As baseball's opening week comes to a close, the wonderful action on the field is matched by hand-wringing off it. Whatever shall we do about the "economics" of our national pastime? However can we cope with the fact that some teams make more money than others? What about those poor cities that are smaller than mighty New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and how will their teams ever compete? We need regulation. We need fairness. We need equal incomes for all teams. And above all, we need public subsidies of the national sport.
The latest example of this hand-ringing comes from John Moores, chairman of the San Diego Padres. In The Wall Street Journal — and on its editorial page, no less! — explains how the market cannot work in baseball. In truth, he is an enemy of the deeper interests of baseball itself as much as he is an enemy of the free market.
"The problem is money," he writes. "While a ball club cannot guarantee a trip to the World Series by enthusiastic spending, no team with a small payroll has much of a chance to play in the postseason." Moores believes that, its other virtues notwithstanding, the market will not work in baseball.
In a certain way, Moores puts our money where his mouth is. All over the country, baseball owners receive rank subsidies from local and state governments. The new tax-funded San Diego Stadium is expected to net the Padres' wners $80 million once they sell the naming rights. The total cost of the stadium is expect to top $411 million. Of that, the Padres and other "private" entities will contribute just $115 million. For its part, the city will collect $500,000 a year in rent.
This is not uncommon, as residents of Anaheim, California will attest. According to Anaheim City Councilman Tom Tait, who stood up to the intense pressure placed upon those who oppose such things, the city gave the Walt Disney Co. the use of a wonderful ballpark, Anaheim Stadium, and a vast parking structure rent free for 40 years. Adding insult to injury, the city wrote Disney a check for $30 million.
And what will the city get in return? If the Angels draw more than 2.7 million fans in a season, the city gets $2 per ticket. Last year, the team was in play-off contention to the last week of the season and drew only 2.5 million. And Disney has since remodeled the park, which means even fewer seats are available. Before this transaction, the city was making several million dollars a year in net revenue. Why the good people of Anaheim should subsidize the staff and shareholders of Disney is unclear.
Why do these cities subsidize rich people? Perhaps it is because the Anaheim City Council and city staff each get a luxury box free of charge to use during the season. Did Mr. Moores provide similar perks to San Diego's councilmen?
Moores' argument that big cities should be forced to subsidize small ones proves too much. If San Diego must be guaranteed a competitive team, even though it is smaller than New York, Houston, Boston and many other cities, then why not Indianapolis? Why not Little Rock, Sacramento, Omaha or Jacksonville? People in those cities have no team. They may get by, watching Major League Baseball on television, and soon enough on the Internet. And, of course, they may watch minor-league teams in their cities, most of which draw plenty of fans.
In protecting "small markets," big league baseball is talking the entitlement language of the bureaucratic governments that subsidize it. But that language leads logically to the right of every city to have a team and a slugger as good as Mark McGwire. But this kind of Big Mac is hard to duplicate.
Finally, Mr. Moores' argument will undermine the competitive level of baseball. The policy of spreading the excellent players evenly among teams will guarantee mediocrity. Why watch L.A. Dodger Kevin Brown — now the highest-paid man in baseball — pitch to hitters who are totally over matched? Why watch McGwire hit home runs against people who cannot locate the ball or throw it hard? Big league baseball should feature the best players. They should compete against one another. Then the real excellence of the game can be seen3/4where the balance of hitting for power and average, where fine starting and relief pitching, where on base percentage and excellent fielding all combine to make truly great teams.
Last year the New York Yankees had this wonderful array of talent. I live in Los Angeles, but I loved to watch the Yankees for the pure mastery of the game that they demonstrated. All they needed was another team similarly well constructed to play against, in order to see the game played as well as ever it has been played.
Baseball is important to America. It is, after all, America's Pastime. That is because it is a profound reflection of our politics: a series of individual performances that are nonetheless by some magic transformed into a team sport.
But the owners, led by Commissioner Bud Selig, who was himself a small market owner until recently (now his daughter owns the team), are busy seeking subsidies. The public should not think that they alone — or even chiefly — represent the long term interest of our beloved sport. To keep it clean, baseball must be run along the lines that America is run: Open competition. Let the best win. If that means that some cities will not have a major league team, then let them have a minor league team. Above all, let the owners pay their own way.