Time to Even Things Up in Baseball

The Upton Watch – It’s One O’Clock in the Afternoon.
Do You Know Where Your Centerfielder Is?

By Peter Golenbock

I’m sitting at my desk checking ESPN.com to see whether the Rays have traded centerfielder B.J. Upton. There are a couple reasons why I care. The first is that now that the Rays have brought up phenom Desmond Jennings to play left field, the team now has one more hitter than it had before. Though Upton is only hitting .233, he is a team leader in home runs and runs batted in.
He’s also one of the leaders of the Veecks, my Rotisserie baseball team in the American Dreams League. If Upton gets traded to the National League, I have to sit shiva for him for a week.
But the question remains: why should I have to sit and worry about whether Upton gets traded? The reason, I am told, is that the Rays can’t afford a payroll any higher than $50 million a year because of our poor attendance and our lousy ballpark. It kinda goes along with the Republicans’ argument that we need to cut $3 billion from our budget because we can no longer afford to pay for social security, Medicare, and Meals on Wheels in St. Petersburg.
Both arguments are red herrings and make me sick.
There is a major schism in major league baseball between the haves – the big market teams – and the have nots, the small market teams of which the Tampa Bay Rays apparently are one. During the bad old days when Vince Namoli owned the Rays, major league baseball decided to do something about the disparity in payroll between say, the Yankees, who under George Steinbrenner was spending $200 million a year for payroll, and the Devil Rays, who spent that same $50 million that we are spending now. To give the Rays, the Kansas City Royals, the Florida Marlins, the Seattle Mariners, and several other small market teams a better opportunity to compete, baseball made an agreement with the players association for the big market teams to pay a tax to the small market teams for every dollar a big market team spent over $150 million. The teams affected most by this rule were the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Steinbrenner being Steinbrenner ignored the luxury tax as though it didn’t exist. What did he care? The YES network earned him between $300 million and $400 million a year in income, a fraction of which he could afford to piss away on the luxury tax.
What Bud Selig, the owners’ commissioner, failed to include in the new luxury tax regulations was a rule forcing the small market owners to spend their luxury tax largesse on players to improve their team. As a result, Vince Naimoli took the approximately $30 million a year he received from the Yankees and the Red Sox, and he put that money in his pocket. No baseball owner made more money year after year, a period when the Devil Rays were a laughing stock.
Naimoli was channeling the practice of another of Tampa Bay’s rapscalian owner, the Buccanneers’ Hugh Culverhouse, who released his best players year after year rather than pay them. Culverhouse also made more money year after year than just about any other owner. Why anyone bought season tickets while Culverhouse owned the Bucs is a mystery, but if you loved the Bucs, what choice did you have?
And so it was with the Devil Rays under Naimoli. Why did we go all those years to watch over-the-hill vets like Greg Vaughn, Vinnie Castilla (Cash Stealer), and my personal favorite, reliever Esteban Yan, who sweated through his uniform after only one inning of work and who threw pitches that hitters like Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez would hit over the moon in the Trop? Because we love the game of baseball, and we loved the Devil Rays, win or lose. USF Professor Ray Arcenault and I would go to game after game because we never knew what might happen – Ben Grieve might strike out swinging instead of looking; Jose Canseco might hit the catwalk; Aaron Ledesma might get in the game — and in two out of five games, the Devil Rays would conspire to win in the wackiest of ways.
Glad to say, those days are gone, and the Naimoli regime has been replaced with the Stuart Sternberg, Andrew Friedman, Matt Silverman troika of smart, serious, and dedicated owners and executives.
The Sternberg team, renamed the Rays, won the American League pennant in 2008 and won the American League East in 2010, and they did it with a payroll significantly lower than the Yankees and the Red Sox. They did it because they were smarter than anyone else. They spent Stu’s money on pitching and defense, and until now, it was enough.
Unfortunately, the game has changed for the Rays. The Yankees and the Red Sox have caught on to what the Rays have been doing. They’ve emulated the strategy but boast better players. Those teams can hit. We can’t – or don’t.
To get to the playoffs the Rays need to beat out either the Yankees or the Red Sox. In the past beating the Yankees was possible because under owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees would spend millions of dollars on over- the-hill players who got hurt or couldn’t pitch in New York. Steinbrenner gave Carl Pavano a four-year, $40 million dollar deal. Pavano won exactly 9 games. He paid Japanese import Kei Igawa $46 million. Igawa pitched exactly sixteen games in the majors. Igawa is currently toiling in the minors for his $4 million a year. In 2007 he paid Roger Clemens $18.5 million for six wins. All because George was sure he knew better than general manager Brian Cashman.
For years George’s ego and incompetence was the Rays’ biggest advantage.
It’s an advantage that no longer exists. George is in heaven firing angels, and on the ground the Yankees under Cashman are running an intelligent, solid organization that has signed some of the best players money can buy including All Star Mark Teixeira ($23,125,000 a year) at first base and centerfielder Curtis Granderson,($8,250,000 a year) a charismatic, talented player who is taking New York City by storm. Led by veteran pitchers C.C. Sabathia ($24,285,714 a year), A.J. Burnett ($16,500,000 a year), and closer deluxe Mariano Rivera ($14,911,701 a year), the Yankees are going to win 100 games this year.
The Boston Red Sox may win even more. Boston, led by wonderkind GM Cleo Epstein and backed by stats guru Bill James, does exactly what the Rays do. They study the myriad numbers that their computer geeks spit out for them. The only difference is that the Red Sox can afford to pay left fielder Carl Crawford ($14,857,143 a year) and the Rays cannot – or would not. After snagging Crawford, the best player in Rays history, Boston also acquired San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez ($6 million a year), one of the ten best players in baseball, to play first base.
This year the Yankee payroll is $196,854,630 and the Red Sox payroll is $160,000,000. In comparison, the Rays are playing their players $41,932,171, about what Alex Rodriguez ($25,000,000 a year) and Derek Jeter ($14,729,365 a year) combined are making. This is about as unfair as the push by the Republicans to cut services to the poor and to end the security net of social security for the elderly while refusing to raise taxes on billionaires.
I am constantly amazed that none of our politicians – or our baseball officials – seem to care any more about fairness.
In baseball, Rays fans could feel better about their team if Commissioner Selig did what the football team owners just did – pass a rule saying each club has to spend a minimum amount of money on salary. In 2009 NFL teams spent an average of $103 million per team on players. In baseball that sounds about right.
There now are 600 billionaires controlling 10 percent of our wealth. Stu Sternberg is one of them. Stu has a net worth of $3 billion. Stu has the money to spend $100 million a year on players. Unlike Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who’s spending $25 million of his own money to fix up the St. Pete Times Forum, Stu just won’t spend it if it affects the bottom line. But if he and all the other owners were forced to spend a minimum of $100 million a year on players, we wouldn’t have this big market, little market problem.
Can’t afford it? I know a couple of guys who can. The Koch brothers hate to lose and aren’t afraid to put their money where their mouths are. I guarantee you, with those guys in charge B.J. Upton won’t go anywhere, and neither will the rest of the Rays stars. The only question then will be whether the rest of us will be able to afford the tickets.