By Jason Keidel
In early 2002, the time framed in the film Moneyball, Billy Beane was toiling over his team and his payroll, wincing at his shrinking roster for the new season.
He pleaded with his owner for a few more bucks — to which the boss scoffed and rejected with some measure of indignity. So Beane told his staff they would surely lose Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi, two pillars of the lineup that made the Oakland A’s a contender.
Beane limped into every offseason like that — his wallet laughably light — trying to contend with baseball’s big spenders. The Athletics were a de facto farm club for the well-heeled northeastern powers, like the Red Sox (where Damon landed) and the Yankees (where Giambi landed). It didn’t stop there, of course. The aces of their rotation were also pawned off to the highest bidder. Barry Zito. Tim Hudson. Mark Mulder. Even superstar shortstop Miguel Tejada fled for financial splendor in Baltimore.
If it felt unfair to the viewer and baseball fan. It was. The 2002 Yankees had a payroll of nearly $126 million. Likewise, Boston’s budget was over $108 million. Meanwhile, Billy Beane and Oakland hit the market with $39 million in its back pocket.
For over a century, baseball has sold itself not only as our pastime, but as a meritocracy, as American as hot dogs, apple pie and Cracker Jacks. Yet it was being hijacked by another American monolith — the dollar bill.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Washington Nationals, a club that didn’t even exist in 2002 (unless you care to connect them to the Montreal Expos). When Bryce Harper recently signed a $21 million deal with the Nationals for 2018, it did more than set a record for arbitration-level money.
It cemented a new monetary narrative in baseball.
Instead of financial fat cats feasting on the paupers, their yearly poaching of All-Stars has all but halted. Twenty years ago, there’s no way the Nats keep Harper past his early, restricted years. Now it’s fair to assume, or at least seriously hope, Harper will see his famed mane grow gray in the nation’s capital.
And this is how baseball clubs should do business. It’s the only business model that really works, even in the high orbit of the Yankees.
The beauty of the Joe Torre/Yankee dynasty is it was built properly, from the farm up. In the pre-Darth Vader days, the 1990s Yanks didn’t soar over the baseball world in payroll. There were years when the Baltimore Orioles spent as much, or more, money on players than the Bronx Bombers. They didn’t stuff their lineup with muscular mercenaries who wielded bats and needles with equal frequency. (The only Yank to hit as many as 30 homers in those years was Bernie Williams, hardly your garden-variety juicer.)
But it all became distorted after that. Not just the PEDs, but payrolls. And thus the Yanks, who forged a new financial empire with YES Network, had cash to burn. Then the Red Sox joined the mile-high monetary club, with NESN. And such was the new arms race, with a growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. Teams like the Pirates, Royals, and A’s were left choking on the fumes, while counting coins just to keep marginal players.
But even as the MLB marauders, the Yankees didn’t buy any championships in those 15 years, except perhaps in 2009. Other than that, they watched their poorer peers win every October. Now the Yankees are contenders again. And it’s no coincidence they’re doing it with young players of modest salary, like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.
Now, with regional sports networks sprouting like weeds across the map, just about any team can spend like a sailor on shore leave. The Nationals can break records without breaking the bank. The idea of Bryce Harper wearing one uniform for 15 years isn’t just music to the ears of Nats fans. It should make all baseball fans exhale and excited.
Indeed, 2016 saw a record 17 MLB clubs with a payroll over $100 million. (The Minnesota Twins just missed the list, with $99.8 million.) And it’s the Dodgers, not the Yankees, who beam from the monetary marquee, spending an absurd $248 million (no doubt buoyed by their $3 billion cable TV deal). Yes, the A’s are still toiling around the lower rungs of financial relevance, but they are spending double ($80.6 million) what they did in 2002.
New Yorkers may dream of Brian Cashman parachuting into D.C. with an oil drum full of cash and leaving with Bryce Harper in tow. But that’s not how things work anymore. And it’s a good thing, even if a few pampered, big-city brats miss the bad old days.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.