I grew up in Milwaukee, the smallest city with its own Major League Baseball team. During my summer vacations from high school and college, I worked as a vendor at Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Brewers played before it was torn down and replaced by Miller Park. Not once during that time did the Brewers make the playoffs. In fact, starting in 1982, they went 26 years without a post-season appearance.
Finally, last year, the Brewers sneaked in as a wildcard team, largely on the strength of C.C. Sabathia's superhuman pitching. Then the season ended, Sabathia (pictured) signed with the Yankees, and the Brewers, who couldn't come close to matching the Yankees' seven-year, $160 million offer, resumed playing their usual sub-.500 ball.
So you can imagine how it offended me, as a Milwaukeean and a Brewers fan -- nay, as a human being, dammit -- to read "The Yankees Didn't Buy the World Series," Andrew Zimbalist's editorial in News Corp's (NWS) The Wall Street Journal on Monday. A pre-eminent sports economist, Zimbalist examines whether "the Yankees bought their trophy," and concludes that they didn't.
This much Zimbalist is able to prove, to his own satisfaction, with a simple thought experiment: "[H]ow come the Yankees haven't won the fall classic since 2000, even though the franchise led the way in payroll each year and actually spent more last year (when it missed the playoffs) than it did this year?"
You may have heard this line of reasoning before from, say, a smoker who defends his habit by telling you about his grandfather who totally smoked a pack a day for his whole life and lived to be 92. It's pure humbug, of course. The Yankees endured a shocking, tragic eight-year championship drought because baseball is not algebra: Chance plays a role, just as genetics plays a part in determining who ends up developing lung cancer.
Zimbalist can't very well pretend he doesn't know this, so he seeks to minimize it. Having done the math, he asserts that "somewhere between 15% and 30% of the variance in team win percentage can be explained by the variance in team payroll." He states this as though 15% to 30% is not very much. Is it? Consider this: The difference between the Yankees' league-leading 2009 record (103-59) and the Brewers' not-quite-memorable one (80-82) was 23 games: 14.2% of a 162-game season.
Zimbalist concludes, "Wealthy teams do have an advantage, but it is not true that they can buy championships."
Wrong: It is absolutely true that they can buy championships. What they can't buy is any one specific championship, simply because money has no bearing on player health, team cohesiveness, strength of competition, or various other factors. All the stars still have to align. But a sufficiently large payroll can boost a team's chances to the point where it can win championships, say, a quarter of the time -- which is exactly what the Yankees have managed to do, absurdly, over the past 105 years.
I can't blame Yankees fans for not wanting to alter this state of affairs. Well, actually, that's not true. Of course I blame them. Their willingness to benefit from a rigged system is killing baseball as America's pastime by suffocating enthusiasm for it in all the places that aren't New York.
But if they're not going to agitate for change, the least they could do is acknowledge the shameful truth: Money buys titles.
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