Playing the small market blues

Money and sports. Sports and money. The two have been intertwined for a long, long time. No new news there. Owners have owned and players have been bought and sold for over a century now in the game of baseball. And since the mid-1970s, with the advent of free agency, the love’em/ hate’em players and the mostly hate ’em owners have been duking it out at a non-stop rate, going into the latest of rounds, both bloodied but with enough well-paid corner attention to make even Paris Hilton blush.

Yet, in this melee, in this free-for-all battle of the sports ages, something truly important has been stepped over, around and upon: small market teams. Remember them? The Milwaukee Brewers. The Kansas City Royals. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies. Throw in Oakland, Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland and you’ve now got enough for two divisions.

Granted, a few of them are holding their own this season. And that’s great. I wish them the best. But only two of the above mentioned ten – one-third of all of MLB – even have winning records at this point. And come that magic date of July 31, the trading deadline – which in baseball is now even more important than the first day of spring training – it’s gonna be like it has been for the last 10 years.

Nearly every one of the small market teams are going to be nothing more than shark food. While baseball’s equivalent of Tammany Hall – the Yanks, Red Sox, Mets, Cubs – get to swim around, and much like thieves, plunder at will.

Sounds overdramatic? It’s not. It’s just what’s happening these days. Moreover, it’s all taking place again, right before your eyes. The rich teams that are winning and are lucky enough to play in saturated media markets are designated as “buyers.” And then all of the other teams thin and getting thinner on baseball’s near perfected version of diamond welfare, are designated as “sellers.” The Red Sox? They’re buyers. The Marlins? They’re sellers.

Why in the heck would the Marlins want to even think of trading A.J. Burnett or Mike Lowell – two players whom they were building the future of their franchise around just a year ago? Because they’re sellers. They can’t afford to keep them. The Marlins know that they’re going to lose them to free agency as soon as the season’s officially over, so their thinking is, why not try and trade them away now and at least get something that is worth their value in return.

The poor, poor Florida Marlins are a pristine, perfect example of just what happens to a team in Major League Baseball when it cannot afford to pay its players. It loses them. The players fly away without a tear in their eye to bigger and brighter things, while the Marlins are left behind and have to try and explain to their fans why in the world they decided to let go of Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee and Al Leiter – first time, not the second time.

In fact, if you look at all of the talent that the Marlins have been forced to wave goodbye to in the last few years, you are confronted with two huge, insurmountable facts. One: they could have won more than two World Series rings – two’s not bad, but I’m thinking more like four or five – they would have made that run that the overpriced Yankees had look weak. And two: it’s just sad. They drafted the players, raised them on the farm, clothed them and fed them, and then just had to watch, motionless, as they all went away as soon as they got big enough to demand the big money.

Money. Baseball. Baseball. Money. Moneyball. A’s GM Billy Beane was right. Only in a different way. In a way that no one could have predicted 20 years ago. The Pittsburgh Pirates meaningless – guess that’s what happens when you’ve got to trade away a third of your starters to the Cubs? The Cincinnati Reds, meaningless? The Brewers? The Tigers? The Royals? Right now, they all are. All of these teams were powerhouses at some point from ’75 to ’86. Now they don’t matter. Great cities, great fans and once great teams that now all have just one thing in common: Major League Baseball forgot about them.