Monday, November 09, 2009

Closing the Book on MLB 2009

As the last of the confetti was cleaned up this weekend after the Yankees parade in lower Manhattan, I had some good time to close the book in my own head on the 2009 baseball season. With a few days to reflect, most of my impressions from last week of course remain the same, but there are some additional thoughts that gradually crept into my head a day or two after Game 6 and which have only gotten stronger since then.

For starters, although most predictions about the greatness of this series coming in (my own included) proved to be inaccurate and exaggerated by the time the teams got on the field to actually play the games, one thing was clearly correct: the ratings for this series were strongly up from past years. The average share for the six 2009 World Series games was just under a 19, meaning approximately 18.8 million viewers in U.S. households tuned in each night to watch the Phillies and Yankees battle it out for the world championship. The most-watched game was Game 4 -- the game I attended in Philadelphia -- with nearly 23 million viewers, while Games 3 and 5 both garnered between 15 and 16 million watchers on the low end. Game 1 of the 2009 Series was viewed by over 19 million in the U.S., while in contrast, Game 1 of the 2008 World Series between the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays brought in just over 10 million viewers, and Game 1 in 2007 between Colorado and the Red Sox came in at around 13 million. Overall viewership was up just over 40% above the series last year, and the 2009 Fall Classic was the most watched World Series since the Red Sox broke their 50,000 year slump by riding steroided-up horse-pill-takers to the World Series championship back in 2004.

But the main feeling I am left with now that the 2009 major league baseball season has come to a close is that it really is sick what the Yankees have done, using the absurd structure of the sport and their deepest of pockets to their extreme advantage. And yet, like most non-Yankee fans I keep running in to in real life, on the internet, national sports talk shows, etc., I do not say this with a whole lot of admiration, so much as rather with a solid helping of disdain. Here's the thing: the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008 one time. One year. The Bombers were not in the playoff hunt in 2008, after participating in the postseason previously in every year since 1996. And their reaction to missing the playoffs one time -- keep in mind they had made the playoffs twelve straight years before that, equalling the number of times the Phillies have made the postseason in their entire nearly 130-year history -- but after just one year of missing the playoffs, they had had enough. Oh sure, Yanks' GM Brian Cashman had thought he had had enough before already -- several times in fact -- but what everyone involved in the Yankees organization found out quickly during the 2008-2009 offseason was that they hadn't seen anything yet.

Before anyone could say "competitive imbalance" five times fast, the Yankees went out in the offseason before this year and signed the not one, not two, but the three biggest free agents out there in CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira. And it's not like they had to scrimp or anything in paying these guys in order to manage to afford all three of them in one offseason on top of what was already for years the highest payroll in all of baseball. Nope -- they committed to $161 million for 7 years with Sabathia, $82 million for 5 years with Burnett, and $180 million over 8 years on Teixeira. All three of these deals were announced within a few days of December 18, 2008, and it was obvious that the Yankees were negotiating with all three players simultaneously and, clearly, without real regard to the money it was costing them. That's over $420 million committed by the Yankees over the next 8 years on just these three players, again on top of what was already the highest payroll in baseball by about $20 million more than the second-place Red Sox even before last season came to a close.

In 2009, the Yankees spent a total of a whopping $208.1 million on their payroll. Second place on that list is now the New York Mets, but coming in way "down" at 145.3 million. In third are the Cubs, coming in at $134.8 million, with Yankees rival the Boston Red Sox rounding out the top four at 122.4 million. So the Yankees are spending more than 70% more money on their team than their closest rival in the AL, and the team that still has the fourth-highest payroll overall in the majors, and the Yanks are spending 43% more than anybody else in baseball. 43% more than the 2nd highest payroll in the league right now. And lookie there, they went out and won the 2009 title. Shocker.

When a team is spending 43% more than the 2nd place team in a professional sport, and between 70% and 500% more than any other team in their league, that sport is walking a really fine line. Basically, it's fine when that team is not winning the world series title every single year and when, generally speaking, at least a decent handful of other teams are entering every season with a reasonable shot at winning it all. But when someone is spending more than 43% more than the next closest payroll, and more than 70% more than anybody else in their league, and they go out, win more games than anybody else by a mile, and basically show game in and game out why nobody else in the major leagues can even touch them, well, that really causes some problems. Obviously it is bad for the sport as a whole -- take a look at the teams at the bottom of the payroll list in Florida, Pittsburgh and Washington, for example, who cannot compete so have just given up trying, not to mention the teams like Minnesota, Cleveland, etc. who seem to come up every few years in talks of bankruptcy, significant losses and even contraction. But the Yankees just keep chugging along, even in the worst economy of any of our lifetimes. Think about it -- this was December 2008, right smack in the midst of all that shit last winter with the financial meltdown, the markets were in the tank, just about everything seemed to have come to a standstill. Everything, that is, except the Yankees, who in the span of three or four days committed to spend over $420 million on three players for the next 5-8 years in what was without a doubt the most sweeping, literally not believable free agency extravaganza by any team at any time in baseball history.

All I know is that I, like just about every other non-Yankee baseball fan in America it seems these days, am left with a very bitter taste in my mouth about this Yankees team and what exactly they did to basically secure their 27th world series title before the 2009 season has even begun. Sure this team has always spent the most money in the league for most of their history, but what they did prior to the 2009 season was corpulent and gluttony even by Yankees standards, and it bought them exactly what they wanted. I guess if you spend enough money on players, enough more than everybody else in the league is willing to spend regardless of the situation, the economy, the state of the game, etc., you really can buy a championship. And that's exactly what we saw in the 2009 baseball season: the purchase of a World Series. Price tag? $208.1 million. Not even a fraction of a bailout.

And one of the least satisfying aspects of this entire thing is what it means for the future. Look at the state of baseball right now, and ask yourself who you honestly think is going to win the world series in 2010. Think about that lineup we just watched the Yankees trot out there every night against the Phillies, and think about that starting rotation that held the Yankees back for years but which was completely and totally transformed by the addition of Burnett and Sabathia at the top of the list, and think about Mariano Rivera coming in from the pen in the 9th. Face it -- the Yankees are already your 2010 World Series champions. Might as well book it now. The only question is: do the Yankees win 120 games next year? I have very little doubt that this team -- without the issues around A-Rod's getting caught for steroid use, the injury and the poor start without him in April and part of May -- will give the 1998 Yankees and their 114-42 regular season record a serious run for their money. There is some age on the Yankees roster, but outside of Rivera who is still, far and away, the best relief pitcher in baseball today, there isn't much that the addition of last year's three huge free agents can't overcome for at least the next couple of years. The Yankees are here to stay, the $200 million+ behemoth in a league of $30-120 million competitors, unless and until baseball does something to change their system that they have shown no indication of changing whatsoever thus far.

I mentioned A-Rod's preseason revelation about having used steroids from 2001-2003 in baseball. Personally, I find the Yankees' reliance over the past several years on steroided-up players to be one of the most disgusting aspects of this whole nasty team that has been permitted by league rules to completely trump all others in terms of skill and experience amassed on its roster. Think about this for a minute -- although Hideki Matsui won the 2009 World Series MVP award (and deservedly so), who would you name as the Yankees' overall postseason MVPs in 2009? I'll tell you who -- Alex Rodriguez, for starters. Despite an only "good" World Series in which A-Rod won Game 4 in the top of the 9th and contributed solidly on offense to one other win as well, the man ended the 2009 postseason going 19-for-52 for a .365 batting average, with 6 home runs, 2 doubles, 18 RBIs and two stolen bases. A-Rod was an offensive machine for the Yankees and would simply have to be thought of as the MVP of this team's postseason run in 2009. And who would be next on that list for the 2009 Yankees? Andy Pettitte, who pitched and won the series-clinching game in each of the three playoff series in 2009 against the Twins, the Angels and then the Phillies in the World Series. Pettitte really lived up to his career reputation as a stopper for the Yankees, taking the ball in the biggest and most crucial of spots time and again in the postseason, and coming through in a big way. Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte literally led their team 1-2 in postseason contributions in 2009, including both winning games during the World Series itself.

And both are admitted juicers. And guys, might I add, who only admitted their steroid usage after getting outed publicly, A-Rod by the biography of him released earlier this year, and Pettitte in connection with the ongoing investigation into the steroid activities of Roger Clemens, another guy who contributed greatly to the World Series runs of the Yankees several years ago.

Both A-Rod and Pettitte have had their bodies forever altered in immeasurable ways by the illegal and banned substances they knowingly ingested over the past several years in their attempts to cheat skirt the rules. Both found muscles that most people never even know they have, as a result of illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, muscles which are still more developed in their bodies today as a result of that usage, regardless of how long it's been since they received more PEDs. Both used illegal steroids to rehab from injuries, injuries which we'll never even know if they could have recovered from the same without cheating the rules of the game. And both of those guys are now on the roster of the team with the astronomically high payroll, and the two led the New York Yankees to the first world title in 10 years in 2009. It's disgusting, it's despicable, and most of all, it's just not fair.

A last impression I have after the 2009 baseball season relates to home field advantage and the All-Star Game. It is truly and totally ridiculous that home-field advantage in the World Series is decided by who wins the freaking All-Star game in mid-summer every year. Yes, I mean, everyone has said this and there's no doubt that it's an accurate statement, but I mean it for a slightly different reason, getting right back at the competitive imbalance in the sport these days. For years the Yankees and the Red Sox have led the league in terms of team payroll, and even though this year the Red Sox have fallen to 4th place, the fact remains that the highest-payroll teams are still concentrated in the American League, and the lower-paying teams are still concentrated in the National League. Just the presence of the Yankees alone, stockpiling and overpaying for talent in wallet-busting fashion, basically helps ensure that the American League teams will have homefield advantage in the World Series under the current system because they help tilt the talent scale in favor of the AL over the NL. Four of the top six payrolls in baseball were in the AL in 2009 (Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Angels), while the bottom four payroll teams in baseball -- including the bottom three which are each at least 25% below the lowly Washington Nationals' 2009 payroll -- are all in the National League. The result? There is more talent in the American League because there is more money being spent there, year in and year out -- at least partially due to the outdated DH rule in the American League, by the way -- and as a result, the National League is stupidly disadvantaged in the World Series by never getting to have home field advantage.

Prior to 2003, home field in the World Series simply alternated every year between the AL team and the NL team. That's also dumb, in that in a year like 2009, it could have given the Phillies home field advantage despite the Yankees having the best record in baseball by far. Instead, home field in the Fall Classic should simply be based on which team had the better regular season record (just like the other sports have figured out years ago by now). In the seven years that the All-Star game has been used to determine home field advantage in the World Series ever since Bud Selig butchered the 2002 All-Star game after 11 innings, the AL has won the All-Star game with their clearly superior talent every single year -- again buttressed tremendously by the Yankees' and Red Sox's penchant for extravagant spending and bidding wars, as the AL has held at least four of the top 6 payroll spots in each year in the league since 2003 -- and as a result of the Yankees' and Red Sox's largesse, the AL team has had four home games on the World Series schedule every year. In a year like this year, that dictates the correct result, but allowing the league with all the overspending to get this kind of a home-baked advantage in the location of the World Series games is just the final stick in the eye of all true baseball fans in this country who are sick and tired of the Yankees taking extreme (and growing) advantage of this sport being the only one of the major professional sports in this country not to enforce some form of a salary cap to help ensure that all teams have a chance to win it all.

Here is where I normally would make some kind of an optimistic statement about the powers that be in the sport hopefully recognizing the problem in their league and doing something to fix it right away. But that's not going to happen here. So given that, get yourselves ready everyone for another year (or more) of the Yankees on top.

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Blogger DuggleBogey said...

Fix what? A higher percentage of the total number of teams have made the playoffs in baseball in the last 10 years THAN ANY OTHER PROFESSIONAL SPORT.

Read that again to be sure you understand it. Baseball, which has the fewest actual number of teams make the playoffs every year than any other major sport, has had a greater variety of teams make the playoffs.

Only one team had multiple championships in those ten years, and there were eight years between those championships.

There's more parity in baseball than any other sport, period.

4:01 AM  
Blogger Shrike said...

Initial commentator is missing the point. For a typically thoughtful take on this, see here:


4:53 AM  
Blogger Bayne_S said...

Red Sox had 2 Championships in past 10 years only 3 years apart.

Ted Turner selling off the Braves made NL a little more competitive.

Solution for baseball is let Cuban by the Cubs.

5:07 AM  
Blogger Drizztdj said...

The only reason I watch baseball anymore is to see Mauer play.

Once he's gone from the Twins after being offered 5 years/$250 million from the Yankees, I'll go back to finding beach volleyball on ESPN 8 The OCHO! until its football season again.

10:00 PM  
Blogger steeser said...

I felt basically the same thing as you, triggered by Joe Buck waxing poetic about the Yankees in the 7th inning of the deciding game, talking about all of the money owed to CC, Burnett and Teixera.

10:10 PM  

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