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AMID SPENDING SPREES, MLB MUST PURGE THE PUNY OWNERS WHO WON’T COMPETE
Still plagued by the fan-unfriendly look of economic relegation — not enough haves, too many have-nots — baseball should require all team owners to be multi-billionaires or people who operate as such
The sport of rules and regulations needs another mandate. Say, today. If Major League Baseball can install a pitch clock, outlaw shifts, exclude Barry Bonds and the Juicers from Cooperstown and ban Pete Rose for gambling while it does the dirty with sportsbooks — anything MLB wants, MLB gets now — then the overlords also must rub out some of their own.
Summon attorneys, bouncers and forklifts if necessary. Just remove them.
Moving forward, into a murky future for America’s fourth and most fraught sporting endeavor, owners should be required to sign a competitive pledge. They must vow in public legalese to spend and obey a sustained, legitimate business plan commensurate with success on, ahem, a major-league level. They cannot tank. They cannot hide behind rebuilds and youth movements. They cannot cry poor, pocket national TV money, stash subsidies and yawn upon finishing last.
And if they can’t keep up with Steve Cohen, John Middleton, Peter Seidler, the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Giants and, in a less-splashy mode, the Astros, the Cardinals, the Rangers, the Braves, the Blue Jays and the Mariners — or if they can’t win consistently via cost-efficiency like the Rays and Guardians — then kick them the hell out of the club. Only multi-billionaires, or people who act like multi-billionaires, should be allowed to own baseball franchises these days. The calendar is flipping to 2023. MLB is generating $11 billion a year. All sorts of wealthy bastards would love to own teams, regardless of locale. Take them up on it already.
No longer can fans treat this sport seriously when at least 18 of 30 teams, three-fifths of the entertainment inventory, are essentially eliminated from a six-month regular season in spring training. No longer can John Fisher ask people in the East Bay to attend games in a decrepit mausoleum. No longer can Bob Nutting waste a beautiful ballpark in Pittsburgh, where he trades all his emerging players before he has to pay them. No longer can the Castellinis slash payroll and insult Cincinnati fans in the process. No longer can the Miami Marlins commit consumer fraud. For that matter, no longer can teams in what is purportedly the country’s third-largest market — the Cubs and White Sox, in Chicago — duck away from pennant aspirations for half-decades or longer, subjecting Tom Ricketts and Jerry Reinsdorf to recall.
Call it contraction. Call it purging the deadwood. Also call it mandatory for baseball’s preservation and long-term survival. Next time Mark Cuban wants to bring his $4.8-billion net worth and NBA sensibilities to MLB — he has tried without success to buy the Cubs, Pirates and Rangers — don’t reject him. I remember telling him that he had no shot in Chicago.
“Reinsdorf won’t have you on the other side of town,” I said.
“I have a good relationship with Jerry,” Cuban said.
“When it comes to entering the club,” I said, “no, you don’t.”
This old-school, old-fart way of exclusionary thinking has kept baseball in an inescapable mudhole for much too long. It must end. Otherwise, there’s no reason to follow the entirety of the sport. What we have here is Euro-soccer relegation without Ted Lasso and Wrexham, a two-tiered caste system in which the differences between the haves and have-nots never have been more pronounced and destructive to the game’s waning popularity. A 99-day lockout that was intended to address the financial canyon last offseason only served to widen the disparity. Witness these last two weeks: a free-agency spending spree unlike any in baseball history, which is saying something.
About $2 billion of the total investments were made by five franchises: Yankees, Phillies, Mets, Padres and Giants. The Mets will have a payroll topping $350 million, activating an $80 million tax penalty. Think Cohen cares? “We have done a lot of lifting and we’ve had a very fortunate investment from Steve,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “The commitment is very evident here and the goals are very evident.”
The other 25 teams collectively didn’t spent $1 billion in free agency.
How are you folks doing in Kansas City and Phoenix? Feeling small?
When the Giants finally rectified their mighty swing-and-miss on Aaron Judge, who remained with the Yankees at $360 million over nine years, and signed Carlos Correa to the richest contract ever given a shortstop — $350 million for 13 years — it concluded an extravaganza that thrilled fans in a select few cities and mortified them everywhere else. Who’s happy? Mets fans, who’ve watched Cohen continue to spend like America’s 38th-richest person. And Phillies fans, who’ve seen Middleton load up with another high-life purchase, Trea Turner for $300 million. And Padres fans, overjoyed by Seidler’s hellbent obsession with the Dodgers — “the dragon up the freeway that we’re trying to slay,” as he famously said — and his addition of Xander Bogaerts, whose $280 million deal was added to the $300 million deal of Manny Machado, the $340 million deal of Fernando Tatis Jr. and the $400 million desires of Juan Soto. And, to some degree, Yankees fans, who were prepared to sandblast Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman out of the Bronx if they didn’t retain Judge. And, to some degree, Giants fans, whose front-office bosses overpaid Correa and showed they’re still offseason players in a chilly, politically polarizing town.
Who’s mad? Red Sox fans, who once adored the John Henry/Tom Werner group — when they were winning four World Series in 14 years — but have soured on the owners for not showering Bogaerts and Mookie Betts with riches. They are joined in angst by Dodgers fans, who continue to blow away attendance records at Chavez Ravine and faithfully avoid cable-cutting by feeding the team’s $8.35-billion local TV deal with Spectrum. After suffering an agonizing loss to San Diego in the National League divisional round, the fans expected the Guggenheim Baseball boys to load up as usual. Not this time. They let the Mets outbid them for Justin Verlander and the Rangers for Jacob deGrom. Suddenly, as the Padres gird for a run atop the NL West in a market one-fifth the size of greater Los Angeles, Dodgers baseball boss Andrew Friedman is a downsizing mood. Never mind that his pitching rotation is shaken by the arm-surgery absence of Walker Buehler until 2024 and the inevitable aging of Clayton Kershaw. Never mind that he has no closer. Next up: prospects from the team’s celebrated minor-league system, ready or not.
“We've seen a lot of large-market teams compete over a short period of time, and then fall off a cliff,” Friedman explained. “This is just not the sport where that reward is the same as in other sports.”
You can’t back down in L.A., especially when they’re spending in San Diego. You can’t back down in Boston, especially when they’re spending in the Bronx and in Philadelphia. They’re backing down nonetheless. “I expect fans will be hurt. I fully expect that,” Red Sox baseball boss Chaim Bloom said at the San Diego airport, of all places, after losing his best player to the Padres during the Winter Meetings. “And I also expect that we’re going to put this together and deliver them winning baseball. It’s gonna look a little different than it would have with Xander. But it’s going to happen and it’s on us to show them. That’s our job.”
If the Dodgers and Red Sox are dropping down a peg on the competitive scale, and if the Cubs and White Sox are slogging along as usual, and if the Angels continue to waste Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani while Arte Moreno tries to peddle the franchise ... where exactly does baseball stand right now in the American consciousness? The NFL paradigm is conducive to Buffalo or Cincinnati reaching a Super Bowl. The NBA paradigm enables a championship in Milwaukee or five in 15 years in San Antonio.
Those leagues, flush with prosperity, only want owners pledged to winning titles. Sometimes, in the case of Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, a dream to form a superteam implodes. But it’s better to have tried to win than never try at all, which will be baseball’s plague until the bad owners are eliminated. Rob Manfred will laugh at the purging solution and say it’s impossible, because the owners are his superiors and compensate him handsomely, keeping his Augusta National membership current.
But here’s the truth the commissioner never acknowledges: Two months before pitchers and catchers report to camps, and three-plus months before Opening Day, much of the country is bemoaning what’s wrong with baseball. Again. And much as Cohen and Middleton and other spenders like beating up on teams that don’t spent, they’d prefer a more stable, relevant industry.
So enjoy the season at Citi Field, Yankee Stadium, Citizens Bank Park, Petco Park and a handful of other places. Everywhere else, it’s wait ’til next year, as in 2024, a pity when it’s still 2022.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.