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JIM MURRAY

Market Finishes Up, So Yankees Do Too

April 30, 1998|JIM MURRAY

Baseball is not a contest of second basemen, cleanup hitters, mop-up pitchers and clever stratagems from the dugout. Baseball is a high-stakes poker game played by a lot of guys who couldn't hit, catch or throw a curveball, guys with letters of credit, stock options and the shrewdness of Machiavelli. They don't hit homers, move a runner along, start a double play, but they have more to do with the success of the team than those who do.

More years ago than I care to remember, I wrote a piece for Life magazine entitled "I Hate the Yankees." In it, I brilliantly proved (at least to my satisfaction) that the New York Yankees of that day were not an athletic hegemony but an economic one.

I stumbled on the concept when I found that the old St. Louis Browns had drawn little more than 80,000 fans one year; the Yankees would draw that many for a single doubleheader at home.

There was no way the Browns could compete economically with the Yankees, and they didn't. My arguments were irrefutable. In the course of them, I was to note that someone had written a song about "the poor old Yankees" that year, citing a rash of injuries and suggesting that anyone who wouldn't root for them must have lost his soul. I was to write "I would as soon feel sorry for Standard Oil because it was getting slightly the worst of it in a marketing fight with an independent gas station in East Podunk."

Well, that quote came out as "Rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel," and it was ascribed to Red Smith.

Well, Red didn't say it. I did. I don't mind because I've had a lot of bon mots ascribed to me that I never said. It's called the "Dorothy Parker syndrome."

Baseball has become much more democratic since those benighted times when Col. Ruppert bought Babe Ruth for the unheard-of sum of $125,000 and changed the game forever. But the Yankees were built with dollar bills. So were last year's champions, the Florida Marlins.

Unlike Col. Ruppert and subsequent Yankee owners, the Florida owner, Wayne Huizenga, immediately set about to dismantling his ruling family.

What brings all this to mind is, I have a feeling we don't have to study the relief pitching situation, see who Mark McGwire goes with, get a scouting report or any of the usual things we do at this time of the year to divine a champion.

All we have to do is look at a balance sheet. Any Wall Street yuppie with his cellular phone in his ear could tell you what's going to happen. It's like checking the Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal instead of the Sporting News.

The Yankees are spending about $72 million this year on salaries. The Montreal Expos are spending $9,202,000, according to a New York Times survey.

Guess who's 16-6 as we speak--and who's 7-18. Right.

There are more millionaires in a big league locker room these days than there are in the House of Lords. The major league payroll for this year is $1.2 billion, thank you. The average major league salary is $1,437,917.

Surprised that the San Diego Padres are out there winging with an 18-7 start? Don't be. They upped their payroll from $31.7 million to $45.4 million. The Boston Red Sox are off and running at 18-7. Think it's because Mo Vaughn took off a few pounds? Naw. It's because the Red Sox put on a few. They went from a $38.7-million payroll to a $51.6-million one.

Everyone thought the Chicago White Sox would run away with the pennant last year after they added Albert Belle to Frank Thomas. But they finished under .500. Murray Chass points out in his column that while the White Sox's payroll is $36.8 million, four players get three-quarters of that amount. Belle gets $10 million, Thomas $7 million and two other players $11.1 million.

Back in Ruth and Ruppert's day, the franchise had to depend on the walk-up trade. Radio was in place, but owners figured letting radio broadcast games was akin to giving the product away. They didn't realize for a long time that it actually was promotion.

Today, television subsidizes the product. There is one big difference between then and now. Then, owners were individuals to whom the team was an extended family and, if they sometimes seemed a little backward, it didn't mean you loved them less. It used to be, when your cleanup hitter struck out with the bases loaded, you felt as if you had.

Today, give or take a George Steinbrenner or two, the owner is a corporation that is more interested in the cash flow than the pennant drive. The team is merely another division in the parent company. Sometimes, it buys a team simply to have a product for its TV network or to plug its other entertainment outlets. Sometimes you get to feeling the Angels are merely another ride at Disneyland.

The Yankees in their day had to win. Success filled the seats. On the road and at home. Today, much of the loot adheres regardless of the scoreboard.

Having said that, you still have to have the horses. The grand old game hasn't changed that much. The Yankees aren't in the World Series annually any more. But, one thing stays the same: The guy with the most chips wins the pot. If anyone with a $9-million payroll ever beat a team with one of $70 million, 200 agents would jump off a bridge.

They say you measure a man's success by the number of toys he acquires in his lifetime. Well, a championship team is the biggest toy a man can get. You wind it up with lots of money. You run the ribbon clerks out. Then, you play dealers' choice for it all.

And rooting for the guy who does it is still like rooting for Standard Oil.

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