Last Known Address
A few days later Eric Milton, most recently with the Phillies, signed a $25 million, three-year deal with Cincinnati, underscoring once again that money, not winning, is the primary reason free agents move on. All along Milton, who is 29, professed determination to sign only with a club that had a real shot at a title. So naturally he signed with Cincinnati, who will be hard-pressed to come in fourth in its own division. The Reds, by the way, will be Milton’s third club in three years, and he may not be done traveling. Apparently an unusual clause in his contract allows him to escape in the third year if the club isn’t winning to his satisfaction.
Readers of this blog are familiar with my lament that free agency in its current state is inexorably undermining fan loyalty by continually turning over personnel. Mine is admittedly an emotional response with two simple questions at its core: how does one root for a team when its roster is churned from year-to-year and how can clubs with limited resources compete with the wealthy teams to sign let alone keep their stars?
Statistics on fan loyalty may not bear me out…yet. MLB set an overall attendance record last year with the average pushing past the magic 30,000 figure per game. Baseball’s popularity clearly seems to have rebounded from the disastrous strike year of 1994, but new stadiums in many cities have had something to do with these totals and such novelty wears off in short order and the on-field product must produce. The guess here is that eventually more and more fans will tire of the endless turnover and the inability of a majority of small-market clubs to compete for high-priced talent and thus a championship. Only in the few places where there are winners will the fans tolerate wholesale change; and even in those cities their loyalty can be fickle.
Fans of the Angels, Marlins, Diamondback, Yankees and Red Sox would overwhelmingly disagree with me that turnover is detrimental. But for Arizona and Florida, whose financial conditions are precarious at best, their championships have been a Faustian bargain more often than not. Generally, the rental of free agents or soon-to-be ones in order to bring home a championship has resulted in the demise of the winners within one or two seasons and a concomitant decline in attendance. The Marlins have ridden the steepest roller coaster having succeeded in winning two championships in six years only to see many of the players responsible for their success take a hike or be let go. In between those titles, the Marlins finished out of the playoffs altogether and saw their attendance decline dramatically. Miami cannot even work out a new stadium deal and has been forced to share woefully inadequate Pro Players’ Stadium with the Dolphins for years. Recently, the Marlins were told they will be evicted from that venue after 2010. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the moving vans kept right on going all the way to Las Vegas.
Arizona went from a World Series title in 2001 to one of the worst seasons in major league history within three years as its fiscally reckless ownership drove the team literally to the brink of insolvency. So what happened next? They let players go, traded others and then, inexplicably spent big money this off-season on free agents. Randy Johnson will be sure to go if for no other reason than management’s need to get rid of his huge salary. It isn’t as if he can’t still pitch!
Only George Steinbrenner’s endlessly deep pockets have prevented the Yankees from suffering a decline. And school is still out on how the slightly less rich Red Sox will fare in the coming seasons as they continue to spend liberally in assembling their roster. It is hardly a coincidence that Anaheim, New York and Boston are the only teams required to pay the luxury tax this season.
Finally, legions of Oakland GM Billy Beane’s admirers should take note that while he fielded a highly competitive team for several seasons by keeping a very tight reign on expenses, he never made it to the Series. Now, in three successive seasons he has lost his MVP shortstop (via free agency) and two of his top three starters through trades, at least one of which was “forced” through impending free agency. Some have argued that Oakland’s success in recent years owed more to the pre-Beane development and drafting of these key players than to his shrewd management of finances. Now, small-market Oakland is faced with the same problems teams in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and other small market franchises confront; namely, how to pay for the talent necessary to compete with the wealthy clubs. Satellite radio deals may swell the coffers for everyone in the short term, but a longer term fix is needed to achieve more parity.
The free agency pendulum swings from charges of collusion to utter fiscal irresponsibility and back again. As long as wealth and the wielding of economic muscle determine who wins and who doesn’t, the small market teams might as well hire alchemists if they want to compete. Until then, we can expect another individual player statistic to enter baseball: last known address.