SBJ/July 30 - August 5, 2001/Opinion

You could look it up, Zimbalist

When did the issues of competitive balance and parity in baseball become political? In print, on radio, on TV talk shows, it seems that the topic can't be broached without getting into an ideological debate. What's going on?

My entrance into this arena came as a complete surprise. I write a sports column for The Wall Street Journal called "By The Numbers" which uses statistics as a means of examining various sports issues both on the field and off. On April 13, I noted that the 2000 season was the first in baseball history in which every team finished with a won-lost percentage under .600 and over .400.

Not only did this give baseball more competitive balance than any other major sport. It was truly amazing, I noted, that while baseball had as many teams as it's ever had, it was actually moving closer to parity — or at least closer than it had ever been in the previous century.

My conclusion was that "whatever free agency does to disrupt the financial structure of baseball, it simply doesn't have the effect on the field that its critics say it does. Either that, or what we think we know about the financial resources of the teams and their revenue is simply wrong."

I didn't realize I had written an ideological tract until I saw the May 7 issue of SportsBusiness Journal and found Andrew Zimbalist denouncing my column as "precisely the extreme dichotomous view that baseball does not need right now as it prepares to negotiate new collective-bargaining and revenue-sharing agreements."

Now, what "extreme dichotomous view" could Zimbalist have been referring to? Facts are facts; either teams have been getting closer and closer to competitive balance or they haven't. I deal in statistics, and all the numbers I see say that they have.

In arguing to the contrary, Zimbalist writes "Why are the cutoffs of .400 and .600 more telling than those, say, of .394 and .406?" The answer to that is that it doesn't matter what figures you use; the point, which Zimbalist somehow manages to miss, is that the difference between the best and the worst is shrinking.

"Second," says Zimbalist, "if Barra is correct that there is a clear trend toward more balance, then why was the spread between the highest and lowest win percentage in 1998 the highest it has been in at least 20 years?" First, it isn't a question of "Barra says" but a question of "the record book says" and if you don't agree with me, then, as Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up. And as for 1998 being an aberration, that's exactly what it was (the Yankees accounting for most of the difference).

"Third," he writes, "do baseball fans really care about win percentage spreads? Does a Milwaukee fan care if the Brewers win an additional one to five games per year? Or, does he want to believe that his team has a chance of playing in the postseason and World Series?" I find this a very strange argument; I can't imagine any fan in baseball who wouldn't want an additional one to five wins for his team.

"Team owners," Zimbalist says, "do not try to assemble a team that maximizes the number of wins per season. Such an effort would break the bank account of any franchise. Rather, owners who believe their team has a chance attempt to hire enough players to finish higher than other teams." How exactly do you finish ahead of other teams except by winning more games?

But "The remarkable concentration of postseason success since 1995 ... is compounded by the sharp correlation between success and team payrolls (and signing bonuses). It is becoming more and more apparent that the best performing teams are buying their success." I don't think too many people who have followed baseball for about a century would argue with that. (When did success ever come for free? Not in the '20s, '30s, '40s or '50s when the Yankees dominated.)

The real question, I would think, is whether that is more or less true now than it once was. I would argue that since 1995 there has been no "concentration of postseason success" but only the Yankees, who have won four of the last five World Series. But the Yankees dominated in just one season, 1998, and the rest of the time they were locked in nail-biting pennant races culminating in razor-sharp playoff and World Series games. Last year, for instance, the Yankees had the ninth-best record in the majors and barely squeaked through tough playoff series with two small-market teams, Oakland and Seattle. The difference between the Yankees and nearly a dozen other teams wasn't talent but simple clutch performance crossed with luck, a slight injury to Pedro Martinez here, a good throw to a cutoff man there.

If winning the big games is simply a question of team revenue, why, since 1995, have the Atlanta Braves, whose resources rival the Yankees, fared so poorly in the postseason? Why have the Mets not had a record of success to rival the Yankees? And why haven't the Dodgers, with the biggest potential market in baseball, won anything?

Zimbalist is arguing that "What MLB needs most at the moment is an attitude of pragmatism and compromise ... baseball also needs more revenue sharing, a stiffer luxury tax on the top team payrolls and a modification in its drafting rules." Ah, now we get to it: a "luxury tax." This is what Zimbalist and MLB are selling.

I'm not buying, and neither should fans. It's all the same to me if baseball owners want to take all their revenue and dump it in one big pot and share it 30 ways. If the owners can do that, they should do it and more power to them. But do not try to slip the phrase "luxury tax" — which means the players' money — in the back door while using "revenue sharing" to get me to open the front. Don't argue that you must force a work stoppage on baseball in the name of keeping Tampa Bay and Montreal "competitive."

And, please, stop complaining to us Yankee fans that competitive balance is somehow out of whack because the Yankees know how to hit the cutoff man.

Allen Barra writes for The Wall Street Journal.

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