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Madden: Revenue sharing not a cure-all

Saturday, November 25, 2000

The New York Yankees have won three consecutive World Series and four of the past five. One safely could conclude they're a pretty good baseball team as is.

But owner George Steinbrenner collects star players the way a child (or a desperately out-of-touch adult) collects baseball cards. So the Yankees are one of the primary suitors for Mike Mussina, the hottest pitcher on the free-agent market. The Yankees don't really need Mussina. But they'll sign him so nobody else can -- like, say, the Boston Red Sox, their rivals in the American League East.

Baseball's collective-bargaining agreement expires after next season. The players will never agree to a salary cap. So the owners, knowing that another labor stoppage could wreck baseball for good, will likely cobble together some convoluted form of revenue sharing.

Revenue sharing will not close the competitive gap. Rich owners will find ways to stay way ahead in the financial race, by hiding revenue or mining new streams of cash. The problem isn't controlling the amount of money teams have. It's controlling how much teams spend.

My proposal is this: Limit the signing of free agents by teams that win.

World Series participants could not sign any free agents -- except their own -- during the following off-season. League Championship Series losers could sign one free agent besides their own. Division series losers could sign two free agents besides their own. Every other team could sign anybody.

I would limit the amount LCS losers could spend on their one outside free agent to $8 million. That would be the average yearly value of the contract including the signing bonus. That would limit their pickings to a good position player or a moderately successful pitcher. I would limit the total amount division series losers could spend on their two outside free agents to $15 million. A team could shoot the whole wad on, say, a Mussina.

Would the players agree to this? No. They would say that eliminating even a few teams from the race for free agents would limit a player's bargaining power, and it would, marginally.

The hope generated by the long-term signing of Jason Kendall is already giving way to the reality that the Pirates, right now, are looking at starting next year with basically the same lineup that lost 93 games last season. They don't have much money to spend to improve it. The idea of Kendall playing in a new ballpark is cool. Losing won't be.

Baseball needs a system that at least provides fans of low-rent teams with hope. That at least steers a few good free agents somewhere besides New York. The siphoning of dollars from the haves to the have-nots isn't something tangible to the Pirates' faithful. Baseball needs to make a good public-relations move.

My proposal is reasonable. Twenty-two out of baseball's 30 teams could spend as much as they wanted on whomever they wanted. Teams limited in their free-agency signing rights could still make trades to fill gaps, or -- gasp! -- they could actually develop players themselves. What a concept.

The Yankees would have to think before they traded prospects for stars, though: "What if we win? How do we replenish down the road?" Good. That's how it should be. Don't count on money to correct mistakes. Having to stick a Class AA player in the lineup before he's ready would be a good experience for the Yankees. The Pirates and their ilk have certainly gone through it enough.

My proposal wouldn't make the Yankees stink. Or destroy the New York Mets. Or put the Atlanta Braves in last place. But it might make them work harder to maintain their excellence. It might put them in a position where, for a year or two, they're in a tight spot because of player retirements or free agents leaving or injuries. It would eliminate their immortality. It would cut down their margin for error.

I think the owners would like my proposal. The poor ones would, I hope, vote down the rich ones.

The players would hate my proposal. But that's OK, because battling it would again show the players up for what they are, a bunch of greedy pigs who don't care if they totally destroy baseball for future generations -- which is what they're doing. My proposal would barely diminish the amount of money the players could get. It would only slightly limit where they could play. Let's face it, most players would play in hell if the green was long enough.

But the players want it all their way all the time: "Hey, owners, you want to share your revenue? Fine. But we're not giving back anything. Not now, not ever."

Not every team can win, so not every fan can support a winner. But every fan -- in every city -- deserves hope. Hope that somehow, someday, some way, his/her team can make a run at glory. That hope isn't there in most baseball towns. Even the possibility of closing the competitive gap doesn't exist.

When Jason Kendall says, "We're going to win," I want very badly to believe him, mainly because I know he believes it. But I don't believe him. Logic prevents me from doing so.

When the Yankees follow up winning a World Series by going after Mike Mussina, it's depressing. It eliminates all hope. Something has to be done.

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