Cheap Seats

It's time for a cap

As we wind down another free agent off-season, it’s clear that baseball has no choice but to eventually adopt a salary cap.

Sooner would be better than later.

The landscape simply isn’t level enough to let the free market determine players’ salaries. Nothing natural will ever happen to make the Pirates — one of baseball’s most competitive franchises in the 1960s and ’70s — a World Series competitor in our lifetime.

Once enormously popular in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Toronto, Oakland and San Diego, fans have grown weary of rooting for a team that has no real chance to win when the first pitch is thrown on opening day. And they’re not going to pay $40 per person (not including parking, snacks and drinks to watch a game that is no longer the hot ticket in town. As a result, clubs in those cities have seen attendance dwindle and talk of contraction or relocation resurfaces.

It seemed like baseball took a small step back from the free agent insanity last season when the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets refused to offer an eight-year, $160-million or more contract to Matt Holliday. But it shows that owners have no way to police themselves when one crazy franchise nukes the marketplace by paying Jayson Werth $126 million over seven seasons.

Jayson Werth! He’s a very good player. Is he a great player? Well, he’s a .272 career hitter who has managed 25 or more homers twice in an eight-year career. So I don’t think I would start clearing out a place for him in the Hall of Fame just yet.

There are those out there who say that a player is worth whatever he can get and more power to a guy for landing such an outlandish contract. But these contracts aren’t passed out in a vacuum. Every time a mediocre player wins the lottery with a giant contract, it drives up the cost of every other player in baseball. It drives up the price of every ticket in baseball and it drives away a few more families who can no longer afford to be fans.

It’s obvious owners need to not only be saved from themselves — but the institution of baseball needs to be saved from them.

It was only 20 year ago that the Kansas City Royals had the highest payroll in the majors — $23.6 million or an average of $692,000 per player. Two decades later, the Yankees shell out about nine times that amount per season and the average contract in the majors pays more than $3 million a year. My family’s box seats at the old Busch Stadium cost $9 each back then. Five years ago I was pushed by runaway inflation from the boxes to the bleachers — and my bleacher tickets now cost about twice what the best seats in the house cost 20 years ago.

Opponents to a cap have pointed out that baseball has always had its power brokers. The Yankees used to poach players from the Browns and the Braves back in the 1920s. That’s just the way things have always been. But it was different then because, owners had more control over player movement so the distance from the top of the scale to the bottom wasn’t that great. In 1990 when the Royals were top dogs at $23 million, seven other teams had payrolls over $20 million — and the Cardinals were just outside that circle at $19.65 million.

Maybe everyone couldn’t afford a superstar. But every team could afford to field decent enough talent to be competitive. And if they could develop some stars here and there, they had a real chance for the big trophy. Today the bottom feeders know that they can’t fully develop their own talent before it becomes unaffordable through the arbitration process.

It’s bad for the health of baseball to see so many of its teams suffer while a few prosper so much. While I would like to see my team win every year, it’s much better for the game if everyone has a better chance to win the World Series.