Money Talks and Fans Walk

By BILL SIMMONS  |  December 14, 2011

Worst of all, small-market teams couldn't afford to keep their signature "franchise" guys through their entire careers, as Detroit (Jack Morris), Milwaukee (Paul Molitor), Pittsburgh (Bonds), and Montreal (Dawson) all proved. The lessons for fans? Don't stay attached to the guys you root for, and stay focused, because the players never stop moving.

"People understand now that the love affair they have with their teams is unrequited," says Bob Sales, a longtime journalist and former sports editor of the Boston Herald. "In the old days, you rooted for the same guys year after year. Now the guys come and go. It's like falling in love with a hooker. That's why when a team starts going bad they're not going to get any loyalty from those fans."

Two-time Cy Young Award winner David Cone embodied Angell's 1972 scenario. In July 1992, Cone was traded by the struggling Mets to Toronto for prospects -- a classic "get rid of a star/save money/get cheap rookies" move. Since that trade, the hard-throwing right hander won the 1992 Series with the Blue Jays, signed an $18 million three-year contract with Kansas City that winter, was traded by the struggling Royals back to Toronto in April 1995, and was traded again this July to the Yankees once the Blue Jays fell out of the race. Instead of flourishing with one franchise, the high-priced Cone became a hired gun, a luxury good teams craved and bad teams couldn't afford.

Experts believe the deadly 1994 strike restored at least some order to the game. Salaries came crashing down, and the Oscar Gambles and Rennie Stennetts of today's game were forced to accept huge pay cuts. With so many free agents on the market each year, shrewd general managers lilke Boston's Dan Duquette tied up their best players to long-term deals and filled in the rest of their squad with cheaper free agents.

"I think after this year, you're going to have your generals and your privates, with no in between," says Giuliotti. "You won't see a mediocre pitcher like Ben McDonald [of Baltimore] making $4 million a year anymore."

Still, small-market franchises are struggling. Without revenue sharing, struggling teams must move, merge, fold, or compete on an unequal playing field. And with 28 teams in the league today, some teams will either have to switch cities or be weeded out of the sport.

"That's the way it should be," maintains Steve Buckley. "They'll reconcile it by moving teams out of cities that shouldn't have baseball. Remember, the cities should have to work to keep these teams. Cleveland floundered in the last few years, but when they built their new stadium, they became more successful than anybody."

Memories for sale

The game has changed in other ways. When the memorabilia market took off in the early 1980s, it ingrained dollar signs even more deeply into the game's fabric. Suddenly old autographs and baseball cards were worth thousands of dollars, and companies, entrepreneurs, and ex-players capitalized by producing more signed bats and jerseys, and more baseball cards. Whereas the only baseball-card company in 1975 (Topps) sold its cards for 10 cents a pack, more than a dozen companies produce cards today and sell them for as much as $5 a pack. Even children have become shrewd investors, keeping track of every young rookie and potential bargain.

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