Got Juice?

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Forty-three years ago, the nation was entranced by the battle being waged between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, two Yankee greats who spent a summer trying to reach a baseball milestone: 61 home runs. This number would be one better than Babe Ruth‘s record, one that had been preserved for 34 years. Maris eventually reached this plateau, but his record was noted with an asterisk because he had played a 162-game season, unlike Ruth who had played in a 152-game one.

Thirty-seven years later, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were credited with bringing life back into baseball when they went toe-to-toe to try and break this mark. McGwire reached the 62 home run mark in early September and, before the season ended, he had an amazing 70 round-trippers. But we remember also that, late in the season, McGwire admitted that he had been taking performance-enhancing drugs to help create those arms that looked as big as tree trunks. Eventually, the controversy was swept under the carpet and the focus turned to seeing if another could top that.

Only three years passed before we had an answer. After reaching the 500 career home run mark early in the season, Barry Bonds, the son of former player Bobby Bonds and godson of baseball legend “Say Hey” Willie Mays went on a tear and clobbered an amazing 73 home runs that season. To those who watched, his swing seemed almost effortless and the ball would sail well into upper decks and the far reaches of the stands. Before beginning his home run trot, Bonds would stay at the plate and admire the flight of the ball for a few seconds as if he were as astonished as the fans were of the power he possessed in those muscular cannons.

Now, mere weeks away from the opening of the 2004 baseball campaign, the suspicions of many have been made truth: that players, under invisible pressure in an effort to draw the crowds, have been taking steroids and other drugs to enhance their bodies and become modern-day Goliaths. This after random drug tests conducted last year confirmed that as many as five percent of those tested were juiced and after testimony in a legal case accused several baseball All-Stars of being supplied with steroids. One of those named was, sadly, Barry Bonds.

So where do we go from here? Has the game of baseball been ruined? Will the MLB suddenly find itself swept under the rug as has the XFL and the WUSA? The good news is that the baseball season has NOT been canceled at this point and that the Boston Red Sox have yet another chance to end the championship drought by season’s end, unless the New York Yankees again have the last say.

Yet perhaps this is another answer to bringing back a level playing field to the game of baseball besides the financial arguments. With the chance of being suspended from baseball either for weeks, months, or even years, perhaps some of those players will see the risk and decided that it isn’t worth it. It will also give more athletes who have played by the rules a better chance to become major-league ballplayers someday. Then, the competition will return to the field instead of being away from it; it will depend less on drugs and dangerous supplements and focus more on a natural strength and conditioning routine.

Granted, the healing process will be long and painful for baseball. There are probably many fans that, along with other reasons that have been given, will throw in the towel and no longer financially support a “tainted” game. Even those who stay, if they have not already been, will become more suspicious of a player’s ability when he steps up to the plate and jacks one into the seats. Parents may wonder further whether these athletes are good role models for the children who mimic the behavior and style of play of the professional players in the field and at the plate. Above all, the trust in these players, who have continued to proclaim their innocence, may soon be lost, whether they are guilty or not.

The players, and the game itself, must move on and shed this image as quickly as possible and bring an honest, open game back to the fans. Lessons from this must be learned and never forgotten. Several years after Maris broke the home run record, the asterisk was removed and he was given due respect for his accomplishment. Following these revelations, baseball will wear an asterisk from now until the wounds heal and the scars fade.

Moneyball, Part 2

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Utter the word “salary cap” to your baseball buddies and suddenly the room divides into two camps: those who feel strongly that this is THE solution to the problems with Major League Baseball and those who believe that it punishes the teams and the players who are simply taking advantage of the free-market system. It may not be on the same level as hot-button topics like abortion and the death penalty, but it certainly whips up a conversation so heated that we have to check for the location of fire extinguishers in the room.

Regardless of your feelings on this issue, one fact is clear: the current MLB economic situation is in dire straits and requires compromise between owners and players to bridge the gap. When ninety percent of the wealth is owned by ten percent of the teams, that creates an obvious imbalance that hinders competition but also shows signs of taking the league into financial ruin.

Having had a few extra days to absorb the recent A-Rod deal and look at all sides of this issue, I believe that I have found a solution that appears to be the best approach to rectifying the current situation. It may not be THE solution, but… well, here are my thoughts.

1. Create a hard salary cap

Okay, this is not an original thought, but the harsh reality is that some owners (I’m not going to name names) control their spending like Paris Hilton does in Beverly Hills boutiques. The luxury tax penalty is about as effective as applying a Band-Aid to a blood-gushing wound. A hard cap sets a spending limit that minimizes the chances of an owner from creating a lineup filled with proven All-Stars and also helps control the salary levels of players.

2. Create a minimum payroll limit

Most critics of baseball target the big-spenders, but blame should also be given to the tightwads. It’s just as unfair that some owners will have team payrolls that are equal in value to the salary of one or two players on another team, even with revenue sharing utilized to help offset costs. By setting a minimum that is near equal to the cap, it forces these “small-market” owners, many who are sitting in brand-new stadiums built with public money, to compete. An underlying incentive, one that I like, is that it gets tight-fisted owners to either sell to an owner willing to bring the team back to par or fold the team, thus flushing the league of players better suited for the minors or the independent leagues.

With no background in economics, save for balancing my checkbook every month, can this succeed? Let’s set a hard cap at $100 million and a minimum of $70 million. Based on attendance figures from the 2003 season, the average attendance was around 28,000, or about 61% capacity. If we then set an average ticket price of $30, this raises about $68 million per season per team; that puts us just under my suggested league minimum. Consequentially, if this idea works to level the competition and create parity in the league, then we would assume that attendance would rise. If the average capacity were then raised to 70%, ticket revenues would increase to $79 million; at 80%, this would increase to $90 million.

Remember that this estimate does not include revenue from concessions, merchandise sales, television deals, the playoffs, and other sources. Some of this revenue, such as the concession sales and television contracts, are dependent on the team but should be easy enough to generate and bring teams above the minimum. Toss in the revenue generated by the league on sales of merchandise, playoff tickets, and other sources, and teams are still able to easy generate a profit. True, there are operating costs not considered, but most teams have deals with local governments and utilities to help offset this.

As a further example, let’s use the Boston Red Sox, the team with the smallest ballpark in the league. Last season, capacity was at 100%, with nearly every games sold out and standing-room-only sales included. An average ticket price of $30 would generate $82 million in revenue. If that attendance figure dropped to 80%, the team would still generate $65 million in revenue and, as explained above, there would be enough additional revenue generate by the team and the league to still generate a profit.

While these changes may seem like a bitter pill for the owners and players to swallow, the league cannot continue to operate without checks and balances. With no weight being applied by the commissioner’s office to corral the league, the owners and players will continue to place blame on each other and nothing will be done to rectify the situation. Yes, the reality is that baseball is a business, but if fans continue to lose interest in this league and take their money elsewhere, how will the business of Major League Baseball survive?

Moneyball, Part 1

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Who could have imagined the collective surprise of New York Yankee fans and the horror of Red Sox Nation when we picked up our Sunday papers and read that Alex Rodriguez, recently named captain of the Texas Rangers, would accept a trade to the Yankees in exchange for Alfonso Soriano (my personal Yankee favorite) and a player to be named later. Only two months before, it seemed certain that Rodriguez was coming to the Red Sox in exchange for Manny Ramirez to help bolster Boston’s chances of winning a World Series title for the first time in 86 seasons. Suddenly, the Sox brass are left to wonder if it was worth squabbling over a $4 million gap in exchange for his services. Even worse, Sox fans now wonder if this will rival the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

While the fallout of this trade is yet to be determined, I am again saddened to think that this is yet another example of why Major League Baseball is heading down a slippery slope from which it may never recover. The Yankees’ payroll now top the majors at $190 million and the Red Sox sit in second place, a mere $65 million short of that mark. Unfortunately, official numbers are not at my disposal, but after you get past the top five, I’m willing to guess that payrolls for the rest of the teams are less than half of the Yankees’ and, past the top ten, less than half of the Red Sox’s.

Believe me, I want to see the Red Sox win a World Series title at least once before I die. 2004 may be the best chance since… well, last season… for them to do this, and, since the disappointing end to the 2003 season, the Sox have brought in players like Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to help bolster the pitching staff, the one chink in the armor from last season. The Yankees, of course, want to win another title even more, and this trade demonstrates that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is less than satisfied with losing two of the last three World Series and will stop at nothing to stockpile his team with perennial All-Stars.

But, to paraphrase some of the Democratic candidates in this year’s election, there are the rich teams and then there are the other teams. While the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a handful of other teams continue to compete, the lesser teams fall by the wayside, having found themselves out of contention before the season begins. A team like Kansas City or Milwaukee may start the season on a hot streak, jumping ahead of the pack after a month or two, but by the time the All-Star game rolls around, these teams have been brought back down to earth and find themselves struggling to stay above .500 the rest of the way.

Just by ranking the payrolls of each team, it’s easy to see who are the haves and who are the have-nots. Teams with promising talent cannot retain them after initial contracts expire, so these players are snatched away by the big boys just to warm the bench, ready to step in when called. Other teams who find themselves with poor revenue and faced with offers of cash or other promising talent, unload what current stars they have at the trade deadline, hoping for some positive long term results that eventually fizzle.

It’s easy when you root for a big-market team like the Red Sox to underappreciate what you have. When a team can easily win 90 games or more per season, you overlook that fact and focus on the failures of the postseason. But, for what do the fans of these other teams cheer? Three-game winning streaks? All-Star selections not made to meet the quota of one-representative-per-team? Greg Vaughn bobblehead doll day? From the looks of half-empty stadiums all around baseball, it’s hard to see a reason to root, root, root for the home team.

From this, it’s easy to see why the National Football League, where parity is the flavor of the day, is swimming in the success of its popularity. True, on a cold Sunday afternoon in November, you’re more likely to be watching TV than holding a backyard barbecue or taking your boat out on the lake like you would on a summer afternoon. But, the balance in the NFL means that while your team may not make the playoffs one season, there is a good chance you will see them there next season. Thanks to a salary cap, it isn’t team spending that determines the top teams, it’s the ability to assess talent, like the New England Patriots have done, that helps to build champions.

If MLB wants to become America’s pasttime once more, I believe that it needs to do two things. To be fair, I’ve listed the most important change each side, players and owners, need to make.

1. Accept a payroll-equity solution

A luxury tax for teams over $150 million? Please! The only team that was forced to pay it after last season was… yes, the New York Yankees, and they don’t care because they have enough revenue to offset the cost. A salary cap that is within easy reach of all teams would force owners and management to start reassessing talent again and stop the big-market teams from tipping the scales. Not that a team could not afford more than a few superstars, but it’s hard to put together a quality team around these All-Stars with a weak supporting cast. The players union would, of course, be unhappy about this, but I scratch my head every time I see a second or third-tier player making $8 million or more per season; that makes no sense.

2. Hire a competent commissioner

Since Fay Vincent was forced out of office, the owners have ruined this game, no thanks in part to Bud Selig who, if not the most hated man in the baseball world, is in contention for that title. Whereas in the past, the commissioner has vetoed trades that were not felt to be in the best interest of baseball (Vida Blue, Red Sox fans?), Selig has allowed the owners to swap players with carefree glee, helping to escalate salaries and create the imbalance. Owners may be crying poverty, but when given control of the game, they were unable to agree on the best course and now they are in danger of running it aground. A stronger, independent-minded presence in this office is needed once again, as it was with Bowie Kuhn, Ford Frick, and Kenesaw Landis, to help steer baseball back on course.

The Pedro Principle

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

While most of Red Sox Nation spent December focused on the negotiations between Texas and Boston for a proposed trade of Alex Rodriguez for Manny Ramirez, respectively, a Red Sox veteran sat on the sidelines wondering what his future held. It seemed like only yesterday that his wish to finish his career as a Red Sox player was certain, but now that appears only to be a distant memory.

No, I’m not talking about Nomar Garciaparra, a central figure during these talks, who would have spent his recent honeymoon with Mia Hamm shopping for as new home on the Left Coast. Instead, I refer you to Exhibit B, one Pedro Jaime Martinez, age 32, with 12 years of big-league experience and winner of 101 games in six years with the Red Sox. Year number seven comes as a result of Boston picking up a team option on him last spring, a few days after the regular season began.

2004 may be the make-or-break year for the Red Sox. Several star Boston players are under contract through the end of this season and then they become free agents. These are names that have become synonymous with the winning ways of the Sox: Martinez, Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, and Jason Varitek, to name a few. One or more of these players will either have to accept the “hometown discount” to keep this core intact or, in a more likely scenario, find a new home in 2005.

It’s quite possible that, before the season begins, Garciaparra will be gone if trade talks between the Rangers and the Red Sox are resurrected and an agreement is reached; that would settle one issue. However, at what point will the Sox begin to address a contract extension with Pedro… or will his chapter in Red Sox history be completed? For all he’s done for this team, and even with the knowledge that he helps draw the crowds to Fenway Park, will the front office let him walk? Thanks for everything – good luck in the next life?

Yes, the question of his health remains the primary focus. Pedro spent most of the 2001 season nursing a sore right shoulder and has missed more than a few starts thanks to occasional discomfort or concern from the team doctor. What price tag do you put on a guy who, with all his success, may someday throw one pitch and that’s it?

However, in late November, we watched as the Sox brass did backflips to land 37-year-old former Red Sox prospect Curt Schilling here in Boston for the remainder of his career. You cannot ignore the fact that he spent part of 2003 on the disabled list. However, the Red Sox saw a chance to bring aboard another potential 20-game winner to work beside Martinez and Lowe. Schilling was also assured that the Sox will continue to field a championship-caliber team well after this season ends.

It would be hard to believe that Pedro did not watch the events of this trade and wonder if Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein would sit down across the dinner table from him and offer a similar package in the near future. For what he has meant for this organization, does he not deserve this?

Ted Williams: 1918-2002

Ted Williams
Ted Williams

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

One cannot talk about the history of the Red Sox without included one of the most prominent figures in its history, Theodore Samuel Williams. Known as the Splendid Splinter, the Thumper, the Kid, and the self-proclaimed Greatest Hitter That Ever Lived, he was just a boy from San Diego who loved to swing a bat. With his mighty swing, he stormed through the record books and left behind marks that may never be reach again.

Besides being the last man to hit .406, he also had a lifetime on-base percentage of .482, best in the history of the game. He also had a slugging percentage of .634 (2nd), a career batting average of .344 (7th), 2654 hits, 2021 walks, 1798 runs, 1839 RBI, and 512 home runs, numbers that would be even more impressive, if not for the fact that he gave up nearly five years of his career to military service. He also won not one but two batting Triple Crowns, a feat that was last accomplished by another Red Sox legend, Carl Yastremski, in 1967.

As I never got to see him play (I was not born until nearly 12 years from the day he retired), I have only film reels, pictures, and reference material to teach me all there is to know about his baseball career. But there was more to the man as demonstrated by his commitment to his country in time of war when he could have opted to let his baseball career exempt him from service. It even happend during the prime of his career; his stint in World War II came just after completing his 1942 Triple Crown campaign. He also played a significant part in raising money for the Jimmy Fund, an organization he championed on behalf of former owner Tom Yawkey, to help support cancer research. He also made baseball realize that the Hall of Fame should recognize the records of those who played in the Negro Leagues of the past during his acceptance speech to the baseball shrine in 1966.

My one true memory of him will always be when he came onto the field to throw out the first pitch prior to the 1999 All-Star game. As he was carted onto the field to make what would be one of his last public appearances, he tipped his cap to the crowd, something he did not do when he homered in his final career at-bat in 1961. When he came to the center of the diamond, he was immediately surrounded by players past and present, those there to participate in the contest, and those who had been introduced on the All-Century team as Ted had. It was a magical scene that left not a dry eye in the house, not if you understood the significance of some great ballplayers of the present paying respect to arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived.

It will be hard to imagine that someone else will come along and make Williams look mortal in comparison. Williams stood tall in his time and he stands tall by today’s standards. Though he is gone now, it is not likely that he will be forgotten; even years from now, he will stick around in the hearts and minds of those who love the game of baseball.

Pete Rose: Hall-worthy?

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Just as the Baseball Hall of Fame was ready to announce that former baseball greats Dennis Eckersley and Paul Moliter had been deservedly elected as its newest members, Peter Edward Rose, the disgraced former player and manager, revealed the worst-kept secret in modern history: that he had bet on baseball games as a player and as a coach. Lucky for us, we can read all about it in his new book, Pete Rose: My Prison without Bars, for just $24.95. How fortunate for those of us who have been living in a cave on Mars with our eyes closed and our hands covering our ears.

I have long believed that, on paper, he belongs in the Hall. He collected 4256 hits in 24 seasons, a major league record that will likely never be broken. He also won an MVP award in 1973, and helped three teams collect World Series trophies. One of those came against my beloved Red Sox in a classic seven-game series in 1975 and, for his efforts, he was named Series MVP. “Charlie Hustle” was indeed that, as he played the game at full speed, even running to first when he managed a walk, and there were countless times that he was captured on film sliding head first into second or third to beat out throws.

But, while his numbers are deserving, his character is not. He knowingly broke Major League Baseball Rule 21, which everyone who stands between the foul lines on the baseball field, whether player, manager, or umpire, must recognize without failure. After he willingly signed an agreement to accept a lifetime ban from baseball in 1989, he suddenly felt that he had been victimized and that there was no hard evidence to support the allegations of the baseball commissioner’s office. Now, he finally admits his guilt but still asserts that it was a victimless crime and continues to blame everyone but himself for the mess that he created, even suggesting that Major League Baseball is out to settle some unspoken score with him.

Allowing his reinstatement into baseball, thus clearing the way for possible Hall election, would be a huge mistake for two reasons. One, it would send a clear message to young ball players that the rules of baseball, especially this one, are meaningless if you win batting titles or Cy Youngs. Two, it would be yet another black eye for baseball as it struggles to maintain a declining fan base that has dwindle even further in recent years with the rising popularity of the NFL and the huge gap between big-market powerhouses and small-market also-rans. While Pete Rose may think otherwise, the survival of baseball does not depend on whether his plaque hangs in Cooperstown.

One last thought: Paul Hornung, the great Green Bay Packer back, was punished by then-commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, for betting on football games with a one-year ban in 1963. He was reinstated the following season and played for three more seasons. He eventually was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame 1986, but only after being passed over several times for reasons that were credited to his mistake. While some might compare this story to Pete Rose, the major difference is that Paul Hornung, upon initial questioning by Rozelle, came clean immediately and did nothing to hide the truth. Even during his suspension, Hornung was diligent in keeping tabs with the commissioner’s office to ensure that his activities during that time were approved.

Yes, what Hornung did was wrong, but he admitted his mistake, accepted his punishment, and served his suspension without question or placing blame on anyone other than himself. The answer is obvious, but it bears the question as to why Pete Rose could not use the lessons taught by Hornung’s example.