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February 22, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

Curt Schilling Speaks

by Keith Law

Curt Schilling is never at a loss for words, and unlike a lot of athletes (and actors and other Famous People™) who like to sound off to the media, he often has something of substance to say. Last week was no different, when ESPN.com posted a 2,400-word essay by the Diamondbacks' hurler, focusing on the impending labor war and the economic structure of the game. As you might expect, Schilling raised some valid points and some not-so-valid ones, and probably gave the players their first bit of good PR for the upcoming skirmish.

The most valuable thing Schilling said in his essay didn't come in his recommendations, but in his arguments that the game isn't as sick as many people like to say it is. He discusses the Braves' success in turning themselves from one of the game's most moribund franchises to one of its most successful, arguing that the change was no accident--it came from "good decision-making by the franchise and fan support for a team that won." In other words, put a winning product on the field, and revenues will increase. If only his current owner was reading.

However, Schilling stumbles a bit in his closing recommendations:

  • Increasing the luxury tax.
  • Eliminating the DH in favor of a 26th roster spot.
  • Geographic realignment, keeping the six-division format.
  • Turning empty seats into $1 weekend tickets for kids.
  • Adding a round of playoffs.
The fourth point is his best, because the unspoken argument is that today's $1-ticket buyers are tomorrow's $20-ticket buyers. One dollar may not be the right number, but he has the right concept.

Adding a round of playoffs is probably his worst idea. The Division Series doesn't fare well on television as it is, so an earlier round will probably only make matters worse. Adding another playoff team in each league also increases the chances of a lousy team winning the pennant or the World Series and reduces the interest level in the regular season. (This is also known as the NHL problem, where any team that wins about 40% of its games can make the postseason.)

Geographic realignment is another idea of questionable merit because of the difficulty of implementing any realistic plan. Schilling's plan puts the Cubs and Cardinals in different leagues. Same for the Giants and Dodgers. Any breakup of a natural rivalry makes the plan a nonstarter. Schilling also implicitly supports the unbalanced schedule in his essay, which can produce highly distorted results with small divisions: a mediocre team in a lousy division can sneak into the playoffs on the basis of a great divisional record.

Finally, an increase in the luxury tax won't have any effect on the imbalance between good teams and bad teams in baseball. Handing money to the Brewers so they can go sign the next Jeffrey Hammonds or to the Pirates so they can extend Derek Bell--Al Martin without all those extra calories--another two years is pointless, and it only increases the salary pressure that smart teams on limited budgets face.

The best part about Schilling's essay, in my opinion, was its appearance at all. The Players Association has been pretty cagey about allowing players to speak out on economic subjects in the past, and as a result, they've given the owners an opportunity to demonize players (and agents) as the greedy thieves who threaten to destroy the game.

The labor war is largely a PR war, since we all know the owners will cave at some point. If the players want to come out of the battle without avarice all over their uniforms, they'll need to step up in front of the public and explain their views and their love of the game.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Realignment,  Buyers

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