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One 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.

NorCal Prospectus Pizza Feeds! Coming up in February and March in the San
Francisco, Palo Alto, Walnut Creek, San Rafael, and Sacramento areas. E-mail
huckabay@baseballprospectus.com
for details.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.