SPORTING: Baseball's Rich and Poor

Like no other game, baseball riddles the mind with misconceptions. For example, it has become fashionable to point out that the disparity between rich clubs and poor clubs means a lot of fans start Opening Day knowing their favorites have no chance to win. But that's just ridiculous. Everyone who follows a small market club knows all hope is lost well before the winter meetings.Here's another great misconception, which has been laying around for a while longer: The 1950s were a Golden Age for baseball. In reality, the 1950s were a Golden Age for baseball in New York.Most everywhere else, baseball stammered. The game boomed at the close of World War II, with combined attendance for all 16 major league clubs peaking at 20,920,842 in 1948. But attendance declined all the way to 14,383,797 in 1953 and never climbed back as high as 18 million until 1959.From 1951 through 1959, a grand total of six teams appeared in the World Series. From 1951 through 1957, after which the Dodgers and Giants moved from New York to the west coast, New York clubs appeared in every World Series and went head-to-head five times. If that's a Golden Age, we're headed for another one.Which raises another misconception, which has been challenged in this corner: Baseball is back. Well, maybe it depends on where you live. Among the major movements this winter, only a handful of super-rich clubs have joined the fray. If your idea of a golden age is a handful of clubs even having a chance to compete, welcome back to the '50s.As for the other markets, one wonders how baseball will sustain interest in the absence of pennant races. What kind of national story can possibly raise a stir to match last summer's home run chase? What does baseball do for an encore?The cost of competing in the major leagues has escalated to around $80 million in payroll. Only about 10 clubs, maybe, can pay that much for players. In a couple years, at the outside, the top payroll will hit $100 million. That's about three years of total revenues for the Montreal Expos.In 1990, the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series with a payroll of $15 million. In December, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed up to pay right hander Kevin Brown that much every year for seven years. Plus, the Dodgers are staking Brown to 12 private flights for his family.At one point in history, free agency for players actually improved the game. A few clubs, noteably Atlanta, spent foolishly in the 1970s. In general, though, smaller market clubs could play. From 1982 through 1991, teams from Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Oakland, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Minnesota and Detroit had to be taken seriously.Unfortunately, such balance was possible only because of illegal colluding practices by club owners. Now that the players have secured treble damages for future collusion findings, natural competition amongst club owners will continue to drive salaries beyond accessibility to about half of the clubs.In short, baseball has two choices: Either substantially narrow the disparity between large markets and small markets, or learn to live with it. As ownership factions and labor issues make the problem appear unsolveable, it's not a bad idea to seek the alternative.The Reds general manager, Jim Bowden, took a stab at the winter meetings in Nashville, suggesting the National League realign to place the rich clubs in one division and the poor clubs in another. It will never fly, because the rich clubs desire some ease in winning their divisions. However, Bowden's idea points to another possibility.It's already working in the European soccer leagues. Just divide the major leagues into three -- a premier league, a second-tier league and a third-tier league, each with its own championship. The teams can play each other across leagues and, if they want, may even end the season with a tournament of champions.Clubs may move up and down through the leagues on a year-by-year basis. At the end of a season, the lowest two teams in the premier league are dropped to the second-tier league, with the best two teams in the second-tier league moving up to the top tier. The same arrangement would hold between the second- tier and third-tier leagues. That way, when a small-market club stumbles across the resources to compete with the best, it will have the opportunity.The entire scenario would disgust defenders of baseball's traditional competitive order. But anyone who is still defending baseball's traditional competitive order hasn't been paying much attention during the last five years, when that order has taken a beating from which there is no recovery. Protests against the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the cheap thrill of inter-league play have either been forgotten or ignored.The damage from both has been done and competitive traditions are out the window. But baseball can take advantage of this sad state of affairs, for it permits the game a chance to thrive in the face of a problem that defies solution.

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