Off balance

FORTY YEARS AGO, even as the reserve system was clinging to legitimacy, most of the baseball greats couldn't envision a future in which they weren't bound to their teams for life. Future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Carl Yastrzemski, among others, failed to shoot down the owners' refrain that baseball would die with free agency.

Nearly half a century of history has discredited that position. In the free agent era, which began in 1976, players and owners have earned more money than anyone ever thought possible. And as MLB's bottom line has grown, so has the level of competition. Over the past 11 years, nine different teams have won the World Series -- making a lie out of the other false narrative that sports need a salary cap to survive.

Unfortunately, that message has not been received in the NFL or NBA. Last year, the two leagues once again muscled their players into believing that the only way their games could achieve competitive balance was through limiting what teams could spend and what players could earn. Yet in the past dozen years, with the most restrictive spending rules in sports, three NFL teams -- the Steelers, Giants and Patriots -- have accounted for 11 of the 24 Super Bowl participants and seven titles. It's the same deal in the NBA, in which the Lakers, Spurs and Heat have won 11 of the past 14 titles. In fact, only in the NHL, with nine different champions in nine seasons, has the salary cap appeared to have fulfilled its field-leveling objective, which has only emboldened the league to go after even more of the revenue pie in the latest CBA skirmish.

Meanwhile, baseball is enjoying another September of dramatic pennant races. In the clubhouse, the rule is simple: To be within five games of a playoff spot on Sept. 1 is to have a chance. Well, on Sept. 5, 16 of 30 teams were within 4 1/2 games of a playoff spot. Despite the Yankees' exorbitant payroll, underdogs Oakland, Washington, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and, yes, Pittsburgh were all either leading their divisions or close to the wild card. This follows the historic races of last year, when the Red Sox and Braves collapsed on the final day of the season and the low-market Rays wound up improbably in the playoffs. As for the fallacy heard every spring training that no one but the Yankees has a chance, MLB's richest team has been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round five times since 2002, including last season, when the Tigers took them out.

But if the salary cap is as illegitimate as the reserve clause once was, it is perhaps even more entrenched; Roger Goodell and David Stern have been so successful at selling the myth of their parity models that fans around the country repeat it, as if hypnotized. This has less to do with the financial infrastructure of professional sports than something far more visceral, far less scientific. I'm talking about the anti-union, anti-worker sentiment that's growing in this country. According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who approve of labor unions has fallen from a high of 75 percent in the late 1950s to 52 percent now. I'm also talking about the subtle racism that sees many fans align more closely with management than with players -- the resentment that these young players, often minority and undereducated (despite attending the best schools in the nation), earn such ridiculous salaries and appear to be unaccountable; the notion that athletes somehow don't deserve their salaries, even as their billionaire bosses seek public subsidies for their stadiums.

Of course, the NFL (which began the season with replacement referees), the NBA (a season removed from a lockout) and the NHL (which is heading once more toward labor Armageddon) have been enabled in their con by the players themselves, who never seem to unify strongly enough against the owners. MLB players, in contrast, are unified enough, tough enough and committed enough to always reject the salary cap as a part of labor negotiations. And so it is that we are enjoying another season in which baseball veterans can earn as much as a team is willing to pay them -- and another season in which, as the leaves change and the World Series nears, almost anyone can win.

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