Tight races a fit for all except AL East

The New York Yankees are still comfortably on top of the heap in the American League East, and there is no reason to think their economic domination of the division is going to end anytime soon.

They've been to the World Series six times in the past eight years, and they appear to be headed in that direction again as the 2004 season pauses for the All-Star break.


So why has the issue of competitive balance - such a major concern during the cataclysmic labor dispute of 1994 and the underlying theme of each ensuing collective bargaining period - fallen under baseball's economic radar during the early months of this season? Perhaps because parity appears to be prevailing in the other five divisions.

"I think there is a ways to go," said Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan, "but I think it [competitive balance] has come a long way."


The Orioles aren't benefiting from it, of course. They've suffered through a difficult first half that has the fans grumbling and the team grappling to get out of the AL East cellar, but they can't help but look with envy at what some comparable teams are doing elsewhere.

There are four teams within two games of first place in the National League East, even though two of those teams - the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins - took big personnel hits during the offseason.

"I think there is [more balance]," said Phillies slugger Jim Thome. "Look at our division. Flip a coin. Anybody that plays well has a chance to win this division. ... You have the Mets right now playing very well. They've played us very tough all year.

"Then the Braves played us tough [Sunday]. And then you have to look at the Marlins."

Three teams are within 2 1/2 games of the AL West lead and four teams - including the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers - still very much alive in the AL Central.

"Baseball is a bunch of surprises, right?" said Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez. "Like last year, nobody picked us [the Florida Marlins] to win, and we ended up winning the World Series. The same thing is happening this year.

"Last year, the Tigers lost 119 games. They won just 43 games. This year, we ended winning 42 games in the first half. Look at the Rangers; they're playing great. ...

"Yes, it's good, absolutely. It's nice for the fans to see something different and see other teams that are playing better."


In all, 14 of the 30 major league teams are 2 1/2 games out or less, which would seem to indicate the majority of players surveyed in a Tribune Newspapers poll released Sunday were right when they said that competitive balance is not a significant problem in Major League Baseball.

"There's no question we really do have a lot more parity than three or four years ago," commissioner Bud Selig said last week. "This vote is a manifestation of that. It'll get better."

Except in the AL East.

The Yankees' payroll is pushing $180 million at a time when the rest of the sport has agreed on a luxury tax threshold of $120.5 million. The glaring reality of that imbalance crystallized in their acquisition of superstar Alex Rodriguez over the winter, and they entered the break with a seven-game lead over a Boston Red Sox franchise that is spending about $130 million trying to keep up.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner can do that because he gets more than $100 million a year in revenue from local broadcasting alone.

"They're what, $80 million over the [threshold], and they'll have to pay $45 million in revenue sharing, that could make their payroll about $230 million," Flanagan said. "It's frustrating because you hear people saying that [Orioles owner] Peter Angelos should just spend more money, but he can't."


Stricter enforcement of baseball's debt service requirements now prevents teams from overborrowing to stay competitive. The Orioles must have the revenues to justify their payroll. Sure, Angelos theoretically could write a check for the difference out of his personal wealth, but that isn't exactly the preferred method of running a successful business - especially when he has a large group of minority partners who also would be affected by a cash call.

This is where the issue of competitive balance runs headlong into the question of whether baseball should place a team in the Washington/Northern Virginia area. Angelos insists crowding another team into the region will simply assure both franchises are unable to compete with wealthier opponents in their respective divisions.

"You hear the argument that a team in Washington will just force Angelos to spend more money to compete for fans," Flanagan said, "but it doesn't work that way. We can't afford to lose anybody to Washington. We can't lose attendance or television revenue."

For the moment, the Orioles and the other AL East also-rans can just look at the rest of the divisions and wonder what it would be like to be only 5 1/2 games out of first place with a sub-.500 record - like the Tigers and Indians.

"In the West, you've had four different teams win [since 1999]," said Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff. "One of those teams [the Seattle Mariners] won 116 games. One team [the Anaheim Angels] won the World Series. One team [the Oakland Athletics] has been in the playoffs in consecutive years. Even Texas, which was down for a while, is back in the mix again."

Surhoff, who has played an active role in the players union throughout his career, points to enhanced revenue sharing as a major reason for the greater competitive balance that has been evident over the past few years.


"I don't think there is any question about that," he said. "I don't think the union was ever against revenue sharing. It was just a question of how you spend the money and whether the [small-market] teams would spend it on players."

The large market/small market dichotomy remains in place, but the economic environment has changed dramatically since the last labor agreement. The new revenue-sharing system created a greater drag on payroll growth, which depressed free-agent salaries and allowed several struggling teams make significant improvements over the offseason.

It's far from a perfect system, of course. The Kansas City Royals were forced to unload budding superstar Carlos Beltran recently because of economic constraints, and the Montreal Expos had to let go of cornerstone stars Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez last winter. But there is little doubt baseball's competitive balance crisis has eased over the past few years - in spite of the Yankees.

Sun staff writer Ed Waldman and Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.