Some Perspective

Before informing you of people whom I sincerely hope you keep in your thoughts and prayers, especially as we enter a New Year, I must admit that, before learning of the plights of these people, the baseball related discussion below was about to be an untoward rant toward one of the pre-eminent–in fact Hall-of-Fame–journalists in all of baseball, Peter Gammons.  As much as anything, this post is intended to indicate that we learn as we go, even and sometimes especially if we initially think that we have things all figured out.  Usually something serves as a prescient reminder of the fragility of life and, in the process, that life itself is the great instructor, that we’re always its pupils.  Here I hope it also proves helpful for untangling the rhetorical Gordian knot that has entangled financial discussions in sports in general and baseball in particular.

I just read at Jane Heller’s excellent Confessions of a She-Fan that Doug Mientkiewicz’s wife has had another operation, in addition to her previous heart surgery and pacemaker implant.  Among many calls he has received, including from Jane, Mientkiewicz received one from Yankees manager Joe Girardi wishing him and his wife Jodi well.  I must admit to including myself in the group that respected Mientkiewicz’s outstanding glove but consistently criticized him because of his bat in the first few months of 2007, when the Yankees struggled.  When he got hurt June 2 against Boston after Mike Lowell collided with him at first, Mientkiewicz was batting .226–up 72 points from the end of the dismal April the Yankees had amassed.  Yet he had 18 hits in September, adding to his always excellent play in the field, to help the Yankees clinch the Wild Card spot in a most unlikely fashion.  This guy–this great glove and terrific teammate for the Yankees only one season, in addition to seemingly being a loving husband–has dealt with a tremendous amount with his wife ill for some time.  Please keep him and his wife in your thoughts and prayers this off-season as 2008 rings into 2009.  Regardless of playing well or poorly, Mientkiewicz was more than solid in the field.  He was accountable and with no excuses.  I wish his wife Jodi a speedy recovery and return to good health.

In my preoccupation with my own immediate family and friends this Holiday season, I neglected to pass along my best wishes for a speedy and healthy recovery from surgery for a rare form of stomach cancer that Todd Drew, who writes at Alex Belth’s outstanding Bronx Banter in addition to his own stellar Yankees For Justice, experienced over the holidaysThat he continues to experience difficulty as he recovers pains he, not only because he and I seem to share the same left-wing political views and not only because we share our allegiance to the Yanks, but also that Todd is a terrific writer whose work people should regularly read and savor.  Please keep Todd in your thoughts as well as we ring in the New Year.

I mention these not simply to poke and prod us–mainly me–about our inner, essential humanity.  Rather, these examples of human frailty very much remind me of Peter Gammons, whose recent article at ESPN.com I’ll staunchly criticize below but for whose overall work I’m still grateful to read.  Gammons very nearly died of an aneurysm over two years ago, and the story detailing his recovery to which I just linked–replete with Gammons thanking everyone from the woman in the gym parking lot who saved him to the medical and nursing staffs who cared for him to Don Mattingly who gave Gammons a cross and necklace he received as a gift–still moves me deeply when I read it.  Thus, I do not take lightly the harsh critique I will subsequently level against a Gammons article for various reasons, including his injudiciously analogizing the Yankees to that nefariously inhumane corporate enterprise, Wal-Mart.

Gammons begins by purporting to know what was in Mark Teixeira’ heart of hearts–$$$–when he says, “All the innuendo about Teixeira not caring for Larry Lucchino and John Henry doesn’t really matter, because Teixeira was going to New York.”  In other words, sports fans, ignore the good, detailed legwork that Alan Schwarz did at The New York Times “Bats” blog to detail at least part of the Teixeira back story–that the Red Sox just may have warded off other baseball teams on Teixeira coming out of high school only to subsequently low-ball Teixeira on their eventual mid-round draftee’s contract offer.  Ignore also that Teixeira may have had lingering reticence about the Red Sox organization that predated Lucchino and Henry.  Gammons’s article would have us believe that it was simply the Yankees’ financial gravitas or inexorable economic inertia that Teixeira was unable to withstand.

Now to be fair, Gammons does dole out praise to the Yankees for their baseball and business acumen, for their patience in passing on trading for Johan Santana so that what high-priced acquisitions they made would not be at the expense of their budding minor-league system, for their perspicacity in seeing the long-range free-agent picture to know that the pre-2009 free agent crop was probably the most bountiful they’d see for at least a couple years, and for rightly acknowledging the smarts of GM Brian Cashman.  Gammons is no dummy and has a good head for both the on-field game and the behind-the-scenes machinations to know how baseball and its personalities operate.

Where I diverge from and eventually criticize Gammons based on his as always well-written if innately flawed piece begins with his determination that a good degree of fans were at once mini-Steinbrenners, self-hating Red Sox fans, and willing to part with precious prospects for expensive experienced players. Without his citing any specifics, Gammons ignores the incongruity of the hydra-headed monster he concocted.  He presumes that those who consider not winning the world series “a failure” to be “misanthropes,” while at the same time discussing the “joy” that Jeter and Mariano have brought to the ballpark–all the while overlooking how miserable Pete Abraham characterized Mariano to have been during the final weeks of the 2008 season as he knew and experienced a Fall without an October.  To consider such fans misanthropic ignores that they just may derive significant value and enjoyment from experiencing the games, yet still might evaluate their team’s overall success harshly.  This seems to elude Gammons.

Where I really take umbrage with Gammons is in his ill-chosen analogy between the Yankees and Wal-Mart, a company and whose practices I absolutely loathe.  Near the end of his article, Gammons brays, “Wal-Mart eats up small-family businesses.  The Yankees eat up the Brewers and the Indians, and there may not be an owner in any sport who, given the opportunity afforded to Hal Steinbrenner, wouldn’t have done the same thing.”

The Yankees are Wal-Mart? The Yankees treat their employees, up to and including their players–without whom there quite simply and frankly are no Yankees–as Wal-Mart does?  Wal-Mart, for those who may not know, is the corporation that just settled 63 large lawsuits for $640 million in stolen back pay for refusing to pay employees for rest and meal breaks as well as forcing them to work off the clock rather than pay overtime.  Not only is this not the first time that Wal-Mart has done such things but, as interviews with corporate managers in Robert Greenwald’s excellent documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices” reveal, this is company policy.  Greenwald’s fine film also reveals patterns of spying on employees as part of its heinously anti-union animus, sexual discrimination, employing woefully underpaid workers in chop-shop contractor factories overseas, and environmental degradation as part of Wal-Mart’s destructive modus operandi.

Gammons’s point is to liken one financial giant and the dominance they enjoy and exert to another.  It was in my opinion poorly done, is woefully inaccurate and as a result is rendered facile, and for more than the atrocious particulars about Wal-Mart mentioned above.  It also reflects how badly people, even someone as informed about baseball as Gammons, discuss the game’s financial particulars.

“Wal-Mart eats up small-family businesses.  The Yankees eat up the Brewers and the Indians…”  Really?  Let’s discuss.  Wal-Mart does in fact drive out small-business competition through various means, including undercutting their prices and attracting customers by offering most things customers want, need, and use under one roof.  However, the Yankees, through revenue-sharing, support the Brewers and Indians, among other small-market teams.  According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2005, the Yankees paid $76 million in revenue-sharing that, with what twelve other teams contributed, was subsequently divided up among the seventeen others.  The Brewers received $24 million and the Indians $6 million. Such largess nearly off-set the Brewers’ total 2005 salary of $39, 934, 833, and paid just over 1/6 of Cleveland’s $41,504,500 2005 salary–neither insignificant sums.  The Royals, whose fans staged a hissy-fit “protest” walkout of the Yankees in 1999, received $30 million in 2005 through revenue-sharing to off-set 5/6 of their $36,881,000 total payroll that season.  To the best of my knowledge, their fans have not protested that the Royals should return any of that money to the Yankees or other larger-market teams.  These and other small-market teams, which by the way are the ones who most often underpay players, have little incentive to fill their stadiums with fans by attracting them through signing good players.  In essence, small-market teams that are unsuccessful on the field can be and often are quite successful financially.  For example, the Florida Marlins had a 2005 payroll of $60,408,834, received $31 million in revenue-sharing that year, then drastically slashed payroll the next three seasons to just under $15 million in 2006, just over $30 million in 2007, and just under $22 million last year–slightly more combined than they paid in 2005–half of which was off-set by revenue-sharing in that year alone.

The Yankees don’t eat up these teams.  They and others feed them hand over fist, whether or not they re-invest the money into payroll, which is the purpose of revenue-sharing and which small-market teams too often don’t.  They’re too often selfish, hoarding money rather than paying players more and in the process sticking it to fans who, in places such as Florida, certainly notice.  The Marlins drew on average 16,482 last year, 16,920 in 2007, and 14,372 in 2006–dead last in the National League each year–after drawing 22,872 on average in 2005, a season in which payroll happened to be nearly what it was in the three subsequent seasons combined.

I can at least agree with Gammons’s conclusion that other teams would do the same, seeking to dominate, in a similar situation.  Yet I stridently disagree with the ill-chosen Wal-Mart analogy for the reasons I outlined above.  I also strongly question to what degree such owners of small-market teams even wish to be in Hal Steinbrenner’s situation when they receive tens of millions each year whether or not their teams are good, when they benefit from large gates when well-stocked teams with well-paid players such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Cubs and others roll into town, and when they fail to re-invest revenue-sharing largess in salaries, which is the explicit purpose of such a system.  Too often, teams such as the Marlins but also the Royals and plenty of others fail particularly their fans, but also owners of big-market teams, their own players, and the system itself by washing their hands of the responsibility to provide a good baseball product–all the while whining about competitive imbalance because of skewed salary structures that they not only do nothing to rectify, but indeed exacerbate through their penurious ways.

The Yankees are baseball’s Wal-Mart?  Spare me, Mr. Gammons.

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Published in: on December 31, 2008 at 11:12 am  Comments (8)  

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  1. Where do I begin?

    First, thanks for mentioning my post about Doug Mientkiewicz and his wife. He told me he’s been amazed by the outpouring of support he’s gotten, even from perfect strangers.

    As for Gammons and Wal-Mart and this whole discussion of the big, bad Yankees, I share your outrage. Recently, I had to listen to an anti-Yankees rant from someone who said, “Sports are about hope. The Yankees take away hope from small-market teams when they BUY all the top players.” I said, “Excuse me? Among the World Series contenders over the last several years have been the Rays, Phillies, Rockies, Cardinals, Marlins, White Sox, and Diamondbacks. How have the Yankees stolen anybody’s hope?” The howlers are not paying attention. Spending money on players’ contracts has guaranteed the Yankees nothing. It certainly hasn’t deprived other teams of succeeding.

    Happy New Year, Jason, and thanks for your always intelligent, impassioned posts.

  2. Mientkiewicz always seemed like a really good, down-to-earth guy who was better than his average with the Yanks showed, in addition to being one hell of a glove man. I hope his wife recovers and quickly. I too get riled about that argument about the Yankees somehow depriving the others of hope. What a canard. Thanks for the kind words, Jane, and have a Happy New Year.

  3. Another point worth making, that I neglected to do in this post but on which I’ll expound soon enough, is that the Yankees have spent a lot of money in recent years not only acquiring players but just as importantly keeping their own. I’ve always believed that this is something that teams must do. If there are internal options at positions who are just as good, it’s understandable for teams to go with a cheaper alternative if they genuinely believe that replacement can be just as good. If the Yankees had players to replace Mariano and Posada before 2008, I have no doubt that they would have at the very least considered it before signing one or both to expensive, long-term deals. However, plenty of teams just don’t keep their own because they simply won’t spend the cash. The Yankees kept Mariano and Posada, life-long Yanks but also effective players, especially Mariano at his age. Finding better than especially Mariano would have been impossible anyway. Plus, the Yankees hurt their bargaining position when they re-signed neither player before 2007, then Posada had a career year.

    But long story short, the criticism of the Yankees’ rich payroll ignores that in good part, they’ve kept their good players–which all teams should strive to do more of.

  4. It’s worth mentioning that A-Rod’s best season came when he had his ex-high school friend and teammate as his teammate on the Yankees.

    It’s interesting how people decry baseball for its lack of a salary cap. Yes, teams like the Pirates, Royals and Nationals have been struggling for quite some time. It looks like that will continue for a while. So what’s new? Teams like the Phillies, Browns, Philly A’s, Senators struggled for years in the past? Parity to me means mediocrity.

    But yes, the Braves dynasty has ended, and now you see the Mets and Phils. Lest we forget the Marlins won in 1997, tore down the team and then won again in 2003. No one mentions that, do they? Each NL West team has made the playoffs this decade, haven’t they? The Giants, and Rockies made the Series, and the D-backs won it in 2001 as we Yankee fans all too painfully know.

    And what of other sports? Was there the great outcry when Jordan led the Bulls to six titles in eight years (and it could have been 8 for 8 had Jordan not gone to baseball, thus “loaning” the NBA title to Houston for two years). What of the San Antonio dominance, or the Lakers? Were people complaining in the 1980s over the Celtics-Lakers-76ers trifecta? Once in a while (Houston) someone would sneak in, then when the Celtics got old, the Pistons took over.

    Any comments over New England’s dominance in the NFL recently? What about Dallas’ in the 1990s? Or the Colts (even with their one SB title) being in the playoffs each year? They have salary caps but I don’t hear the same kind of talk coming from say, Lions fans.

    It’s only baseball that gets this. Yet it could be said more teams in baseball have more legitimate postseason shots (see Tampa Bay, Marlins rebuilding, the 1991 Twins and Braves) than the NBA or NFL does.

    Yet baseball gets the flak. Get real and look at the truth, people (not you, Jason & co.)

  5. Here’s the thing: In all likelihood, Jason–and this goes for myself as well–if we were, for some godforsaken reason, fans of the Royals or Indians (or Pirates or Marlins, etc.), we’d probably call for a salary cap similar to the NBA or NFL. The fact that teams can “buy” their way back into the playoffs (see the 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees) must be frustrating to teams that take perhaps five to seven years to rebuild. But this is the way baseball is set up. Should a salary cap come along one day, it would probably be high enough that most teams wouldn’t approach it anyway. (I see a salary cap, if it were to be proposed for, say, 2012, to be somewhere around $175 million).

    Occasionally, I get e-mails from non-Sox and Yankee fans asking if I, as a fan, feel guilty that the top two payrolls to win the World Series were both Red Sox teams. I always jokingly say no, because the Yanks haven’t won yet this decade.

    There will always be some sort of envy from writers and teams who do not cover and/or root for the Yankees. What surprises me about Gammons is that he’s clearly a Red Sox fan, and sometimes he thinks he can slip these articles by us without looking hypocritical.

  6. Indeed, Mike, with the Philadelphia A’s, Connie Mack was notoriously thrifty, in fact frequently selling his better, veteran players and outright hoping to start the season hot to raise expectations and ticket sales, only then to fade as he had hoped.

    I do think baseball is quite often treated differently. Steroids and PEDs made such a big splash in the media when associated with baseball, yet such revelations are treated as second-nature in football, and for that matter alcoholism among hockey players. In some ways, I think it reflects a resonance of the idea that baseball really still is America’s game, that it’s with what a good many fans still associate concepts of purity and forthrightness, right or wrong.

    I hear you about small-market fans’ sentiments, Steve, but plenty of people in small markets, such as when I lived in Western New York, wanted teams like the Bills to spend more to draw better players, not necessarily a salary cap. Plenty in WNY advocated it; I and many others didn’t for this reason–it doesn’t ensure spending MINIMUMS that require teams to assemble better teams to make money through success. It’s part of what I’ve long considered the misguided notion of businesses’ so-called “right-to-manage,” reinforced after WW2 in a big business drive not to have unions, public-interest groups and consumer advocates nosing around in the affairs of businesses crying broke when it came to paying money, while still making money. That is, such a “prerogative” for businesses has too often been a smokescreen for them to do what they wish without accountability; with sports teams, it is quite often making money despite not paying players as much as they could.

    You many well be right about a high salary cap. Personally, though I’m not an advocate of salary caps, if there were mandatory spending minimum provisions for teams to ensure they were using revenue-sharing money to actually re-invest and not sit on as de facto profits, I could live with that. However, I don’t envision small-market owners going for that.

  7. This is excellent analysis on your part. Well written and to the point. Yes I too respect Mr. Gammons but he can clearly get a ‘Bostonian Bias’ or should I say ‘blindness’ at times and become very anti-Yanks.

    The whole revenue sharing situation remains the same with the Yanks contributing and the small market owners pocketing and then crying the ‘blues’. Not sure it will change in the coming years either given the new economic problems.

    Great job.

  8. Thanks a bunch, Tom. We seem on the same page about this, and it’s a good point with the possibility of an economic downturn eventually affecting sports. This might sound the clarion call from critics for a salary cap even more.

    Come back soon.


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