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Baseball’s biggest problem: ‘perennially bad teams’ | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Konner Wade (79) is removed from the game by s manager Brandon Hyde during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Baltimore. The O's lost the game that night, their 19th loss in a row. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Konner Wade (79) is removed from the game by s manager Brandon Hyde during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Baltimore. The O's lost the game that night, their 19th loss in a row. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams) (Terrance Williams/AP)

For baseball fans, September is the cruelest of months — or the best, depending upon your team.

One of us is a longtime Orioles fan looking ahead to the season’s merciful end. Will the Orioles lose more than 100 games for the third time in five years? Will they ever have another Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken, Earl Weaver?

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The other one of us is a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, fervently hoping the Dodgers can beat the San Francisco Giants for the division championship. Will LA’s star pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, return to glory? Can the Dodgers repeat as World Series champions?

Baseball is at an inflection point. Both the game and the season take too long, and many useful suggestions are being made about how to remedy that. The sport’s biggest problem, however, is perennially bad teams. The Orioles are among of the game’s worst, alongside the Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks. No one benefits from chronically horrible baseball teams. Fans don’t support the teams, and the players look for a way out: Manny Machado is infinitely happier — and richer — in San Diego since he escaped from the O’s. Even opposing teams prefer playing a competitor rather than face a patsy.

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Weak teams often complain of bad management. If they had a better general manager and manager, the thinking goes, the team would be competitive. People look to low-budget teams, such as the Oakland Athletics, and point out that they are perennially competitive. Others point to well-funded teams such as the California Angels and say that spending money doesn’t necessarily ensure success since the Angels are always close to the cellar. Cinderella teams such as this season’s Tampa Bay Rays, also give hope to the bottom feeders. Money does not ensure success; an unwillingness to spend money ensures long-term mediocrity and perennial abject failure such as this season’s Birds.

Major League Baseball has made feeble attempts to close the wealth gap among teams. When a team goes over a set amount, they are taxed. The “competitive balance tax” rules, however, are weak. They do not make a dent in the richest and poorest of the teams. This season, the richest team spends over $250 million and the poorest pays under $50 million. Until that discrepancy changes, baseball in general, and the city of Baltimore in particular, will suffer.

We have two suggestions.

Just as there is a salary ceiling for teams, there also should be a salary floor. Owners of sports teams are among the wealthiest individuals in the country. If they are unwilling to spend what it takes to field a competitive team, then they should be forced to sell the team to someone who will. Baltimore should have a winner again. With a $52 million payroll the Orioles will never be a consistent winner.

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The second suggestion is that baseball undergo a structural overhaul. Why not create divisions akin to European soccer? Rather than geographic affinity, create divisions based on quality — a “Champions League” composed of the game’s best teams, with subsequent lower divisions. At the end of every season, the best teams move up a division or stay in the Champions League, and the weaker teams move down. This year, the Dodgers and Giants would still be in Division I based on last year’s rankings, but the Orioles and Diamondbacks would play one another in Division IV. Rather than racing to the bottom with MLB’s longest losing streak in 20 years, the Birds might be playing for a division title. And if they did well enough, they might move up to Division III and so on.

No change will be perfect. The status quo, however, is not acceptable — not to the players, not to opposing teams, and certainly not to the long-suffering fans of Baltimore.

William G. Tierney (wgtiern@usc.edu) is a Dodgers fan and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California; Daniel J. McLaughlin (djmcl22@gmail.com) is a Baltimore native and forever fan of the Orioles.

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