On Saturday, as The Major League Baseball trading deadline came and went, the New York Yankees made three trades, picking up Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns. None of these moves was earth-shattering or even terribly significant. Berkman is an ex-All Star in the twilight of an excellent career. Woods is a former phenom who is now 33 and was pitching to an ERA of 6.30 in Cleveland on those rare occasions when he wasn’t on the Disabled List. Kearns is a journeyman outfielder who can catch a fly ball and throw out an occasional runner.
The Dodgers picking up Ted Lilly—although they may have made their move too late—is more significant. Certainly the earlier trades that moved Cliff Lee to Texas; Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia and Dan Haren (although that may be too late too) were far more significant than anything the Yankees did.
Of course the Yankees made these moves already having the best record in baseball. They were moves made because perhaps each of the three will win one game in the next two months or get one key hit or one key out in postseason. That would be enough because the Yankees didn’t have to give up an important prospect in any of the three moves. All they cost was money and for the Yankees, buying players like Berkman, Wood and Kearns is like buying one of the railroads on a Monopoly board. They’ll wait until this winter to buy Park Place—Lee—and keep on going from there.
This is not, by any stretch, a rant against the Yankees. Even though I’m a lifelong Mets fan I’ve never hated the Yankees and I actually sort of liked them when Joe Torre was the manager because I like Joe Torre. The current rules of baseball say the Yankees can spend whatever they want to spend and the Yankees business plan, brilliantly executed in recent years, makes it possible for them to spend whatever they choose to spend.
The problem is the system. It needs to be fixed during the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. For years, the baseball union has been adamant about not agreeing to a salary cap. Of course that same union was adamant for years about drug-testing and we all know now how that worked out for baseball.
I understand the principle of being opposed to a salary cap. I also understand the principle of opposing drug-testing when there is no evidence that someone has used drugs. It is a violation of one’s rights and freedoms. It is also, in 2010, an absolute necessity in the world we live in just as the humiliating experience we all go through anytime we get on an airplane is also an absolute necessity.
There are salary caps in football, basketball and hockey. I don’t see very many players starving as a result of them. The NFL is about to go through what will be an angry, protracted negotiation with its union because for the first time in a long time the union has a leader—DeMaurice Smith—who is more than willing to wade in and do battle with the commissioner and the owners. But no one is going to debate whether the salary cap should continue to exist. The battleground will be what percentage of revenues the players get and what percentage the owners get. Put simply, the owners want more.
Hockey is a better and more balanced sport since Gary Bettman was willing to sacrifice a season five years ago and it can be argued that the salary cap saved the NBA back in the 1980s although it now needs considerable tweaking with a CBA negotiation coming up there too.
The issue has never really reached the table in baseball. That’s because Don Fehr was smarter and tougher than any commissioner, any owner and any negotiator sent forth by ownership for many, many years. Every time the owners tried to play hard ball on any front, Fehr sat back and waited for the courts or an arbitrator to rule in favor of the players because they always did. Whether Fehr was the smartest lawyer of all time or the owners hired some of the dumbest lawyers of all time is hard to say, but Fehr and the union were undefeated.
That’s why they were able to hold off drug-testing until public embarrassments forced them to give in, first to limited testing and, finally, after the 2005 Congressional hearing—the famous Mark McGwire, ‘I’m not hear to talk about the past,’ testimony not to mention Rafael Palmeiro’s outright lying and Sammy Sosa forgetting how to speak English—more frequent testing.
That’s also why there’s never been any serious talk about a salary cap. Revenue sharing was the compromise agreed to years ago and it HAS helped. The Minnesota Twins, targeted for extinction by the owners nine years ago, are now flourishing in a wonderful new ballpark, contending every year and have a payroll of just under $100 million. They’ve even signed Joe Mauer to an extension that should keep him in Minnesota through the peak years of an already-great career.
The Tampa Bay Rays won a pennant in 2008 and are chasing the Yankees with great vigor right now. The Cincinnati Reds have one of baseball’s best young teams. The well-managed small market teams can contend. The poorly managed small market teams (Kansas City, Pittsburgh) don’t. The Orioles and Cubs are just poorly managed.
But it’s not enough. The Yankees can’t buy a championship every year, but they can buy contending. They’ve missed the playoffs once since the strike of 1994 and their payroll just keeps growing and growing—as do their revenues. The Twins can contend but win the World Series? It doesn’t seem likely. The Brewers made the playoffs a couple of years back but can they, realistically, win the whole thing? The Texas Rangers DID rent Lee and will make postseason this year but can they go deep into postseason? Where will they be next year when Lee is pitching for the Yankees and the Angels go out and pick up two key free agents?
All sports need balance. The Saints winning The Super Bowl was great for the NFL and the Chicago Black Hawks—a big market team, sure, but they hadn’t won a title in almost 50 years—winning the Stanley Cup was good for hockey. Change and variety are good.
No one is proposing that the Yankees be crippled or cease being a dynasty. Their popularity is also good for baseball: they sell tickets and move TV ratings, especially when they play the Red Sox, who just happen to have baseball’s second biggest payroll.
But the time has come for both a salary cap and a salary FLOOR. The Yankees should have to think twice not so much before signing Lee but before throwing an extra $10 million or so at three marginal players who might make them just enough better to win again this year. The Royals and Pirates should be forced to plow ALL their revenue-sharing money into payroll—ALL OF IT—and every team should have a minimum payroll that gives it a chance to compete. If an owner can’t afford that payroll, especially when aided by revenue sharing, make him sell the team. Owning a baseball team isn’t an inalienable right.
This is the time for the owners to make this move. Fehr has retired. The union has finally been dinged by the public embarrassment over drug-testing. The owners need to go public with this battle because for once they will actually be right. They will not just be trying to grab more money they will be trying to bring balance to their sport.
The time to talk about a salary cap and ring hands and blame the union is over. The time to do to it is here and now. It can be called, ‘The Austin Kearns Rule.’ Has a ring to it I think.