Sunday, June 26, 2005

Post's Vaccaro on the Travails of Small-Market Clubs

Although watching the Junkees self-destruct this year has been nothing short of incredible, the fact remains that their $200 million payroll is still screwing up the game. Mike Vaccaro of the Post has more (and look out for the Despiser echoes throughout):

YOU think you have problems, right? You're a Mets fan and are experiencing that familiar sinking feeling that goes along with watching a team that isn't good enough to seriously contend but really isn't lousy enough to drop like a stone into the withering halls of irrelevance? You're a Yankees fan who acts each day like a dissatisfied Ferrari customer, wondering why your pricey dream machine can't take curves as easily as advertised?
Well, those are your laments, and you're entitled to them.
But I got a pretty good eyeful of the other half a few nights ago, and a pretty good earful, too. Maybe you don't care about the other half. That's certainly your right. Maybe the complaints of small-market denizens ring hollow in the ears and the souls of those of us who get to see and feel the power of big-market commerce every day. I'm not here to say you should lose one ounce of sleep over the perennial plights of the Royals, the Pirates, the Brewers. It's your prerogative to blissfully ignore them.
They're used to it. They've grown accustomed to it. They even accept, to a certain extent, the fate to which they've been sentenced under the laws that presently govern the sport. Still, it's one thing to gaze with detached pity at these small-town fans from the safe remove of a thousand miles. It's another to look in their eyes.
"All I want," one woman told me, "is one more September where it feels the way it used to feel around here."
"All I want," her husband said, "is to have a June that feels that way."
I had spent the evening as the face of the big-market behemoths that terrorize small-market teams like the Royals. My buddy Joe Posnanski, who writes so eloquently about these matters and others for the Kansas City Star, invited me to sit at a panel in his town alongside Muzzy Jackson, the Royals' assistant GM, and Bill James, the wonderful baseball author, godfather to generations of SABR acolytes, consultant to the Red Sox and a lifelong Royals fan. The topic: "Can the Royals Win?"
You might think that years of losing (the Royals have had one winning season since 1994, have lost 100 games two of the past three years and are well on the way there already this season) would have beaten the populace down, would have stripped them of their ardor and their passion. And yet, there wasn't a seat available when we started the discussion inside the Negro League Baseball Museum, a magnificent showplace in the heart of Kansas City's historic downtown. It's the one lesson to remember from all of this: Royals fans care just as deeply as Yankees fans about their team.
It's just not quite as easy to actually be a Royals fan.
There is a misperception that small-market teams hate the Yankees. They don't. Actually, Kansas City is a wonderful example, because the people there would like nothing more than to be able to hate the Yankees again, the way they did in the '70s and the '80s, when the franchises shared equal footing, when the Royals and the Yankees engaged in a rivalry every bit as bitter and every bit as arresting as what the Yankees and Red Sox have now, with George Brett playing the part of David Ortiz, lurking around every corner with malice in his heart.
Here was the big problem, though.
Much as we tried, much as we wanted to send the folks home happy, this was the message the folks probably took home with them, the answer to the panel subject:
No way in hell.
Jackson was nice enough to outline the Royals' plan to rebuild their way back into contention, sounded dozens of positive notes, and the fact is the team does have a sensible, reasonable plan that echoes the way the great Indians teams of the '90s were built - go young, identify cornerstone players, lock them up through the early years of free agency. That's the small-market mantra, and it's helped teams like the Brewers, Pirates and Indians compete, and it's helped the Twins thrive.
It works well ... when it works.
When it doesn't? You wind up where the Tigers were the past few years, wondering how in the world they wound up with the likes of an untradeable Bobby Higginson, or where the Rockies are now, stuck with a Todd Helton contract that is every bit the organizational millstone that Jason Giambi's is.
"We have a plan," Jackson said. "But we also have a very, very small margin for error."
And that's the problem. New Yorkers knew three years ago that we would soon see Carlos Beltran in our midst (even if most of us guessed the wrong borough), because he is precisely the kind of high-watt star the Royals can never hope to keep. For all his struggles this year, New Yorkers might want to keep an eye on KC's wonderful young pitcher, Zack Greinke, who, by the time he's eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, might look quite splendid in one of the new ballparks due to rise that year - either the new Yankee Stadium (built by Kansas City firm HOK) or the new Shea Stadium (likely to be built by Kansas City firm Ellerbe Becket).
And on it goes.

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