The New York Yankees represent the very worst of America.
Overstatement? Consider the times. Cornerstone industries are faltering, taxpayers are being asked to bail out mismanaged financial institutions and their overpaid CEOs, and decent, hard-working men and women are being laid off or worrying that they could be next.
Now consider the eight-year, $180 million contract the Yankees reportedly handed first baseman Mark Teixeira yesterday. Stack it on top of the $161 million deal signed by pitcher CC Sabathia and the (relatively) modest $82.5 million promised to A.J. Burnett and you have the most egregious display of financial irresponsibility in the history of sports.
The Yanks' insane overspending would be bad for baseball in the best of times. These are not the best of times.
If Major League Baseball had a commissioner - that is, an independent and strong-willed leader unafraid to do the right thing - the Teixeira and Sabathia deals would be nullified based on the commissioner's sweeping "best interest of the game" powers. But MLB has Bud Selig, who still is poring over Doppler radar reports, trying to figure out how Citizens Bank Park got so muddy the night that Game 5 of the World Series began.
Up in Boston, where the Red Sox made a serious run at signing Teixeira, this deal is being rationally and calmly analyzed by baseball fans as if actual, flaming chunks of blue sky were crashing through the roofs of their homes.
As one commenter on boston.com reasoned, "Dear God, please kill me now . . ." Another reflected, "OMG - I want to jump off a bridge . . .! Yankees are instantly the favorites in the AL East for 2009 . . . ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Any more than 12 exclamation marks would be just a trifle overdone, don't you think?
But we are not here to commiserate with the Bostonians, who have celebrated two World Series titles, three Super Bowl victories and an NBA championship in this decade alone. Especially since their beloved Red Sox are a shark only slightly smaller and less voracious than the Great Blue monster from New York when it comes to preying in the free-agent waters.
The Sox, who already have Kevin Youkilis at first base, were bidding in the same range for Teixeira. So there is no pity for the Sox or their spoiled fans.
And frankly, it's hard to shed a tear here in Philadelphia. The Phillies are, after all, the reigning champions of baseball. They are the team with the hardware the Yankees and Sox are emptying armored trucks in an effort to regain. While no one has accused the Phillies of crazy overspending on free agents, their payroll has been more than respectable since they moved into the aptly nicknamed Bank.
What's wrong here is obvious. It's also not really new. Unlike the NFL, NBA and NHL, baseball has no salary cap. Those leagues do not have caps for the sheer, unbridled joy of finding loopholes and exceptions. They have them as part of an effort to maintain some kind of competitive balance among teams from different-size markets in disparate parts of the country.
In fairness, MLB did create a luxury tax system that punishes overspenders such as the Yankees and Red Sox and adds revenue to the coffers of teams such as Florida and Kansas City. Of course, that system also gives some of the small-market teams a disincentive to spend money to win. They can pocket their free money from New York and Boston and continue to flounder on the field.
The Yankees have proved for the last five years that buying the highest-priced players does not guarantee you a title. Teams, not necessarily all-star teams, win championships. But the Sox and Yankees do spend their way to the postseason virtually every year, which means each always has a chance to win it all.
The bully franchises make good foils for everyone else. It was a nice, fun story when the Tampa Bay Rays played their way into the World Series to face the Phillies (who in turn beat out the New York Mets and their bloated payroll).
When the bullies win, well, they're supposed to. When they lose, well, they give everyone something to laugh at.
Baseball economics always have been bad for competitive balance, but this Yankees spree is the worst ever because of real-world economics. It just smells bad. New York signed arguably the top two pitchers and the best slugger on the market. The Yanks, bidding against no other team, simply threw tens of millions of extra dollars at Sabathia.
Meanwhile, MLB's Web site laid people off last month. Meanwhile, autoworkers are being told their plants will shut down for months. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to hang on to our homes and our health insurance while cutting back on holiday spending.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Teixeira. A nation turns its pockets inside out to you.