January 31, 2002
RebuttalOne of the best things about creating and growing Baseball Prospectus is that I get to work with people I greatly respect, and with whom I sometimes fervently disagree. Yesterday's Daily Prospectus contained a paragraph that drew my attention immediately, and made me bounce to the keyboard to craft a response.
I hope that Joe Sheehan hasn't just done this as a way to get me to actually do my job. If he starts coming out in favor of lower walk rates for hitters, then I'll start to get suspicious.
In his January 31 column, Joe wrote:
One of the best points Rany made was that we, as fans, don't have much invested in how the owners and players carve up the money generated by Major League Baseball. Does it really matter to us how much money Fox or Disney or The Tribune Corporation takes from their baseball operations? Or whether the top player salaries continue to rise?
I couldn't possibly disagree more. I think Rany and Joe have it completely wrong. Baseball fans have an enormous amount invested in how the owners and players split MLB's revenues. Here's why.
Baseball is in a small class of entertainment businesses in which the employees are the product. The employees of MLB are among the very best of the very best in terms of athletic ability. They are freaks of nature who have busted their butts to take their physical talent and turn it into usable skills.
There are very few people who have the athletic ability required to play professional sports of any stripe. Baseball is not the only career option available to those few who are talented enough to play it at the highest level. Some of the game's greatest players have had the option to play other professional sports. Dave Winfield could probably have played any sport he wanted. Rickey Henderson chose baseball over football, for which he was a highly-recruited running back. Tom Glavine was considered an excellent hockey prospect. Many of today's players had potentially promising careers in professional golf.
It is in the interest of every baseball fan to have the best possible athletes on the field playing the game. That means that we should want baseball to be the best career option for those prime athletes with more than one option available to them. For that reason, we should want baseball players to be compensated better than athletes in other sports. To us watching the game, it's the owners who are fungible, not the players. If the best athletes start playing other sports, the caliber of the baseball we watch will decline. Not quickly, but over time it will be a real and tragic loss for the game as a whole.
Wanting the highest-caliber team on the field isn't the only reason why we should care deeply about the state of the CBA and how revenues are divided. Just as we should want to see the very best performers on the field of play, we should also want to see the very best performers in the front offices. A salary cap that would guarantee a break-even level of profitability for all major-league clubs would be a complete disaster. Teams would have less incentive to invest in their businesses, and accountability for decision making would all but vanish. Right now, the Oakland A's realistically have to win and perform well on the field in order to be financially successful. Under a system in which they were virtually guaranteed a profit, that wouldn't be the case.
Removing the financial incentives for success would lead to an environment in front offices where innovation, diligence, and effective management would not be rewarded. In such an environment, we would see less innovation, less diligence, and less effective management. Ultimately, this means baseball of lower quality on the field.
Perhaps the pay-for-performance program promoted by the owners a decade ago was a good idea. Maybe it should be applied to ownership immediately. Share the local revenues drastically. Make whole those whose franchise values are negatively affected by the change. Pool national postseason and regular-season money separately, and give the postseason money to the clubs that actually make it to October. Be creative.
I don't know what solution is necessarily best among those that are possible. I do know that if everyone has financial incentives to win, we're going to see a better game on the field, and that a salary cap won't have that effect.
We are definitely invested in how the money is divided.
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Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.