The New York Yankees have the most expensive team in baseball. The Orioles and Atlanta Braves are close behind. So it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that those three teams made the final four in baseball's postseason tournament.
The fourth entry -- the St. Louis Cardinals -- is the exception that proves the rule. They are not among the top four teams in terms of overall payroll, but they are in the top eight and they were one of the biggest spenders of the last off-season.
Money definitely talks.
The Yankees spent more on the 1996 salaries of David Cone, Kenny Rogers, Tino Martinez, Tim Raines and Joe Girardi -- all of whom were signed or acquired during last year's financial free-for-all -- than the Montreal Expos spent for their entire 25-man roster. That's right. The Yankees spent $15.7 million on five new players. The Expos spent $15.5 million on the whole team.
Montreal was surprisingly competitive this year, vying for the National League wild-card berth until the final weekend of the season, but it doesn't take a Wall Street analyst to figure out that there is a direct link between financial largesse and on-field success.
The Braves sought to temper their excessive payroll last winter, but they already had bought and paid for a seeming National League dynasty when they made four-time Cy Young Award-winner Greg Maddux the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with a $28 million contract in 1992. Maddux, added to a team that already had won back-to-back division titles, has helped the club win three more during the past four seasons.
The Orioles packed their roster with high-salaried players. The Cardinals even gave a rich free-agent contract to their manager, Tony La Russa, which isn't included in the $38 million payroll that ranked them eighth among the 28 competing major-league franchises.
Who says you can't buy a pennant?
"We've all talked about this for a long time," said interim commissioner Bud Selig, who has been the leader of a management crusade for better economic and competitive balance. "That is definitely the trend, and it is now more pronounced than ever. Nobody should be surprised by that."
Baseball owners are seeking to level the economic playing field with a taxation system that would force big-payroll clubs to subsidize teams that are -- in the parlance of the 1990s -- financially challenged.
The plan calls for clubs that exceed a specific payroll threshold to pay a percentage of the excess into a pool to benefit small-market teams. That, combined with an enhanced revenue-sharing plan, would transfer millions from the top revenue franchises to the bottom, money that ostensibly would be used to make small-revenue clubs more competitive.
The owners also hope that the taxation system would act as a drag on salaries, so that the percentage of overall revenues kept by the clubs would increase.
"Hopefully, whatever we do will have a corrective effect," Selig said.
That effort is what has created the long-running labor dispute that wiped out the 1994 World Series and is threatening to boil over again this winter. The owners and players have agreed on a taxation plan, but the deal has been held up by ownership in-fighting and a "non-negotiable" demand by the union that all players be given service credit for the games lost during the strike.
The players union knows that the taxation plan -- which evolved from ownership's original salary cap proposal -- is directed at the players' share of revenue, so the union has fought hard to keep payroll thresholds high. The plan doesn't even have the enthusiastic support of all the owners, since the teams with the best revenue streams want the freedom to spend what it takes to keep fan interest high.
In a perfect management world, every team would develop its own talent and keep enough of it to be competitive. In the real world, minor-league talent is unpredictable and proven stars sell tickets.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos is well-aware that it takes money -- and lots of it -- to reach the World Series. The club's payroll topped $50 million this year and there still are areas where the team will have to spend to improve.
"Whatever it takes," Angelos said Sunday.
That has become his mantra.
"Of course, it has to be within reason," he added. "We don't want to do things that have a ripple effect throughout baseball. We aren't going to pay $10 million for a kid just because he's a good athlete."
Angelos was referring to the recent signing of college star Travis Lee, whose contract with the fledgling Arizona Diamondbacks blew a hole through the roof of baseball's unwritten salary scale for amateur prospects.
Still, Angelos insists that no financial stone will be left unturned to bring a winner to Baltimore.
Pub Date: 10/16/96