The best team money could buy
Here's the thing about the New York Yankees' huge payroll: It has been talked about so much that, in reality, it is hardly talked about at all. I know this makes little sense, but what I mean is this:
A. Everyone knows the Yankees spend much more money than any other team to win games.
B. Because everyone knows it, people have been complaining about it for many years.
C. Because people have complained about it for many years, everybody is sick of hearing about it.
D. Because everyone is sick of hearing about it, nobody really listens.
E. Because nobody really listens, people don't talk about the Yankees spending much more money than any other team to win games.
Yes, this is a weird circle. But in this bizarre world of spin where
Now, let's think about this for a moment: You have a sport where the New York Yankees -- in large part because they are located in America's largest city and they have baseball's richest television contract -- can viably spend tens of millions of dollars more than any other team to acquire baseball players. You have one team (and only one team) playing the video game on cheat-mode.
This is much starker than people think, by the way. I quickly went back and looked at the numbers before writing
In 2002, the Yankees spent $17 million more in payroll than any other team.
In 2003, the Yankees spent $35 million more in payroll than any other team.
In 2004, the Yankees spent $57 million more in payroll than any other team. I mean, it's ridiculous from the start but this is pure absurdity. Basically, this is like the Yankees saying: "OK, let's spend exactly as much as the second-highest payroll in baseball. OK, we're spending exactly as much. And now ... let's add the Oakland A's. No, I mean let's add their whole team, the whole payroll, add it on top and let's play some ball!"
In 2005, the Yankees spent $85 million more than any other team. Not a misprint. Eight five.
In 2006, the Yankees spent $74 million more than any other team.
In 2007, the Yankees spent $40 million more than any other team -- cutbacks, you know.
In 2008, the Yankees spent $72 million more than any other team.
In 2009, the Yankees spent $52 million more than any other team.
Now, the conceit of American professional sports is that every team has a chance. That is certainly the conceit of baseball -- what the commissioner calls Hope on Opening Day.*
So how can the commissioner of baseball promote such nonsense as Hope on Opening Day when the game is set up for one team to spend tens of millions more than anyone else? Well, it's actually an interesting thing, I think. I see it as a two-pronged play.
One: Baseball happens to be a sport where dominance can be obscured. It doesn't look like dominance. What I mean is this: Baseball, for many reasons, is built in such a way that the best teams win less often than in other sports. A 13-win NFL team wins 81% of the time. A national championship contending football team might lose once or twice -- or not at all. A 60-win NBA team wins 75% of the time, and a big time college basketball team will win closer to 90%.
A 100-win baseball team wins 62% of the time... and there was only one 100-win baseball team this year. The New York Yankees. Every baseball team that won even 56% of the time this year made the playoffs. It is a sport of small triumphs, good months, one-run victories. I believe it was
So, dominant baseball teams don't LOOK dominant in the same way they do in football or basketball. It's like the billionaire CEO who doesn't wear ties and rides coach on planes. He's still a billionaire but he doesn't LOOK like a billionaire. No team goes winless or undefeated in baseball. Few ever go winless or undefeated even over 16-game stretches. No team in baseball loses fewer than 40 games, and no team wins more than 120, and it's only the rarest of teams that get anywhere close to either of those numbers.
I think of it this way: I would bet that if the Indianapolis Colts played the Cleveland Browns 100 times, and the Colts were motivated, they would probably win 95 of them -- maybe even more than that. But if the New York Yankees played the Kansas City Royals 100 times, and the Yankees were motivated, I suspect the Royals would still win 25 or 30 times. That's baseball.
So you have this sport that tends to equalize teams. That helps blur the dominance of the Yankees. If the New England Patriots were allowed to spend $50 million more on players than any other team, they would go 15-1 or 16-0 every single year. And people would not stand for it. But in baseball, a great and dominant team might only win 95 out of 160, and it doesn't seem so bad.
The second thing is that, at the end of the year, the best teams are thrown together in a succession of short series that are fun to watch but are not designed to pick the best teams. Quite the opposite: A short series in baseball is designed to shelter weaknesses and expose strengths.
And in that way the expanded playoffs have been genius for baseball -- not only because they are milking television for every dime, but because the short series have been baseball's one defense against the ludicrous unfairness of the New York Yankees. Hey, if the game is rigged, rig the game. The Yankees spend a lot more money than any other team. As a direct result, they had the best record in the American League in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2009. They made the playoffs every single year but one this decade (and going back to 1995). They are the best team with the best players every year -- that sort of big money virtually guarantees it.
So, you create a system in which the best team doesn't always win. In fact, you create a system in which the best team
And this has been the Wizard of Oz slight-of-hand game that MLB has been playing for a long time...
There's something else that people say: They talk about how money doesn't guarantee wins. And they point out that other teams (the Mets, the Cubs, the Astros, etc.) spend a lot of money and don't win. I think this actually makes for an interesting argument if you want to talk about the inequities of baseball... big markets, small markets, all that.
But the Yankees are a whole different argument. They are their own argument. The Yankees are not a big-market team. They DWARF big-market teams. They are quantitatively different from every other team in baseball and every other team in American sports. They don't just spend more money than every other team. They spend A LOT more money than every other team. The Boston Red Sox spend $50 million more than the Kansas City Royals? Who cares? The Yankees spend $80 million more than the Boston Red Sox.
The Yankees have a pat hand.
This is the way baseball is structured, and we have reached a point where people simply don't want to hear any griping about it.
The trouble is that, inevitably, that one team will make good choices. They will put together a team of All-Stars. They will sign a dominant left-handed starter and a slugging switch-hitting Gold Glove first baseman and a right-handed starter who throws curveballs that bend like wiffle balls. That team will be a remarkable collection of stars, and they will play often beautiful baseball, and they will win more games than any other team during the season. That team will roll through the playoffs without facing an elimination game or anything resembling real drama -- though there will be constant efforts to make it SEEM like there's drama.
And then: That team that spent $50 million more than any other team, that team with three sure Hall of Famers and as many as four others, that team that bought Milwaukee's best pitcher and Anaheim's best hitter and Toronto's No. 2 starter and Boston's favorite Idiot and the most expensive player in the history of baseball and so on, that team will win the World Series, and spray champagne on each other, and they will tell you that they won because they came together as a group and kept pulling themselves off the ground and didn't listen to the doubters.
And then, if you are a not a Yankees fan, you will want to throw up. If you are not a Yankees fan, you are left hoping that next year the randomness of a short playoff series will get the Yankees and allow some other team to win so we can celebrate the hope of Opening Day. And that's baseball.