Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 21, 2003
BASEBALL: Another Reason to Hate The Yankees
Now, I've got a number of reasons to hate the Yankees and to lose a good deal of the fun of watching baseball when it's a series between the Yanks and an overmatched opponent, as it appears we're seeing now. Those reasons go back to my grammar school days as a lone Mets fan in the late 70s and early 80s, getting backed over by more than a few Yankee bandwagons.
One of the most common reasons for disliking the Yanks got some concrete affirmance yesterday with the release of Major League Baseball's final salary figures, showing that the Yankees spent $164 million on their major league payroll this season, compared to $119 million for the next-highest team (the woeful Mets), $106 million for the next-highest playoff team (the Red Sox), and $54 million for the Marlins. Even relatively wealthy clubs like the Braves ($95 million) and Cubs ($83 million) were left in the dust.
Let's put that in percentage terms:
Outspent the #2 team by 37.8%
That's just orders of magnitude beyond anybody else in the game, outspending even the #2 team by more than a third. Try starting a rotisserie league some time with an extra $100 on your budget and see how hard it is to win. And the stated payroll ignores a bunch of other factors: certain payments to ex-players; payments to bonus-baby minor leaguers; $5 million for Joe Torre; more money for player scouting, advance scouting (you hear so much in the postseason about the Yankees' vaunted advance scouts), etc. The real gap is considerably larger.
As Doug Pappas of the Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) estimated (even using the lower figure of $149 million from the Yankees' season-opening payroll), the Yankees were by no means the smartest or most efficient team in the game in spending their money to produce winning baseball, in terms of marginal dollars (above the minimum payroll) per marginal win (above the record you'd expect from a replacement level team); they just had a whole lot more to throw around.
Here's the problem: like most fans, I tend to like to look at the game through the eyes of a general manager or manager, and ask myself, if I were running the show, what would I do? Who would I trade, who would I keep? That's the stuff of Hot Stove League intrigue and second-guessing (and first-guessing) that makes the game fun and worth the investment of time in crunching stats and the like to really understand why teams win and lose.
But when you look at the winning teams and ask yourself what they are doing right, you come to a cold realization: no matter what he does, the general manager of your favorite team can't emulate the Yankees or duplicate their success. Nobody else has Brian Cashman's budget. Could other GMs do what Cahsman does; could other managers do what Torre does? We can't find out, because they won't get the chance unless they get hired by the Yankees, and then they won't have competition from an equal.
There are usually two related counter-arguments to this. One is to say that Mets and Red Sox fans can't talk, since our teams are among the best-funded and in any event, look how poorly the Mets spent the money they did have this year. Fair enough, but (1) as you can see, even the Mets still aren't in the Yankees' neighborhood, (2) as Pappas points out, even with the Yankees having made some good decisions with their farm system and the like, they have also spent plenty of money unwisely, but can afford mistakes others can't, and (3) the issue isn't how good a particular rival is, but whether they could ever compete on an equal footing with the Yankees.
In fact, the Yankees almost certainly could and would spend even more money if pushed to do so. When the Yankees go after a free agent, do they get him? Nearly always; I can hardly remember one they really wanted and didn't get. When a Yankee's contract is up, do they run the risk of losing him, as happens to every other team? Other than Tino Martinez, who they let go to pursue Giambi, the last major free agent loss before this season was John Wetteland, and even then the Yanks didn't expend a lot of energy to keep him, given that Rivera was ready to move up (in fairness, the Yanks did let Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza go this year, but replaced them with other expensive middle relievers).
The second objection is the Baseball Prospectus line, which is to argue that Steinbrenner is making a return on his investment and other teams could afford to spend more as well. First of all, it's obviously not true that everyone else can afford to spend money like the Yankees, or it would be likely that at least someone else would try to do so. Second, since when is the fun in the game asking yourself, "if I were a billionaire owner, how much money would I spend on the team, given market size and the eslasticity of demand for tickets and premium cable TV"? That's a long way from why most of us fell in love with the game as kids.