Monday, June 27, 2005

Baseball's Small Market Blues

I ran into a friend last week while pumping gas and we got off on the conversation of sports, of course. The subject two men can engage in anytime, anywhere and without even thinking about it. We were discussing the Cincinnati Reds, because we are both long suffering Reds fans. Well, not as long suffering as the Cubs or White Sox fans, but it has been 15 years since the Reds have been to the World Series. It seems like it has been 15 years since the Reds were even in second place.

After we parted, I started wondering about the state of baseball, money wise. I am not a financial genius, far from it, but it seems that there are some things that baseball owners could do to make things a little more competitive and draw more fans into all the brand new tax funded retro ballparks that are going up every ten minutes.

Take the Reds for instance, the Reds have a really great new ball park, I have been there many times and I think it has a great atmosphere for baseball. The only problem is the Reds play there, and they do not provide a great baseball atmosphere. The Reds have two problems, the owners do not want to spend any money and the baseball men they hire do not know how to spot or develop talent.

The Reds owner seems to be saving his money in hopes that something clicks and this team of mediocre players will “get it” and rattle off a 30 game win streak leading to the World Series. I don’t think that is how it happens. The Reds went out this year and picked up some pitchers to bolster it staff. They signed Eric Milton, traded for Ramon Ortiz and brought in some young minor league talent. The only problem with all of these signings is that none of these pitchers that were brought in are a top of the order guy. In baseball, pitching staffs tend to be ordered 1 through 5 with 1 being your best pitcher and 5 being your worst pitcher. The Reds have got about 5 number 4 starters. They are horrible and they aren’t getting any better this year and until something with ownership happens, I don’t believe they will be better in 10 years.

I do give the Reds credit; at least they went out and tried to spend a little money. Their problem is that they don’t know who to spend money on. When you go out and sign a fly ball pitcher like Eric Milton and stick him in the worst park for pitchers this side of Colorado, you can guess that it may not work out. Maybe the bigger problem is the fact that the Reds ownership is known for being stingy and they have such a bad history of losing lately, that even if they were to go on a HUGE spending spree, no free agent in his right mind would sign onto this sinking ship. There are a lot of teams in this boat. If you were a big time free agent, would you want to go to Kansas City? Cincinnati? Tampa Bay? I think not. Baseball in small markets is in trouble in this respect.

Owners build new stadiums in hopes of drawing in the crowds to make the money to buy the players to get to the World Series. That sounds fine and dandy; I don’t care how great your new stadium is, if you team stinks, no one wants to watch them. I think the owners in baseball have overlooked something that is very apparent to me. You can’t expect to make a profit every year you run a baseball team, especially if you are trying to run a team to make money and not to win.

The Reds I believe fall into this branch of owners. They can’t spend money because they are not making money, so they can’t get the players to come and play in Cincinnati. This hurts the Reds chances of ever competing for the Series again. Another example is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the whole Lou Piniella situation. Piniella left a good job in Seattle to come back to his home town to manage the hometown team, the Devil Rays, arguably the worst team in baseball. Piniella was promised by the ownership that they would put more money into the team and they would strive to become a competitive ball club in a few years. I do not believe Piniella expected a championship, but he is unhappy that there hasn’t been any money at all spent on the team, as in bringing in good players to help the team win. It seems that the money is just going to the owners and the team just has to make do. That is how you run a business. A sports team is not a business. It has to be treated as a hobby.

Major League Baseball engages in revenue sharing based on the rich teams paying a luxury tax, but there is no rule that the baseball owners have to spend the extra money on the team. Most owners would be satisfied to pocket the money and keep on running the business exactly as they had been. Baseball needs to step in and fix this. Owners need to spend the money to make the money.

Major League baseball needs to look into getting rid of the teams that do not want to compete. The owners that are happy to make a small profit and be able to say they own a baseball team need to be returned to the business world. Major League baseball needs to contract the teams that regularly do not spend money to improve and do not compete at any time in the season. It may come down to teams like a Kansas City, a great baseball town, being contracted. If contraction is not the answer, then baseball should enforce a set of guidelines that owners must follow or they will be asked to sell their team to someone who wants to be successful and spend money. I know this may never happen, but when you are a fan of a team like a Cincinnati or Kansas City, this may be the only hope you have of ever reaching the World Series again.

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