For years, MLB fans in various parts of the country have been pining for billionaire Mark Cuban to buy their favorite MLB team and use his brains, passion and checkbook to resuscitate their favorite franchise in the same way he did with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. Over that same span of time the conventional wisdom in Major League Baseball is that Cuban would never get his hands on a team if Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf and the league office could help it.
This is not idle speculation, mind you, this conclusion came from none other than Mark Cuban himself via his personal blog after he lost out in a bid to buy the Cubs back in 2009:
On the flipside, my dedication to winning could also make my job of getting approval with MLB baseball much harder. Some people thought it meant that I would spend on players like I did in my early days with the Mavericks. Back before I learned that sometimes GMs put keeping their jobs ahead of trying to win championships. But thats another story for another time. I had no intentions of trying to outspend the Yankees or Red Sox. There was no reason to. I didnt have to beat either of those teams unless I made it to the World Series. The only teams I had to be better than were those in the National League, and more importantly, those in my division. There were no big spending rivals close to home, so the AL East could spend themselves silly. My plans were to spend to win, not to spend for spending’s sake. IMHO, the money I could save being in the 2nd tier of payroll could be invested in scouting and development. I made this clear to any and all of the owners that I spoke to across the league. Of course that didnt stop some from trying to convince some owners otherwise.
Since then, Cuban has made other attempts to purchase a team. He lost out in an auction to buy the Texas Rangers and then once again came up short in the recent auction for the Dodgers. For Bud Selig, that should have been good news as those fears of Cuban and his big bank account were something he feared to have enter the league. Reportedly, Selig disliked the direction baseball was heading with mega-budget teams like the Yankees and Red Sox dominating the landscape. Introducing another big spender like Cuban would only serve to tip the scales further out of balance.
While a big payroll hardly guarantees winning, it is easy to see the logic behind that line of thinking. The only real problem with it is MLB's complete and utter lack of ability to enforce it.
Look back to that Cubs purchase. The Ricketts family ended up buying the team and then spent over $134 million on payroll in each of their first two seasons as owners. They "trimmed" down to $109 million this season, but more out of a need to rebuild than out of any sense of fiscal restraint. Surely they will not hesitate to boast a top payroll once they feel they are ready to contend again.
And then there is the Rangers. A Nolan Ryan led group beat out Cuban in an auction and then immediately began adding payroll going from the existing $64 million payroll when they bought the team in 2010, to $92 million in 2011 and then $120 million this season. With their continued success and fat new TV deal, who knows where Ryan and the Rangers will ultimately cap their salary expenditures.
But the real kicker in all of this is the Dodgers who only just this season were purchased by a group headed up by Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten for an astronomical $2 billion price tag. They've wasted no time in cracking open the coffers as we all saw first-hand when they took on a few hundred million in long-term contract obligations in their blockbuster trade with the Red Sox. Already LA has $192 million committed to just 16 players for the 2013 season setting them up to be the first team in ages who could possibly outspend the great and mighty Yankees. If ever there was a more shining example of the kind of owner MLB feared Cuban becoming, it is the new Dodgers owners. Actually, that isn't fair to Cuban. While he hasn't been shy about digging into his deep pockets in the past, the Mavericks of recent years have been more restrained and much more thoughtful in the way they doled out money. If anything, Cuban probably find the Dodgers' splurges just as short-sighted and reckless as the other owners contend to.
In other words, the three purchases Cuban has been involved in have all resulted in the exact same thing happening that the league didn't want if Cuban were to get a team: major spending. This isn't even really about Cuban though. Given his outspoken nature and propensity for ruffling feathers in the NBA, the league had plenty of other good reasons for trying to stifle his MLB ownership aspirations. Instead, they invoked his spending power as the big knock against him.
Assuming that really was a sincere concern and not just a red herring to throw people off the scent that they think Cuban is too volatile to join their ranks, it sure seems that the league is headed for major trouble. Heading into this season, nine different teams had payrolls north of $110 million, a list that did not include the now cash-rich Dodgers. Back in 2009, that number was just seven and it drops to two if you look to 2006. It is natural for payrolls to climb over time, but this has to be a disturbing trend to MLB's owners.
Of course, while the warning signs are there, the real tangible evidence that the increased spending will somehow ruin the league has yet to materialize. This season alone features eight teams with payrolls under $85 million who are in the thick of the playoff race. It also just so happens to feature three teams with payrolls over $118 million that have been well out of the playoff race for months.
If Bud Selig and his cronies wanted parity, they are getting it and they are getting it despite the infusion of several free-spending owners into their ranks, none of which are Mark Cuban... for now.
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