Paging Dr. Selig…

As I sit here in my Manhattan office, fed up with the cold and damp, I can’t help but let my mind drift nearly a thousand miles south to some bright green baseball field basking in the Florida sun. If I close my eyes I can hear the crack of a fungoe bat sending lazy flyballs skyward for eager rookies to track down as they try to impress in their first big league camp. I can smell the fresh cut grass. Feel the heat of the sun on my back…or maybe that’s just the glare from the hideous flourescent lights that illuminate my daily boredom. Either way, it’s clear that right about now this Northeasterner is pining for some warmer climes.

While my hardcore baseball obsession has waned some over the last few years (and been replaced by an even more fervent obsession with football and basketball), I still have a lot of love and respect for the game, and every time spring rolls around I feel that familiar tug, pulling me back to the diamond.

I am a Yankee fan. Have been for as long as I can remember. But I’m a passive fan these days, lacking in any real emotional investment, and you know what…that’s not such a bad thing. It allows me to view the game through a truly objective lens. This new found objectivity has led me to a harsh realization that doesn’t bode well for the state of the game in the coming years:

MLB is in dire need of a salary cap.

That’s right folks…a Yankee fan calling for a salary cap.

The landscape of Major League Baseball is a mess. The discrepancy between small/mid-market (which, for all intents and purposes, are the same thing these days) and big market has become astronomical. There are no more than 6 teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs) with the financial werewithall to attract top-tier free agents. A couple of years ago I would have put the Mets on this list, but ever since they got Madoff-ed their finances are a mess and they’re digging through the bargain basement to fill out their roster. As a result of all of this, we are about to witness the commencement of a baseball season that, in my eyes, features exactly one true ‘contender’ in each league (Phillies, Red Sox).

That’s a pretty sad state.

While complete and utter parity is an unrealistic fantasy, becoming something along the lines of what the NFL has become is not only a realistic goal, it should be actively pursued with vigor. The beauty of the NFL is that teams are not built primarily through free agency. Football teams build through the draft and augment their talent base through free agency and trades. In baseball, the heavy reliance on free agency means that the big market teams who have $150-200 mil. to spend on their roster can afford not to draft well, in fact, they can afford to barely draft at all. They can just let the small market teams (who usually end up drafting in the top half of the 1st round) draft and develop young talent and then sign them away when they reach free agency. Sadly, some of these youngsters never even reach free agency as their parent ballclubs deal them away for meager hauls just to avoid losing them for nothing.

How can you ever expect to engender long term loyalty from fans of teams like the Royals, Rays, or Marlins when these teams are given such a tiny window for having success with their young roster in tact before free agency inevitably guts the team? Simple answer…you can’t.

At this point, the best that small market teams can hope for is to have such a tremendous run of draft success that they are able to make a legit run at a championship before their squad gets ripped to shreds. The Rays are the most obvious example of this. They drafted and developed a team that was, for a 2-3 year span, one of the best and most exciting in the game, and they rode that all the way to a world series appearance in 2008.

Now, while the Rays still have a decent team, they’ve lost some of their most important pieces and probably stand to lose a few more before the purge is complete. This is only one example of what plagues the game today.

Picture a league with a hard salary cap in place. Picture a Rays team that was able to not only keep the young talent that they developed, but to supplement that talent through free agency. Would a warm weather state with no sales tax be enough of a draw for free agents? I suspect it would as long as the team had a legitimite chance at competing for a championship every season. What if the Twins hadn’t been forced to deal Johan Santana for a whole bunch of mediocrity? What if the Royals could have built around Zach Greinke for the long haul? What if Oakland could keep ANY of it’s young talent? What would the league look like then? From where I sit, it’d look a whole lot more interesting.

The NFL and the NBA are both facing potential lockouts that threaten to alienate fans. Maybe the fans of Major League Baseball should lockout the league until it comes to it’s collective senses.

-by Max Joice

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