This year’s playoffs are a symptom of all that’s wrong with baseball, and a warning to the NFL

First, let me say this: Don’t blame the Yankees. They didn’t create this monstrosity, they’re just taking advantage of it, the way any well-run organization would. Yes, their payroll is almost twice as much as any other team, and is larger than the Nationals, Pirates, Padres and Marlins combined, but they’re only doing what the system rewards them for doing: buying talent. If the Yankees close out the series tomorrow night as expected, it will not be a victory achieved between the baselines, it will be a triumph of the checkbook. And that’s what’s wrong with baseball.

In sports, what we cherish are the values that are reinforced through competition. We revel in the success of the team that overachieves and becomes greater than the mere sum of its parts. We cheer for the athletes who overcome obstacles and reach heights previously thought to be out of their reach.  We expect hard work, perseverance and discipline to be rewarded. We root for the underdog, all the while knowing that he will usually fail.

Major League Baseball, as it exists today, reflects not the value structure of athletic competition, but the value structure of the corporate boardroom. Organizations vie with each other to increase their cash flow through lucrative television deals, palatial stadiums and mass merchandising. Teams with large population bases from which to draw have an inherent advantage in these calculations.  As a result, there is no level playing field in major league baseball; an upcoming season’s results can be quite comfortably predicted by analyzing payroll statistics. (Of this year’s eight playoff teams, six had team salaries in excess of $100 million. The two teams that did not, St. Louis and Minnesota, were both swept from the postseason without having won a single game.)

In years past, we could debate which players would be the difference makers for a team; now that debate must include owners and front office personnel, because that’s where games are won and lost, often before a single pitch is thrown. Today, the game’s true heroes are those who know how to acquire talent well, while the goats are those that squander large sums of money on players who underperform (yes, I’m looking at you Mets and Cubs).  Major League Baseball, as it is now constructed, reflects the crass values of free-market capitalism, disguised as sport. It rewards those who can afford to spend enormous sums of money, and punishes those who cannot.  Even those teams that work hard to develop young talent are denied the fruits of their labor, as often they are unable to keep pace with the exorbitant salary demands of rising stars.

And now, to make matters worse, the Valhalla of modern sports leagues, the NFL, teeters on the edge of experimenting with the same disastrous system. Jerry Jones, the wealthy owner of the wealthy Cowboys, has made little attempt to hide his glee at the prospect of unrestrained spending. Dan Snyder of the Redskins could actually buy his way out of the perennial train-wreck that is his team.  In places like Minnesota, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, however, the outlook is far grimmer. For franchises like this, it will quickly become impossible to keep their star players, and they will soon become the Pirates, Royals and Nationals of the NFL. Always poor, always losing. To be fair, one or perhaps two of these teams won’t stay poor long. Remember, the second largest metropolitan area in the nation, Los Angeles, is just waiting for its chance to get back in the game. While the nicknames Vikings or Saints would have no local connection, oddly enough, with a slight change in spelling, the Los Angeles Stealers would actually be a nice fit.

So, if you want to look into the crystal ball and see what the future of competition in the NFL is like, just replace the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels with Cowboys, Redskins, Giants and Jets. If you’re a fan of some other NFL team, this would be the time to change allegiances, before you’re forced to experience the heartbreak of seeing your guys reduced to the role of generic schedule-fillers for teams that matter.

Of course, for those lucky fans of big-market teams, there’s always next year. But for fans from places like Kansas City, Pittsburgh or San Diego, next year promises just more of the same. Their seasons were over before they began. Thanks, Major League Baseball. And welcome aboard, NFL.

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