Major League Baseball is giddy these days. There aren’t enough hands available to pat themselves on the back. Revenues are up. Attendance is at an all-time high. TV networks bid up their contracts with each passing season. Merchandizing deals are more lucrative than ever. New stadiums, many funded by the local citizenry, abound.
So delighted are owners and players alike, they easily signed a new long-term agreement guaranteeing labor peace for several years to come. Not a single representative from either constituency who stood around the overflowing pot of gold dared piss in it.
So why am I in such a lousy mood?
The Daisuke Matsuzaka deal has me seeing red. The posting system is a sham, open to all sorts of shenanigans and otherwise as opaque and ill-conceived as any process in baseball. The Japanese teams may think they have MLB over a barrel when it comes to purchasing the rights to negotiate let alone sign their players, but they are mistaken. Only Bud Selig and his cronies have failed to figure that out. The leverage MLB has but appears reluctant to use or unable to recognize is that players like Matsuzaka want to play on the biggest stage in the game. Given their desire to don American uniforms, what Japanese teams would be content to thwart these players’ desires, restrict their movement, and deal with their discontent? If MLB refused to play this sham preliminary game of posting and went right for the straight negotiation, there would be less room for shenanigans at the very least. Until MLB restructures the process, at a minimum they should fix this lousy process by declaring that the winning bidder has a right to move on to the final negotiation stage and conclude a deal in 30 days or the next highest bidder earns that right. Better yet, they should jettison the posting nonsense altogether.
That is only part of the problem, however. The bigger problem MLB faces is what to do about the whole free agent situation and salary structure in the first place. As I wrote the other day, did anyone who knows the difference between a strikeout and a walk really believe the small market teams had a chance let alone opportunity to bid for Matsuzaka’s services? We all knew it would be the Yankees, Red Sox or maybe one other wealthy team that would end up the winner. No one in Kansas City even bothered to learn how to pronounce his name.
Compare that situation to the NFL. When a major free agent makes himself available in the NFL no one, not ESPN, NFL Films, Terry Bradshaw or Ray Didinger, has the slightest idea who is going to land him unless, and only then, the player himself states his intentions clearly. NLF free agents are as apt to sign with a team offering the best deal as the best opportunity. And unlike MLB, all NFL teams are in a position to deal.
MLB likes to point to the last several World Series winners, a different one in each of the last seven years, and congratulate itself for parity, but this is just another illusion. Championships may rotate at the top levels of the game, but for nearly half the franchises there is no hope. They cannot compete for the top players so they are unlikely to compete for the top prize. Would a salary cap be the answer in baseball? I don’t really know. Has it worked well in football and basketball? I don’t know that either though it appears on the surface that basketball’s success with it is questionable. We do know that football teams regularly let veteran players go before their careers are finished for reasons having everything to do with caps and nothing to do with X’s and O’s.
Baseball, however, has institutionalized a class structure that guarantees haves and have-nots. All involved may believe this golden age and calf will go on forever, uninterrupted by reality let alone economics, but like all bubbles – tulips and real estate – eventually it is going to burst.