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Brattain: Not Out Of The Woods Yet

23rd April 2006

By John Brattain

One of the more overlooked factors during the various rounds of collective bargaining is the fact that often the problems have resulted from frictions within the ranks of ownership. Revenue disparity has been a sore spot between the haves and the have-nots for as long as there have been haves and have-nots.

Granted, before the era of free agency it didn’t get much ink since all the smaller revenue teams had to do was pay their players less than larger revenue clubs did and that was that.

The players’ salaries–or lack thereof– were the great equalizer.

Where disparity caused most of the problems was due to the cost of the best minor leaguers (before Branch Rickey originated the farm system minor leagues were completely independent entities that made most of their money from selling their developed talent to major league clubs) or bidding on the best amateur players before the advent of the draft in 1965. These factors are what gave the Yankees such a huge advantage from 1921-64. The Bronx Bombers’ revenues from the New York market also enabled them to purchase talented players outright from their poorer brethren. Then general manager George Weiss exploited these advantages ruthlessly even as it threatened to destroy the American League.

Unable to come to any kind of accord among themselves to deal with these problems decided to do what they did best–screw the players. They had full control of the professional talent but not the amateur players who could pick and choose which team they ultimately signed their futures away to.

Signing amateurs could be costly too. A top kid’s first professional contract could easily exceed several times over what the league batting champ made in a given year.

Hence the draft. It was the “reserve clause” for amateurs–instead of negotiating with every team in the major leagues, they could only negotiate with one…the one that “drafted” him.

As teams like the Baltimore Orioles (formerly the inept St. Louis Browns), Minnesota Twins (nee the “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” Washington Senators), Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A’s (who despite some bright spots were considered doormats in Philadelphia and Kansas City) began to enjoy significant success it appeared that the problem was solved somewhat.

Until Marvin Miller finally unshackled the players from the reserve clause.

With free agency now in the system the big money teams now enjoyed an advantage. Due to salary arbitration (where players were compared with similar players regardless of what market the played in) large revenue clubs also escalated the cost of doing business for small market teams. Under the old reserve system if the Yankees wanted to pay a $100,000 to a .275 hitting first baseman a team like the Cleveland Indians were under no obligation to do likewise. Under the new system if one team paid $100,000 for a player of a certain talent level then all teams would have to do come within close proximity to that total.

Once again the disparity of revenues caused tension in ownership ranks. Since self-interest traditionally ruled the day no solution could be found to the problem. So the owners did what they did best; wring the solution out of the collective hide of the players. However now they couldn’t act unilaterally, they had to deal with the powerful players’ union (MLBPA). In the early going they tried a free agent compensation scheme where a team signing a free agent had to give up one of ten unprotected players on the 25-man roster.

That led to the strike of 1981.

Then they tried to get rid of salary arbitration.

That led to the strike of 1985.

Then they tried to create a system where the players got a fixed percentage of league revenues (league revenues being defined as whatever the league said they were) in exchange for a salary scale based solely on a quirky mathematical formula regarding players’ stats.

That led to the lockout of 1990.

And of course we had the great salary cap drive that led to the cancellation of the final part of the 1994 season and with it the post season.

In each case the scenario was the same: the owners couldn’t agree amongst themselves on how to deal with the widening gulf between large and small revenue teams and could only agree on trying to get the players to solve the problem for them.

When the last collective bargaining agreement was ratified a stiff luxury tax and more comprehensive revenue sharing was brought in and the MLBPA agreed to it.

What should be a happily ever after might be derailed due to–you guessed it–the owners. With the CBA due to be negotiated it appears that the biggest issues don’t necessarily involve the players but it could be the MLBPA that is asked to shoulder the burden of irresponsible owner behavior.

When the MLBPA stopped the players from being such an easy solution for owner problems and they didn’t want to solve their difficulties themselves, they started turning to their communities for help. The big push came after the construction of Camden Yards which set off the current boom of cookie-cutter retro parks. Now a team whined that both the players and the large market teams were out to get them and to compete in this unfair environment was via several hundred million dollars in free money for stadium construction.

Fortunately communities have started to wise up (somewhat) and realized that spending lavishly on professional sports made owner and player alike a lot wealthier but didn’t do too much for the local economy.

However some owners have either alienated their communities (Florida) or the MLBPA by taking revenue sharing dollars and not putting it into payroll (Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Kansas City) or their fan bases by taking public money for stadiums and keeping the payroll below a competitive level (Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee under Selig, Cincinnati) in their lust for ill-gotten gains.

In many cases having wrung out the community cash cow they now have to turn to their big-market brethren for more revenue sharing subsidies which they’ve already demonstrated might not go toward making their clubs more competitive.

Suffice it to say, expect some resistance to that idea.

So where will they turn to improve their profitability without having to invest or earn it?

One thing the owners have always agreed on–take it from the players. They will point out that this year the Yankees payroll was $200 million while the Marlins was smaller than David Samson ($15 million) and will demand what the hell the MLBPA plans to do to rectify the problem.

Of course the players aren’t the problem despite what you read in the media. It has always began and ended with the guys in the suits.

Stay tuned. There could be a bumpy road still ahead.

John Brattain is a staff writer for The Hardball Times. His work has been featured at About.com, MLBtalk, Yankees.com, Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, TOTK.com, Bootleg Sports, and Baseball Prospectus. He welcomes comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail.

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