Last Monday actor Michael Keaton – star of “Batman,” “Batman Returns” and, of course, “Jack Frost” – threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Keaton, a Pittsburgh native and lifelong Pirates fan, raised eyebrows by taking shots at the Pirates’ management, notorious for not spending any money on salary, after he threw out the first pitch.”I fear they will take advantage of the goodwill of the people who continue to show up,” said the Actor Formerly Known as Bruce Wayne. “For my money, it’s disrespectful. At some point, you have to either write the check or you have to do something and not assume, ‘Well, we’re OK, and ultimately (the franchise) is valuable, anyway.'”
“Look, I’d do it (refuse to increase payroll), too, if I were a businessman,” Beetlejuice continued. ” At some point, you’ve got to win. I think the fans have been gracious … and maybe not vociferous enough with their displeasure.”
Keaton’s comments strike at the heart of a problem festering throughout Major League Baseball: Owners of small-market teams adamantly refuse to increase payroll to make their teams competitive.
Currently, baseball has a system of revenue sharing, whereby large-market teams with large TV contracts are taxed for their economic success, and the money from that tax is equally distributed to smaller-market teams with less-profitable TV contracts. It’s baseball’s desire to create more than a mirage of economic parity.
Small-market owners basically receive a free welfare check from MLB. Owners rarely take advantage of this money (which, sometimes, is between $20 and $50 million) by signing veteran free agents or investing in up-and-coming stars. Instead, they take the money, trade away young talent, blame the Yankees for “spending too much money,” and insult fans by charging ridiculous prices for teams that aren’t very good (cheapest Pirates ticket is $12; the Texas Rangers charge $6).
Necessary for the success of a revenue-sharing program is the small-market owners’ obligation to use the money he receives to invest in the future, eliminate the misfortunes of his organization and make his team competitive. By not spending the money they receive, owners nullify the goals of revenue sharing. In effect, owners make revenue-sharing checks a no-obligation subsidy.
Therefore, to ensure small-market owners spend revenue-sharing money to keep their organizations competitive, baseball must adopt a minimum salary.
A minimum salary would force owners to spend a certain amount on salary. If the minimum is high enough, money received from the revenue-sharing fund would have to be used to cover the payroll bill. A minimum salary would ensure competitive balance by forcing owners to sign quality players (presuming quality players have higher salaries) to meet the minimum. Free agents, aware owners must sign players, would be inclined to move to small markets knowing they will be financially rewarded and that their new owner is committed to winning.
Opponents of the minimum salary say, “Deal with the market; life’s not fair.” I agree life isn’t fair. A minimum salary doesn’t hurt big-market teams; it forces small-market teams to be competitive. The Pirates have one of the league’s lowest payrolls, yet they receive some of the largest revenue-sharing checks. Without a minimum salary, they are not forced to spend any of that money. Refusing to spend money on salary has yielded discouraging results. Even with the aid of revenue sharing the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992.
Recently, the NHL adopted a minimum salary cap. The results give hope to fans of small-market baseball teams. With three games to go in this year’s season, twenty (66 percent) of the NHL’s thirty teams had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. If the playoffs began last Wednesday, four teams who didn’t make the 2004 postseason would’ve made this year’s playoffs. The minimum cap has forced hockey organizations to spend money on salary, and it has lead to success.
The NHL, for the first time ever, has a labor policy baseball should mirror.
After ripping the Pirates’ organization, Keaton wondered aloud to reporters, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel (for Pittsburgh)?”
Yes, Bruce Wayne, there is hope. It begins with a minimum salary.
Joel Petersen is a secondary education major from Lafayette, La.