Monday, March 5, 2007

Break up the Yankees

In a blog entry last week, the fantastic Steven Goldman referenced a “weird, one-year rule that blocked teams from trading with the Yankees.” Having never heard of said rule, I did some quick research.

In December 1939, on the heels of four consecutive Yankees World Series wins, the other American League owners pushed through a rule banning any team from trading with the defending A.L. champion. The National League, whether due to a more finely developed sense of fairness or the lack of a Yankees-esque behemoth in their league, declined to pass the rule.

The Yankees were particularly vulnerable to this steel chair in the back of the head because long-time owner Jacob Ruppert died in January, leaving a power vacuum at the top of the organization, which was still owned by his estate. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith sensed weakness and made his move.

The Tigers won the pennant in 1940, and, in a shocking turn of events, the rule was repealed before the 1941 season since it actually applied to a team other than the Yankees.

While this attempted coup may have been the most nakedly ambitious scheme by baseball’s powers to bring down the mighty Yankees, it was not the only such ploy by any means. Winning breeds jealousy and contempt, and no one has won even half as many pennants and championships as the Yankees.

In 1947, in an effort to stop the Yankees from throwing their money around (which would soon develop into a running theme), baseball instituted the Bonus Rule, which forbade teams from assigning any player who received a bonus larger than $4,000 to a farm team. Similar to today’s Rule 5 draft, the Bonus Rule demanded that the affected players be placed on the major league team’s 40-man roster for two years. It was clearly designed to stop the Yankees from throwing insane amounts of cash at the young Mickey Mantles of the world, ostensibly opening the pool of talented amateurs to all teams.

However, in what would also develop into a running theme, the Yankees found a backdoor, ethically questionable way around a rule designed solely to damage them. Rumors ran rampant that the Yankees and other wealthy teams offered under-the-table bonuses in addition to the permitted $4,000. Moreover, allegations surfaced that, particularly in the case of Clete Boyer, the Yankees used the Kansas City A’s as their de facto minor league team, paying them to sign certain players only to trade them to the Yankees later. After several incarnations and failures, the Bonus Rule was repealed for good in 1965.

Not coincidentally, 1965 also brought baseball’s most successful attempt to defang the Yankees: the dreaded amateur draft. With all domestic international players included in the draft pool, the Yankees could no longer throw their money at whatever prospects interested them. (At least not until they discovered the existence of Latin America and Japan.) In the draft, teams picked in inverse order of the final standings the year before, an NFL-like nod to parity that immediately hurt the Yankees, who finished first in 1964. Each selected player could only negotiate with the team that drafted him, a practice that seems commonplace now but revolutionized the sport in the ‘60s.

In part because of the draft, and in part because of poor management, the Yankees’ 1921-1964 dynasty ended, and the saddest period in the franchise’s rich history began, as the Yankees wallowed in the second division, out of contention for the most part until 1975.

Thanks to the good works of Curt Flood, Marvin Miller and comrades, the advent of free agency in the mid-‘70s (timed impeccably to coincide with George Steinbrenner’s purchase of the Yankees), allowed the Bronx Bombers a way around the amateur draft. They were now able to use their wealth to their advantage again, except now they could purchase the services of established major-league stars instead of unproven high school kids.

So the Bronx rolled out the red carpet for Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key, and the good times returned. Unfortunately, the red carpet was left out too long accidentally, and Danny Tartabull and Carl Pavano snuck in while no one was looking.

The decades-long push-and-pull between the Yankees and the rest of baseball continued as MLB’s dark overlords fired a counterstrike in 2002. After years of trying to institute a salary cap, destroying the 1994 season in the process, the 2002 labor agreement included provisions for significant revenue sharing and a luxury tax. Every team voted in favor of the agreement except one: the Expos. OK, not really.

Amazingly, commissioner Bud Selig had owned the small-market Milwaukee Brewers for years, and his daughter continued to own the team throughout negotiations. Yet, his impartiality was rarely questioned during the various strikes, lockouts and threats thereof that preceded the agreement. Selig led a cabal of small-market owners intent on getting a piece of the Yankees’ rather large pie, and after literally taking their ball and going home, they finally got their way.

The Yankees have paid nearly $98 million toward the Orwellian “competitive-balance tax” since its institution. This is in addition to the annual revenue sharing bill, which was over $75 million in 2005 alone.Only two other teams have had luxury tax bills come due: the Red Sox have paid about $8 million and the Angels a little less than $1 million.

Of course, the system is working beautifully. The Royals saved their money thriftily for years, waiting for perfect moment to strike...and then threw $55 million at Gil Meche. Meanwhile, the Pirates signed…um…hmm...well…I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on them. They do have to foot the arthritic Shawn Chacon’s medical bills.

Accusations are once again flying that the Yankees are cheating the system, whether through shady accounting practices involving the YES Network, or loopholes involving the new stadium.

And so the sport’s also-rans will forever try to break up the Yankees. And the Yankees will forever fight back, apparently by any means necessary. And the world forever turns. And Jim Belushi forever makes America laugh. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.