I played golf with my dad yesterday and baseball’s Reserve Clause came up in conversation. We had two random men in our foursome, and I got to talking with one of them about sports. He mentioned about a football player he knew getting $75,000 many years ago as a first-round pick with the Pittsburgh Steelers and that seeming like a lot, even though athletes get tons more these days. I related how Tampa Bay Rays reliever J.P. Howell turned down an $850,000 signing bonus as a first round pick for the Atlanta Braves out of high school. He instead took his mother’s suggestion to go to college and wound up being drafted by the Kansas City Royals a few years later. That’s what happens when you listen to your mom.
This guy and I got to talking about all the money in sports, and I mentioned about the Reserve Clause and how I think what remains of it in baseball is a good thing. Allow me to explain. For many years, there was no free agency in baseball. Players remained the exclusive property of their teams for perpetuity under a so-called Reserve Clause, unless they were traded, sold or released. The constitutionality of this was naturally challenged, and in the 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court stunningly granted organized baseball an exemption to anti-trust laws. It took until the Seventies for the Players Union to finally win the right for free agency and for the Reserve Clause to be abolished. Now, the rule is that a player remains the exclusive property of the team he signs with for six years.
What’s happened of course is that in the last 30 years, baseball wages have skyrocketed. In 2008, the average annual salary topped $3 million. Teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers have assumed operating budgets higher than many third-world nations, I would guess, in throwing millions at stars like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramierez and Mark Teixeira. Meanwhile, small-market teams have become holding farms for up-and-coming players and the majority of owners have gotten screwed.
Interestingly, it’s the mid-level teams, the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays of baseball, and yes, even my beloved San Francisco Giants who seem to fare the worst in baseball’s current economic landscape. They have money, but never quite enough for the A-Rods or Mannys of the sport, and they instead wind up giving millions to second-tier veterans like Randy Winn and Milton Bradley. These teams’ payrolls often top $100 million annually, but it’s rarely enough to push them far beyond the middle of the standings. Fifteen years ago, it would have been like being a major film studio and trying to push a blockbuster with Jean Claude Van-Damme instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to save a few bucks. It’s not going to work. Everyone knows Timecop sucked.
What I find particularly interesting, though, is that in this current baseball climate the best teams remain home grown, maybe padded with experienced cast-offs, like the Philadelphia Phillies last year, the Colorado Rockies in 2007 and the Florida Marlins in 2003. Even the Yankees put together their strongest seasons back in the mid-Nineties when they adhered to this principle, bringing in under-the-radar veterans like Paul O’Neill to partner with Yankee farm products like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. I don’t get the Yankee philosophy now of signing the most expensive three or four free agents each year and then demanding they win World Series. It’s completely inane and I feel good that they fail every year. Granted, the Red Sox pay through the nose and have won two championships in the past five years. Still, they rose to prominence by assembling a crew of discarded vets. I knew who David Ortiz was six years ago, but I doubt many others did.
What remains of the Reserve Clause has also helped teams like the Oakland Athletics stay competitive. For all of the team’s struggles with rebuilding in recent years, A’s general manager Billy Beane is still highly adept at finding young talent, milking it for a few years at low rates ahead of free agency and then trading for more young talent. Teams like the A’s, Marlins and Rays survive by successfully shooting these margins. And with the minimum salary currently at $400,000, it’s not like the players are getting screwed too badly, either.
So what am I suggesting? I’m not saying baseball’s old system of having its players be slaves for life was necessarily good. But the current allowance for teams like the Yankees to consistently inflate wages seems to widen the gap between rich and poor teams and make the field of competition less fair. It seems to hurt the game, not help it.
Anything to strike a better balance is good, in my book.