As Baseball looks to get spark back into the game, the question of money slips into every judgment

Like the regular season, Baseball’s post-season continues flat and uninspired.  It’s hard to put a finger on the precise whys and wherefores of it, but the grand olde game is unmistakably gripped by some vague malaise these days.

The looming major issue of the off-season seems to be the promised search for ways to speed up the interminable glut of regular season games and purge them of their dreary lulls and sonorous rituals and be-numbing repetitions, thus keeping them under four hours of running time on average. That sounds exciting.

What’s wrong, do you think? Is it the decline of star-power. The absence of controversy? The triumph of parity?  The extinction of the mega-team? The diminishing charms of “small ball?” The intrigues of sabermetric analytics? Or is it simply the fact that low-budget small-market teams that feature hustling, hard-working chaps who don’t make lots of waves are essentially boring?

In truth, you do need a “heavy” to stir the pot.  In baseball’s inherent morality play, somewhere in the mix there has to be a team that the vast majority loathes.  It is the essential service the New York Yankees, of increasingly distant memory, have willingly served for about a century. Without a Goliath there can be no Davids. Few this fall are frothing at the mouth over the Royals or Giants.

And that’s the prospect we seem headed for as this is written: a sizzling World Series match-up of Kansas City and San Francisco. It renders atwitter few hearts among fans east of the Mississippi while in the boardroom of a certain television network they are already on smelling salts. Stand by for record low ratings, like it or not, the measure of all things in sports nowadays.

Would the prospect improve if Baltimore and St. Louis prevailed, still certainly a possibility? Perhaps, but only marginally. Having the Orioles in the finale would obviously tweak our interest hereabouts while sustaining the illusion that the AL East remains relevant.  As for the ever-respectable Cardinals, they’ve always been Middle America’s team although a franchise too polite and amiable to be the sort that stirs the pot. You’ll recall the Orioles were originally morphed out of the menial mortal remains of the eternally downtrodden St. Louis Browns, so an O’s-Cards finale might have some odd historical grist to grind. But there seems fat chance of that happening, as of this writing.   

If the 2014 festival is to yield something memorable, it’s up to the Kansas City Royals. Roughly halfway through the tourney, they alone emerge as a possible “team of destiny.” After just barely making the playoffs, they fairly electrified the game by sweeping six in a row with audacious élan. Last seen gracing the post-season midway through the Reagan presidency, the Royals have blossomed with a suddenness not seen since the Mets came out of nowhere in 1969. You have to go back that far to find a team contesting for the big enchilada in October featuring fewer players you would have dimly recognized back in April.

Can an affable band of swift-footed slap-hitters managed by the unassuming Ned Yost and starring as its stopper James “Big Game” Shields capture America’s fancy? We are about to find out. But win or lose, it’s a nice story, Kansas City being one of America’s great towns and the rise of these impertinent Royals having set said town on fire.

With yet a ways to go, this post-season already yields interesting and instructive conclusions. Chief among them is the issue of money, which has infested, befuddled, and corrupted the game for fully a generation. That money no longer necessarily makes the baseball world go round and round is being flat-out celebrated this autumn.

In the Final Four, we have the Royals with a payroll of $92 million, ranking it 19th in all of the MLB, against the 15th ranked Orioles with a payroll of $109 million. Over in the NL, the Cardinals, widely regarded as the game’s most smartly run organization, rank 14th, just a couple of million ahead of the O’s. Of the four, only the Giants are in the turgid spending war’s hardly illustrious top 10 (ranking ninth).
More important is the poignant fact of those who aren’t there, teams that either didn’t make it to begin with or have already been booted.
The Dodgers, Tigers and Angels, ranking first, fourth, and sixth respectively were the ones swiftly eliminated, while the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox – second, third, and fifth – shared the booby prize for spending the most to achieve so little.

How deep is the satisfaction all over the game in the fact that the six highest rollers and nine of the top ten have all to varying degrees flopped? How about “monumental?”

 It’s not as if being a cheapskate breeds distinction. This season’s most miserly bottom-feeders largely compose the ranks of the also-rans in all six MLB divisions. But once again, and more glaringly than ever, was demonstrated the fundamental truth that the more you spend does not mean the better you do. Period!

Historically painful were the lessons for the Dodgers, who paid a record-busting $236 million for the privilege of getting crushed in the playoff’s first round, and the Yankees, who for $223 million won six more games than they lost, and the Phillies, whose resting place in last place (much like the Red Sox) cost them a cool $187 million (all figures posted by the Major League Baseball Players Association). Congratulations, suckers!

So what are the conclusions? None very dramatic or new. Few dispute anymore the wisdom of prudent and shorter-term contracts, even for the lustiest stars. Few deny, given yet another fine example in the Royals, that you do not need a team stacked with big salaries, big egos, and big resumes to excel as long as you have fine balance, chemistry, and a coherent MO. Few would deny that the number one priority of all teams, even the most almighty, like the one presiding in the Bronx, should be the farm system, while the most critical employees are the scouts, teachers, and other such talent evaluators and developers. There is no longer any doubt about any of this thinking and if none of it is new, it has never been in higher regard.  

It will be especially interesting to see if these precious insights have any impact on the forthcoming off-season’s traditional Hot Stove League madness. Will this be the winter of the historic market correction in Baseball? Are such pre-eminent free agents to be as Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and Big Game Shields – now dreaming of epic scores – about to get the shock of their young lives?  

Being not dumb enough to dally in predictions, I won’t go there.
Moreover, there are still more than enough misguided general managers anxious to make fools of themselves. The Yankees just re-hired the master of this dubious art form,  Brian Cashman, who knows no other way of re-building a team than by opening wide his big fat checkbook. But one of these years maybe even Cashman will wake up and recognize that signing veteran pitchers for big bucks is the riskiest gambit in sports.

Any pitcher, no matter how great, can have a bad day nor should they be written off for it. But it has been interesting to see many of the best in the business get smacked around in these playoffs. The list includes Messrs. Scherzer, Verlander, Strasburg, Shields, Lester, Tillman, Wainwright and, above all, Kershaw, believed to be the best of the best, who got cuffed twice, once embarrassingly.  

Clayton Kershaw’s brilliance remains undisputed. He’ll win again the Cy Young and there’s not a team that wouldn’t love to employ him. But the Dodgers may nonetheless rue the fact that for $30 million a year, which they’ll be paying him nine more years, they have a star pitcher who has a post-season record of 1-6 in the games that count most. The issue of money is insidious. It colors every judgment.    
     
Ponder that, if you will. In the meantime, I for one shall go on rooting for the Kansas City Royals.