To hear far too many tell it, a salary cap is the panacea for all that ails baseball.
But, really what "ails" Major League Baseball? Is it that the reviled Yankees, during a season in which their payroll went down , won their first title in almost in a decade? Is it that MLB will soon pass the NFL in total revenues? Or is it that MLB has pulled even with the NFL when it comes to fan loyalty ? Indeed, the "problems" with the sport are mostly non-existent, but the half-cocked solutions are all too real.
As intimated above, the most common half-cocked solution is the salary cap. We're told ad nauseam that the NFL has become the last bastion of competitive parity mostly because of the hard cap. That's just not true, especially once you consider the structural differences in play.
For instance, if MLB slashed its regular-season schedule by, oh, 90 percent (a smaller sample size of games lends itself to flukish outcomes); increased the percentage of teams in the postseason; gave teams a week to scout and game-plan the opposition; had a one-game playoff format; and for years rigged the schedule so that the worst teams played the easiest schedules, then cries for a salary cap in baseball would be scarcely audible.
As well, the success of small NFL markets like Green Bay and New Orleans is not a consequence of capped payrolls. Market size means little in the NFL because the healthy majority of the NFL's revenue comes from its television contract, and that TV money is shared equally among 32 teams. (MLB, in contrast, is much more oriented toward local media revenues.) As well, it's easy for a low population base to sell tickets to eight home games per season rather than 81. It follows, then, that the salary cap has little to do with what passes for balance and compression in the NFL.
And the cottage industry of the "capologist" tells you all you need to know about a system that's at once byzantine yet able to be manipulated by even marginally resourceful teams. Or, as former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs once put it , "If there was a player out there and you were at the top of the cap, I don't know of an instance where you couldn't get that player."
As for the other most notable capped league, the NBA, well, it's had the current cap in effect since the 1984-85 season, and since then a mere seven franchises have shared the title. Once more for emphasis: In 26 seasons of having a hard cap, seven -- seven! -- teams have hoisted that giant gold basketball. If you're arguing for the efficacy of hard caps, you'd best not use the NBA to make your case.
In the case of the NFL, the "any given Sunday" brand of parity you hear so much about is both overstated and owing to structural factors unrelated to the existence of a salary cap. In the case of the NBA, the cap is either ineffective or self-immolating.
Moreover, it's not MLB that has a competitive-balance issue; it's the American League East. (Forget, for the moment, that the wee little Rays won the pennant in 2008 and might well do so again this season.) To the end of making things more balanced in the East, MLB needs not pursue a hard cap. First of all, owners know the Players Association will never agree to one, and, as the NFL is about to learn, labor strife is bad for business.
Second, all that's needed is a revamping of baseball's revenue-sharing model. Specifically, a higher percentage of net local revenues needs to be shared, and recipients of those monies need to be held to unyielding account. That doesn't mean a salary floor (as the great Marvin Miller has said, baseball already has a salary floor -- the minimum salary times the number of roster spots). After all, the last thing a team in rebuilding mode needs to do is throw dollars at a middling veteran for the sole purpose of meeting a payroll threshold. Those dollars certainly can go toward the major-league payroll, but they should also be able to go toward increasing the scouting and development budget (i.e., build more academies in the Caribbean, increase the scouting staff, pay above slot for better talent in the draft, refine minor-league instructional methods, be more active in signing international free agents, etc.).
The point is that revenue-sharing dollars need to go toward improving those "wards of the state" franchises and not toward swelling the personal fortunes of David Glass or Jeff Loria. Total reinvestment must be a condition of receiving even one dollar from the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and other high-revenue teams. Those steps in tandem with the "soft" cap already in place (that would be the luxury-tax system) is all baseball needs.
So unless you're partial to transferring wealth from millionaires (the players) to billionaires (the owners), hard caps should have no appeal to you. That's about all that caps accomplish. Those mewling for baseball to make such wholesale changes -- and thereby risk the labor peace that's been in place since 1995 -- need to be reminded of this fact at every turn.