Is There Too Much Money in Baseball?

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Our panel of sports fans considers how fans should feel about MLB teams' chronic overspending

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), talk about the new MLB season.


Hi, everyone,

I know I can't speak for the whole country, but in the Northeast (and probably everywhere else), spring has come. In fact, it's been here for a month. So I've been even more impatient than usual to welcome my favorite sport back to the fold. Yes, folks, it's baseball season!

There are no shortage of storylines heading into the 2012 season. Two superteams out in the AL West, the one-strike-from-a-title Rangers and the Angels a la Albert Pujols. Bobby Valentine managing in Boston, where there's no shortage of funny disguises to try. My beloved Yankees, trying for No. 28. And of course there's the glut of potential superstars ready for a breakout year, from Cubs' shortstop Starlin Castro to Royals' first baseman Eric Hosmer, who hit a home run at Yankee Stadium last year that may still be going.

For me, though, the biggest change is the obvious one: the league adding another playoff team in each league. For a full breakdown of the new system go here, but the Cliff Notes are that the three division winners get a bye, and the TWO wild card teams have a play-in game to determine the fourth Division Series participant in each league.

The ramifications to pennant races, September strategy, and fan interest are staggering. Will the format draw in a larger following because more fanbases will be involved? Will people love the one-and-done playoff game? Will it initially be viewed as kabuki theater, especially if (gulp) there's a tie for the second wild card spot? And is there no sanctity for a good division title race anymore?

In the end, it's hard to be against the change. Just one-third of MLB teams will make the playoffs in 2012, less than the NFL (37.5 percent) and way less than the NBA and NHL (53.3 percent). But it will fascinating to see what growing pains arise come October.

Are you in the mood for a day at the ballpark, Patrick? And what are you excited for?

–Jake

Jake,

Baseball is back, which means it's time to talk green. Not the pastoral majesty of the verdant emerald diamond, or whatever George Will sees when de-smudging his glasses with his bowtie. I mean money. Greenbacks. The lifeblood of the whole enterprise.

Like you, I'm fascinated by the budding Rangers-Angels rivalry. Mostly because both clubs are nouveau riche, thanks to a pair of gargantuan, multibillion-dollar regional broadcast deals that have lifted them into the money-is-just-paper-you-can-burn payroll orbit traditionally reserved for the Yankees, Red Sox, and whoever is paying Keith Olbermann's yearly salary these days. Baseball's newest, most important game-within-the-game isn't Moneyball-esque data mining for marginal on-field advantages—that's so 2004—but rather maximizing one's local television rights in order to spend like a sober investment banker. Will other teams follow suit? Can other teams follow suit? Or are small market clubs destined to feel ... even smaller?

Speaking of overspending: Check out the new-look Miami Marlins. That is, provided you can see past the neon animatronic Electric Kool Aid Acid Home Run Sculpture the club has installed in the outfield of its brand-new stadium. Designed by pop artist Red Grooms, the $2.5 million eyesore was paid for not by art-dealing team owner Jeffrey Loria, but rather by Miami-Dade County's Art in Public Places department. In other words: taxpayers. Which fits, given that the $634 million retractable-roof ballpark was mostly funded by the public, including $347 million in construction bonds that reportedly will cost the city and county more than $2 billion over the 40 years it takes to repay them. This outright looting—largely accomplished behind closed City Council doors—helped cost mayor Carlos Alvarez his job in a recall election; it prompted me to call for a not-at-all-joking Occupy the Marlins movement.

But hey, at least the notoriously penny-pinching club could afford to drop $191 million on three players in the offseason, including Jose Reyes. So it won't be all bad for the 5,000 or so diehard fans who typically show up to their games.

Here in Washington, DC, I'm looking forward to seeing if the hometown Nationals can live up to actual preseason expectations —the first time they've had those since they were the Montreal Expos. Oh, and along those lines, the heck with pennant sanctity—if the Nats are involved in a down-to-the-wire expanded Wild Card race, I'll be too busy following to care if it feels cheap. Money can't buy happiness, but it can sure purchase temporary excitement.

Hampton, what are your thoughts on MLB circa 2012?

–Patrick

Patrick, years ago, Joe Posnanski wrote a column proposing a ban on any mention of money on the sports page. It wasn't serious, of course. But the point was valid. The dollar amounts in pro sports are so outlandishly large it can be hard to relate to the game as merely a game.

Beyond the Marlins' appalling billion-dollar swindle of taxpayers, we all know about MLB's flawed revenue sharing and the grinding lack of parity it creates. We've all talked about TV contracts and arbitration hearings, just as we've pondered the intricacies of the NBA's salary cap and NFL's franchise tag.

The beauty of baseball for me is that none of that stuff matters one whit. It's the game where everything outside the lines can—and should be—most easily ignored. Not only money worries, but anything ancillary to the game itself. Like, say, drug scandals. Or the expanded postseason.

Granted, being a Royals' fan has a lot to do with it. Loving a downtrodden club makes being emotionally distant a necessity. Too many great players have come to KC and gone—usually to the Yankees. Too many seasons have died young. Who wants to fall in love each April only to have your heart broken every May? Thinking about the expanded playoffs, for instance, just reminds a Royals' fan that we still probably won't be good enough to make the field.

But who cares? Make fun of my Kinsella-esque rhapsodizing all you want. To the American mind, baseball is only half a sport. The other half is a pastoral fantasy—a living daydream about fresh air and green fields where we can retreat from the ugly realities of the world into the carefree timelessness of summer youth.

Like Andy in Shawshank Redemption said of the Pacific Ocean and as Ani DiFranco sang about goldfish, baseball has no memory. Unlike any other sport, the game reveals itself without any backstory. The long, loping angles and sporadic rhythms are enough to lull us and sustain us. Everything else—like the long-term inability of my favorite franchise to retain top talent—should fade away. "Moneyball," for me, essentially is an oxymoron. Ultimately, for every true fan there must be a point where the whoosh and snap of a perfect curve-ball hitting leather becomes more important than how much the pitcher got paid to throw it.

So, sure. Watching Hosmer bust into stardom should be a blast. The All-Star Game, back in KC for the first time since 1973, at our gorgeous, semi-solar powered Kauffman Stadium , will be a huge highlight this year. What excites me most about the 2012 season, though, has nothing to do with anything so specific. It isn't any particular player or team. For me, just like every other cheese-ball, pseudo-intellectual fan, the deeper thrill of the new season comes from all that cloying, mystical, sentimental stuff. What excites me most, really, is the simple, goofy, priceless springtime joy of knowing that I'll soon be at the ballpark watching a game.

–Hampton

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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