Thanks to the predictably slow hot stove for the Rays, my continued work to ensure I can pay rent this summer, and a move this weekend to my new apartment, I just haven't had a whole lot to say recently.
But a couple of letters to the commissioner of baseball sparked a thought or two. One letter came from a listener of the show Fred McGriff and I used to do on WDAE. The other came from my dusty archives in the summer of 1993. My letter didn't do much to sway the commish, and I somehow doubt my friend's letter will do the same.
We'll start with my letter in 1993, sent to Alan "Bud" Selig, who technically wasn't the commissioner although we all know he was. I was 15-years-old and not thrilled with the proposed re-alignment to three divisions with a wild card. Long story short, I wasn't crazy about a "second-place team" getting into the playoffs behind three teams that battled for first. I suggested a three-division league, but the the top team in the league getting a bye with the other two teams playing a playoff round to determine who played the best team. Little did I know back in those days of my wasted youth that the whole reason for eight teams in the playoffs was... you guessed it... money! More teams, more chances to collect higher ticket revenue at the gate, and let's not forget TV revenue as well.
Also little did I know my letter would be forwarded to a management-type of the Boston Red Sox for consideration... after I joked in the letter it would be a sham if the Red Sox were that less-deserving team getting in via the wild card. Thus came my first lesson in life on how NOT to burn bridges.
More than 13 years later a loyal listener we shall call Joe sent me a copy of his letter to the commish. Even though he sent me a copy of it I won't re-write it word for word because I still believe it is a private communication between two parties and because it is rather lengthy. But here are the general ideas communicated:
* MLB's unbalanced schedule hurts the Rays more than any other team since they have to play the Red Sox and Yankees more often.
* The free agent market has gone out of control, and the Blue Jays and Orioles aren't helping with their recent splurges.
* Tampa Bay hasn't failed baseball, baseball has failed Tampa Bay.
On the first topic, regarding the unbalanced schedule, I can't disagree. The Rays were 14-23 collectively against the Yankees and Red Sox in 2006. The Rays' remaining 47-78 record against other teams isn't anything to write home about either, but look at other teams and you'll see what I'm talking about. Only the Angels and A's had a winning record against the Yankees in 2006. The Red Sox, having a down year to say the least, had seven teams post winning records against them. There's no doubt the Rays would play better in the AL Central, or possibly in the NL East where spending is a little more controlled. So why won't MLB re-allign or dump the unbalanced schedule? Are you ready for this? MONEY!
MLB will not change the schedule because it needs the hype and the revenue of Yankees/Red Sox, Dodgers/Giants, Cubs/Cardinals to bring people in the door. Even with the Red Sox struggling this past season, their series against the Yankees in August and September was still the top story in baseball. Yes, teams like Detroit, Oakland, Philadelphia, and even the World Champion Cardinals deserved more pub, but in MLB's convaluded world it's all about the Red Sox and Yankees.
As for re-aligning, MLB won't do that either, at least not for the Rays' sake. In 2005, 25 of the 30 teams in MLB reported a profit. The five that lost money: the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Marlins, and Angels. In 2005, three of those teams made the playoffs. In 2006, two of those teams made the playoffs. In summary, no matter how much owners and GMs bitch and moan about the Yankees and Red Sox or the scheduling, chances are they made money. Why fix what's not broken in their minds?
That leads me to a belief I've held for quite a while, and one that leads into the second point of the letter. Because MLB isn't changing anything in the near future, I believe if you're going to play the game as an owner you have to play by the established rules to succeed. As it was for Vince Namoli, it is for Stu Sternberg: some day you're just going to have to spend some money. Namoli rarely did, and we he did good old Chuck "Yessir" Lamar blew the wad on over-the-hill players expecting a pennant that year. Sternberg has yet to but he still has time. With how the free agent free-for-all has played out this winter, even the Rays had to be shocked how unrealistic these new deals were. Gil Meche is a great example, so is J.D. Drew, and while I do believe Aubrey Huff will make mince meet of the right field wall in Camden Yards, a four-year deal for roughly $7 million per year for a 30-year-old who has pieced together TWO seasons of power numbers baffles me.
At the same time though, the NDRO cannot be let off the hook if these farm products don't pan out. For the players who do, such as Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, and perhaps Delmon Young down the road, the shift from "thrifty" to "investing" has to be made during the next couple of years. From what I've heard the NDRO admits it will have to get some slightly pricier free agents next season if this ship is going to get turned around sooner than later. See what you have in the organization now, then supplement it with QUALITY free agents and not "cheap alternatives".
Yes Toronto spent a fortune last winter for a .500 pitcher and a few dinged up and moody hitters, but it started with the organization cleaning house and starting from scratch several years ago. The Jays didn't make the playoffs last year, but are at least one step closer to doing it this season IF the team stays healthy. As for Baltimore, as long as Peter Angelos is pulling the strings I'm not quite sure what to think. But I do believe he knows he has to spend the big money on a Miguel Tejada or Aubrey Huff to show fans they can keep up with the big boys (or try) in the AL East. I'm also pretty sure Tejada and Huff can't pitch, which underscores any major spending the O's do. In summary for the second point, if you want to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox, eventually you will have to open up the wallet a bit. "Moneyball" spending works well in other divisions because you don't have two teams spitting out more than $300 million combined in payroll outside of the AL East.
The final point made by Joe, about the market not failing baseball is true to a point. I truly believe Tampa Bay will support baseball if it is a winner. The Rays' best season attendance-wise was in 1998 when more than 2.5 million people walked in to the Trop because it was exciting and new. After years of mismanagement on and off the field, those numbers dwindled to less than half that. Last year attendance was back up to about 1.3 million because again it was exciting and new to have Mr. "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" out of the picture. What would really be new and exciting is a sustained winner, not just a team of overachieving kids who get 78 wins one year before management declares that's good enough.
I still have faith in the NDRO, and you should too, that a winner will come some day. I don't totally agree it will come with just a bunch of kids straight out of Durham, as MLB's history shows no team ever really did it with nothing but farmhands who became champions overnight. And no, the 2003 Marlins don't count because they had a fair share of veterans behind the youth movement that year. If last year's stripped down club that eventually featured mostly minor leagues and spare parts from other teams, or this year's winter deals that left the Rays in the dark because they didn't want to overspend didn't show the NDRO it won't be as easy as they first thought it would be, I don't know what will.
Regardless, keep the pressure on the Rays to produce a winner. YOU DESERVE ONE AFTER TEN SEASONS OF FUTILITY! Write, call, e-mail. Criticize when it is merited, praise when they follow through and do something right. Let them know you care but you want a winner sooner than later.
As for Selig, I can't guarantee any communication with him will ever result in positive changes for the Rays or MLB. After all, this guy used to sell used cars. Did you ever put any faith in those guys?