Baseball is a contest fought on a Medieval battle field.
Tomorrow, the 2021 MLB playoffs will begin, with ten teams battling it out to see who will end up the king of the castle.
Meanwhile, 20 other teams will start preparing their next attack.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will be among those teams.
The castle that exists at the end of this battle field has seemingly permanent residents. Having an MLB post-season without teams from New York, Boston, Chicago, and/or Los Angeles would be akin to someone other than Ned Stark’s descendants ruling the North. Sure, someone else might take control of the castle for a brief period of time, but we all know whose land this is.
How else do you describe a Big Four sports league that still has a class structure that separates team spending in the same league by hundreds of millions of dollars in the year of our lord, 2021?
The Pittsburgh Pirates finished this season with an estimated MLB payroll around $50 million dollars. The Los Angeles Dodgers, on the other hand, opened the season with a $261 million payroll.
The most that the Pirates have ever spent in a single season was around $110 million in each of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Think about that.
The Pirates could have opened this season spending to their previous record, and they’d still be spending $150 million less than the Dodgers. They’d be spending about $50 million less than ten other teams in the league.
I don’t follow the Steelers or Penguins as often these days, so I can’t tell you where they are with their chances to contend, or why All-Pittsburgh-Sports fans joke about the Pirates having the brightest future.
I just know that the NFL and NHL are set up so that teams in Pittsburgh are on the same level-ground for spending. If the Steelers have a horrible season, it’s not because of budgetary constraints. It’s because they didn’t make the right moves — recently or in the past.
Major League Baseball is not set up that way.
The Pirates just wrapped up year two of General Manager Ben Cherington’s tenure with the team.
Cherington’s first season was the 2020 COVID shortened season. His approach toward getting the organization back to the playoffs was akin to standing on the other side of the battle field and seeing which residents of the castle lined up outside the walls he prepared to storm.
His 2021 season was more akin to charging across the battle field, dodging arrows, continuing to try to advance, and still not reaching the point where the Pirates were close to clashing with those big market teams inside the castle walls.
The Pirates made progress in the last year.
They’ve got one of the best farm systems in baseball. They’ve got some exciting guys either already in the majors, starting to arrive, or arriving soon.
Their player development system is seeing an overhaul that is addressing some of the short-falls of the previous development system that ultimately saw several of their best prospects go on to have success elsewhere.
Winter is coming, and I think Ben Cherington has what it takes to lead his army to breach the castle walls. Perhaps he can even take back the castle for Pittsburgh for the first time since 1979.
But, those big market teams have so many arrows in the air.
An endless supply of arrows. And swordsmen on horses to defend when the enemy gets close.
Making it all seem like a suicide mission for a small market team to charge the castle, knowing they’ll only be able to survive for so long once inside.
In football, the favorites for the Super Bowl this year are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last year, the Super Bowl was between… Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
Both of those teams are small market in MLB, with Kansas City spending up to mid-market at best when they are contending.
Can you imagine a scenario where two small market teams meet in the World Series, then open the following season as the favorites to return and battle it out against each other once again?
By comparison, the two New York teams in the NFL have the 28th and 29th worst odds this year.
If this same overall scenario existed in baseball today, the league would collapse instantly.
MLB has marketed itself around Yankees versus Red Sox for my entire adult life. Other big market teams have joined the perpetual playoff picture, but it’s almost always a situation where the small market teams have little-to-no chance at winning it all, or returning consistently.
I mean, can you imagine a World Series between the Rays and Brewers this year? It would be fun to watch, but what are the odds that Milwaukee makes it past Atlanta and one of San Francisco/Los Angeles/St. Louis? What are the odds that Tampa Bay makes it past Boston or New York, then makes it past Houston or Chicago?
The actual Vegas odds are not good for the Brewers — who, by the way, are the number two seed in the NL. The odds are favorable to the Rays. The Rays have the third best odds. However, by the odds, we’re projected to see a Houston/Los Angeles World Series.
At least one of the Astros or Dodgers has made the World Series in each of the last four years, with a head-to-head matchup in 2017.
MLB has marketed itself toward the large markets. The small markets are essentially flavors of the week. Even if they get their just desserts for building up a contending team against the odds, the reality is that they won’t be around long.
Major League Baseball needs to change.
The league is hell-bent focused on trying to find new viewers and maintain old ones by shortening game times — bastardizing the rules of each minor league level in the process, while threatening to bring some of those approaches to the majors.
Want to increase your audience, MLB?
Perhaps — and this is an extremely experimental approach that has only been tried by literally every other Big Four sports league — they implement a salary cap, salary floor, and total revenue sharing.
The three dragons that can help MLB get back to being America’s past time.
Because who in Pittsburgh wants to watch this type of baseball — with the GM charging across the battle field, all the while never actually in the fight, and potentially never even reaching the castle walls?
Who wants to see that in Baltimore?
Minnesota or Kansas City?
It’s a novel sounding approach, but perhaps MLB could increase their long-term and short-term viewership by creating a system where 30 teams are on the battle field equally. That’s much more preferred than having your normal large market castle residents and a revolving door of small market challengers.
Revenue sharing that would allow each team to spend to the cap without losing money.
MLB needs all three in a package deal.
This would not be great for all of those fans who cheer all year for their local small market team in order to pass the time until the next big Yankees/Red Sox battle arrives. Whoever those fans are.
But, this approach would be a great change to ensure that the fans of all 30 teams have a reason to be interested in this league every year.
Because, by my count, we’re on year three of the Pirates losing, and year six without breaching those castle walls.
And we’ve all seen how the years can add up in a losing streak.
MLB has a new Collective Bargaining Agreement they’re negotiating this offseason. I’m not optimistic that they will add the cap/floor/revenue sharing in the new CBA.
I’m just wishful, for all of the small markets who are being out-spent by double, triple, or quadruple their payroll by the biggest markets.
I’m wishful for all of those small market fans who have to look years to the future for the next time they can care about their local team.
I’m wishful that MLB will finally look beyond short-term profits and see that the league as a whole will thrive long-term by giving all 30 fan bases a reason to be interested every single year.
But, I’m not hopeful.
I’d be surprised if any significant change will happen to bring MLB to the modern ages of professional sports.
Baseball is stuck in Medieval times.