I have yet to catch Sean Penn's Best Actor Oscar performance in Milk, but it has certainly already been far better received than John Henry’s last week in what we can only catalog as “sour milk.”
The Red Sox want a salary cap? How convenient. It seems like only a half-decade ago that Henry was shoveling the same line after losing out on Alex Rodriguez, a knee-jerk call to control the liberal spending ways of Boston’s rival to the south. Five years later, the Yankees are coming off the biggest free-agent spending frenzy in baseball history — including, most notably, swiping Boston’s desired prize first baseman right from under its collective nose — and the Red Sox respond with another disingenuous call to implement some sort of salary structure.
It’s plainly obvious that if Mark Teixeira had accepted the Red Sox’ offer of $170 million over eight years in December instead of signing with the Yankees for $10 million more, the Red Sox hierarchy would have never broached the topic. But once again, the Sox lost out on what they believed was the franchise player of their future, once again to their hated rivals. And their petty response, in lieu of chalking it up to being wildly duped during the negotiations, is to call for a cap on spending. That’s rich.
It’s nice of Henry to try to play Robin Hood, but if I want a serious discourse on the benefits of a salary cap in baseball, I’m probably not going to go to the owner of the team with the game’s fourth-highest payroll as my No. 1 source. Yet there were Henry and Larry Lucchino last week in Fort Myers, Fla., trying to tell the assembled media with straight faces how a salary cap is for the good of the game.
“I think we all agree that competitive balance is an issue, and if there was a way to put together an enlightened form of a salary cap, I think everybody among the ownership parties would support it,” Henry said. “I think it’s quite possible to put together a partnership between the players and owners going forward. ... I think it’s something that should be at least explored.”
Competitive balance? Is Henry aware that the Tampa Bay Rays, they of the second-lowest payroll in the game last year, head into 2009 as defending American League champions? Does he forget that the 2004 Red Sox, the team universally praised for breaking the “curse,” albeit with one (one) full-time homegrown player (Trot Nixon) probably would never have materialized if some sort of structured system were in place? And he obviously can’t recall that it was his team that bid the ungodly sum of $51 million for the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka, beating out, among others, the New York Yankees.
Money changes everything
Red Sox fans would like everybody to believe that after free agency and shrewd trading contributed to the ’04 title, the “homegrown kids” led Boston to its second World Series championship of the decade in ’07. Sure. Although that team featured key contributions from youngsters Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Jacoby Ellsbury, it was also the richest roster to ever win a world title. The $134.5 million payroll tops only the — lo and behold — 2004 Red Sox as the best-paid roster to bring home the trophy. You still want to talk salary cap?
Although it’s true that five of last October’s eight postseason participants spent $100 million or more to get there, must we forget that the Twins, a perennial threat in the AL Central, finished just a game behind Chicago with the game’s seventh-lowest payroll? Arizona ended up two games in back of the Manny-fueled Dodgers with the eighth-lowest. Even the Florida Marlins, with far and away the lowest payroll in the game ($21.86 million vs. the $43.8 million of runner-up Tampa Bay) finished the season with the seventh-best record in the National League. They had the same number of wins as the NL West-winning Dodgers and spent almost $100 million less.
But that also, in itself, conveys one major problem with any sort of proposed cap in baseball: the need for a floor. It would serve to discourage the Kansas Citys of the baseball world from pocketing even more than they already are in the current form of revenue sharing. With 11 teams below the $70 million spending threshold in 2008, four below $50 million, and the country in the midst of a recession with no certain light at the end of the tunnel, where do you set that? Presumably, this is why Larry Lucchino used the term “payroll zone” instead of “cap,” which probably would only affect about one-third of major league teams. Besides, it might be easier to propose a zone instead of a cap when the collective bargaining agreement is up for renewal after 2010. Buzzwords, people.
After all, it’s been 15 years since the serious notion to implement a salary cap in Major League Baseball prompted players to up and quit on the game in a strike that nearly debilitated the American pastime. It took the steroid-induced home run chase of 1998 to revive the sport, a “see no evil” summer that baseball is still trying to wriggle out of.
The road not taken
For all we know, if an agreement had been made that summer, a World Series banner could be hanging limply in the stagnant air of Le Stade Olympique, touting the Montreal Expos as world champs. There very well might not be two of them at Fenway Park.
Oh, a salary cap may yet work in baseball, despite the major hurdles it would take to get there. It’s just that when it comes up in the future, I’d much rather hear a serious proposal from someone who doesn’t have an ax to grind. Even better, I’d like to hear about it from someone who hasn’t benefited directly from the clear lack of a salary structure over the years.
Give Pirates chairman Bob Nutting the floor. The hypocritical campaign of Henry and Lucchino is about as transparent as the proverbial glass house. And yet, they continue to throw stones in the direction of the Bronx, where the Yankees have nothing to show for their free-agent bonanzas of the decade, while the Red Sox have a pair of trophies, secured precisely by doing what they criticize their rivals for doing. Maybe it would have come off as more genuine if they hadn’t spent the winter dangling $170 million out there for a player they didn’t necessarily need.
For now, it looks to be no better than a grudge crusade. But hey, what else is new?
Eric Wilbur writes the Boston Sports Blog on Boston.com (www.boston.com/sports/ columnists/wilbur/)