For a week this month I was a stranger in a strange land. Even
though I'm a bit of a baseball nerd and a sick Rotisserie player,
my business is football. I'd written all of two baseball stories
in my 15 years at SI, but this year the magazine assigned me to
preview the American League East. As I crisscrossed Florida, I
was struck by a few ways in which baseball has football beat.
--During training camp you can actually see games played. I saw
Ken Griffey Jr. face Pedro Martinez on one day and Roy Halladay
on another. I realize NFL teams can't have full-scale games in
camp, but they'd be smart to give fans a daily 10-play,
first-unit offense versus first-unit defense scrimmage.
--MLB spring training is nice and laid-back, giving players much
more time than NFL guys to sit around and talk. Red Sox pitcher
Derek Lowe and I chatted for 45 minutes, mostly about fantasy
football and his beloved Lions.
--The scale of baseball camps is much more intimate. When Yankees
manager Joe Torre watched starter Jon Lieber test his sore groin
in a batting practice session on a back field two weeks ago, fans
in the bleachers 20 feet away got nearly as good a view.
Those things make a difference. But are they as important as the
ways in which football beats baseball? Consider:
--On the topic that has dominated spring training
discourse--steroids--baseball's policy is not just inferior, it's
dangerous. In baseball you receive a 15-day suspension when you
test positive a second time. Meanwhile, the first positive in
football brings a four-game suspension with no pay. I actually
believe football may go too far--some of its banned substances
can be bought over the counter--but I understand why the policy
is so strict: A former offensive lineman, Gene Upshaw, is running
the players' union. Upshaw knows it's unfair and unsafe to ask a
man whose interests he is supposed to be protecting to line up
across from a guy on steroids.
--As I toured the Florida camps I found a stupefying resignation
to the gross salary inequities of baseball--and the resulting
competitive imbalance. True, the Marlins won the World Series
with the 21st largest payroll in the game: $54 million. But the
other three teams in the League Championship Series all spent at
least $25 million more than Florida. I kept asking executives at
spring training, Why don't you fight to have a system like
football's, in which tiny Green Bay and big, bad New York both
will have salary and bonus revenue capped at $80.6 million this
year? As one front-office type told me, "We will never approach
parity, because to do that you'd have to convince George
Steinbrenner to lower the value of his franchise." Besides, I
know baseball union members are more cohesive than the Teamsters,
and they will never agree to a salary cap.
As a result, there is no real hope for the Devil Rays or Pirates
or Brewers to contend this year--or two or three years down the
road. In football, teams go from the bottom of the pack to the
playoff picture every season. It happened this year with Dallas
(from 5-11 to 10-6) and Cincinnati (2-14 to 8-8). But can the
Devil Rays, with their $25 million payroll, expect to be
competitive when they face the Yankees, and their $185 million
payroll, 19 times this year? I checked out both clubhouses. Along
one wall in Tampa were the lockers of Yankees hurlers Mike
Mussina, Kevin Brown, Javier Vasquez, Tom Gordon, Jose Contreras
and Mariano Rivera. In St. Pete, home of the Rays, the biggest
pitching name is Danys Baez, abandoned by the pitching-poor
Indians last year. That's beyond unfair. That's sham competition.
While in St. Pete, I mentioned the issue to Tampa Bay G.M. Chuck
LaMar. "I think we use the NFL a lot in our industry to show how
good it is to have a level playing field," he said. "But though
our playing field is so uneven, it's sour grapes to focus on
that. As Bill Parcells says, 'Don't tell me how hard labor was.
Just show me the baby.'"
Fine, but baseball won't produce that baby as long as it remains
barren of ideas about how to solve its biggest problems. Maybe
that's why, as wonderful as spring training is, football is now
the national pastime.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"Maxwell's dyspepsia spawned a billion-dollar industry."
--FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 24