage because their roles were so different. The second is Rollie Fingers, who can be compared to Gossage because their careers were roughly contemporary.

    Fingers was, of course, a fine pitcher, both durable and effective. That said, adjusting for his home ballparks, Fingers' ERA was 19 percent better than the leagues in which he pitched. Gossage's ERA was 26 percent better than the leagues in which he pitched. Fingers wasn't any better than Gossage; he simply was lucky enough to finish his career in the 1980s, when 300 saves still seemed like a lot.

    It's a funny thing about Ozzie Smith; there doesn't seem to be any fence-straddling. I hear from people who don't believe that a player with his hitting stats should even be on the ballot, and I hear from other people who think that not only should we elect Ozzie Smith, but also Dave Concepcion and Omar Vizquel and every other brilliant defensive shortstop.

    Well, I'm going to straddle the fence. Yes, Ozzie Smith does belong in the Hall of Fame. But no, every other superior defensive shortstop does not belong in the Hall of Fame. Ozzie wasn't just a great defensive shortstop, he was the greatest defensive shortstop. He was to shortstop what Willie Mays was to center field, what Brooks Robinson (or if you prefer, Clete Boyer) was to third base, was Keith Hernandez was to first base, what Bill Mazeroski was to second base.

    There's a difference between Ozzie and those other brilliant fielders, though ... shortstop is more important. The best defensive shortstop is generally going to save more runs than the best defensive second baseman or the best defensive center fielder. So in Ozzie Smith, you've got the greatest defensive player at the most important defensive position ... and you know, he wasn't that bad with the bat, once he'd been in the league for a few years. He always stole bases profusely and effectively -- 80-percent career success rate, about the same as Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson -- and over the 11-year stretch from 1982 through 1992, Smith posted a solid .357 on-base percentage.

    All of which is to say, there is very little doubt in my mind that Ozzie Smith was one of the 10 greatest shortstops ever, notwithstanding the current crop. And it seems to me that if you're among the top 10 players at your position, then by definition you're a Hall of Famer.

    Which brings us to Alan Trammell, who also ranks as one of the 10 or 12 greatest shortstops ever. Let's compare Trammell to Ozzie, hitting stats only:

           Runs   RBI   OBP  Slug
    Ozzie  1257   793  .337  .328
    Alan   1231  1003  .352  .415

    Big edge for Trammell, obviously. And he was not helped much by Tiger Stadium, which was a good home-run park but was not a particularly good hitter's park in general. Yes, Ozzie has a big edge defensively ... but how big? Nobody seems to remember this now, but Trammell was once considered the best defensive shortstop in the American League. He won Gold Gloves in 1980 and '81, and then again in '83 and '84 (and probably would have won the GG in 1982, except Robin Yount was all-everything that year).

    Trammell was the best player in the American League in 1987, but finished a close second to George Bell in the MVP vote because baseball writers are obsessed with RBI. Trammell never played quite so well again, though he did put together a few more solid seasons. He was overshadowed by Cal Ripken for much of his career, but we shouldn't let that blind us to his greatness.

    So those are my five.

    I do know that Andre Dawson and Dale Murphy will draw significant support, and both might well deserve plaques in the Hall. My problem with Murphy is that he was a good player for only eight years, though of course he was a great player for five or six of those years.

    Dawson, meanwhile, was a fine player for a long time, but I just don't buy him as a Hall of Famer. He played in an era conducive to hitting, and finished his career with a .323 on-base percentage. In 1987, his MVP season with the Cubs, Dawson drew 32 walks and scored 90 runs. Like I said, he was a fine player, but he wasn't much better than Dave Parker or Bobby Murcer or Dwight Evans.

    Jim Rice was helped immensely by his home ballpark, and when you account for that, he simply doesn't have the hitting stats you'd like to see from a Hall of Fame left fielder who also DH'd in 530 games. And Jack Morris ... well, let's just say that he might be one of the 100 greatest pitchers ever. But then again, he might not be.

    MONDAY, DEC. 3
    Today's column:

    You know about "the Winner's Curse"? It's a simple way of saying that when you "win" an auction, you've actually lost. In most cases, the rational value of a commodity is best approximated by the average value that consumers assign it.

    It's fashionable to say that a baseball player is, by definition, "worth" whatever he's paid. But that's only because baseball players are an uncommon commodity. Is a can of beans "worth" the highest price that someone will pay? Of course not. While there's probably some poor soul out there who loves beans so much that he'd pay $20 for a can of pintos, that doesn't mean that Acme Beans can charge $20 for that can of beans, because not nearly enough people will pay that $20.

    Auctions are different, of course. It's got nothing to do with the average value; all that matters is the highest value. When you "win" an auction, almost by definition you're paying more than the commodity's real, market value. Hence, "the Winner's Curse."

    With that in mind, let me describe a pitcher to you; we'll call him "John."

    "John" turns 35 next May, and injuries have limited him to just 59 innings over the last two seasons. In those two seasons, he garnered 10 saves, the first 10 saves of his long career. He's a free agent, and his previous employers would like to re-sign him as their closer.

    Another few pieces of information, the 2001 salaries for the planet's best closers, or at least some of the planet's best-paid closers:

    Mariano Rivera: $9 million
    Robb Nen: $6.6 million
    Trevor Hoffman: $6.6 million
    Jeff Shaw: $6.4 million
    Armando Benitez: $5.8 million
    Kazuhiro Sasaki: $5 million
    Troy Percival: $3.4 million

    It's apparent that the market value for an established closer is somewhere between $6 million and $10 million... And yet the Atlanta Braves just signed closer John Smoltz for $10 million per season.

    "Ah, but they're the Braves," you're saying. "They've got the new ballpark, and the solid attendance, and golly they must make a bundle of dough from their TV broadcasts, what with having the Superstation and all." In fact, according to Kagan World Media, the Braves made an estimated $54 million last year from their local TV deals (including TBS, though they may not be counting that money since it's "in house"), and another $19 million from Major League Baseball's national deals with ESPN and Fox. That's nearly $75 million, just from TV; we haven't even got into ticket revenues ($50 million) or merchandise licensing or luxury suites yet. In 2001, the Braves paid $93 million in player salaries.

    So sure, the Braves can afford to overpay ... just like the Yankees, who reportedly offered Smoltz $52 million over four years to start for them. In fact, among Smoltz's many suitors, only the Braves wanted him as a reliever; everybody else was banking on his ability to stay healthy (and productive) in the rotation.

    You wanna hear something funny, though? The Atlanta Braves supposedly lost money this year. And last year. According to Braves president Stan Kasten in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "The losses for the last two years have been mammoth. We have never [before] had losses like the last two years... We clearly have had an operating loss -- a very, very serious one -- and I'll leave it at that for now."

    Now, this leads me to draw one of two conclusions: either Kasten is lying, and the Braves actually have plenty of money to spend, or Kasten and John Schuerholz are stupidly spending a large portion of their limited financial resources on a pitcher who will, if everything goes according to plan, give them 70 or 80 innings next season.

    Did I say one of two conclusions? Instead I think I'll choose (c) all of the above. It strikes me as highly unlikely that the Braves have really lost as much money as Kasten suggests they've lost, and it also strikes me as asinine to commit $30 million to a 35-year-old closer with 10 career saves.

    I love John Smoltz. He's one of the most intelligent, genuine players in the game, the sort of player who makes me feel a bit less sheepish about spending so much time following (and writing about) what is essentially a pointless diversion. I hope that John Smoltz becomes the best closer in the game, and eventually revisits his knuckleball and pitches until he's 45 or 50, like Hoyt Wilhelm. But a 35-year-old closer with no real track record is not worth $10 million per season, and Smoltz's new contract simply raises more questions about the honesty and intelligence of the men who run the sport.

    Postscript: This is the third or fourth straight column in which I've referenced MLB's perfidy, and I apologize if it's getting stale. But you know how when you get a new car, suddenly you start noticing others just like it, all over the road?

    Well, lately everything that happens in baseball reminds me of how dishonest the Lords of Baseball are, and of how stupid they must think we are.

    We can all use a break from this stuff, though, so Wednesday I'll write about the current Hall of Fame ballot. And then Thursday, Mr. Bud goes to Washington, which should provide plenty of fodder for Friday's column.

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