ST. PETERSBURG — Welcome to Tropicana Field, Mr. Commissioner.
Hope you didn't have any trouble finding the place. I know it's kind of out in the boondocks. And I'm sure that explains why you have been forced — regrettably, no doubt — to miss 963 of the 964 regular-season games played here the past dozen seasons.
But it was certainly gracious of you to accept an invitation to tonight's Governor's Baseball Dinner, and for that, we are oh so grateful. Because, and you may have heard about this, we're having a bit of a fuss regarding this whole stadium viability issue.
On the one hand, we have Rays ownership and a blue-ribbon committee of local business leaders who say Tropicana Field is the wrong ballpark in the wrong location. On the other hand, we have a lease. All of which leaves some pretty nervous baseball fans stuck in the middle.
So I'm guessing someone might broach this topic with you tonight. And I'm also guessing you're going to say you agree with Stuart Sternberg that the only way the Rays can remain competitive is with a more attractive stadium that provides better revenue possibilities.
That's certainly a legitimate argument. Attendance here has not been strong, and a drab stadium in a gloomy part of town hasn't helped. The goal is a team that can remain competitive, and a better stadium situation is a big part of that equation.
But a stadium is not the only factor at play. Baseball's economic system has as much to do with the Rays' payroll issues as anything else. If we're being honest, it probably has a greater impact than Tropicana's zip code. Folks in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, with their shiny new stadiums and tiny little payrolls, can probably relate.
So, if I may, I'd like to suggest a deal:
We'll consider building a stadium if you consider fixing the competitive balance issue.
Oh, I know that's a hot-button issue for you, Mr. Commissioner. I know you're on record saying that competitive balance is greater than it's ever been in baseball. I know you're proud of the role you have played in creating revenue sharing and a payroll tax.
And, in all fairness, you have done more than any other commissioner when it comes to those kinds of issues. But I've spent a lot of time looking at this competitive balance issue. And if I had to sum it up in a word, I think it would be:
You cannot argue that a franchise needs a stadium to remain competitive financially and simultaneously argue that payroll disparity has no impact on what happens on the field. Either money matters, or it doesn't.
And I think we both know that it matters greatly.
It is disingenuous to suggest the Yankees and their $200 million payroll do not have a huge advantage over the Rays and their $70 million payroll. It is disingenuous and insulting.
So don't point at the 2003 Marlins or the 2008 Rays and say payroll size is not a factor. Those teams were aberrations. The odds will always favor a team that spends more money.
Around this time last year, I broke down baseball's spenders into upper class, middle class and lower class for the past 10 years. The upper class teams had a 75 percent chance of being over .500. Middle class teams had a 48 percent chance, and lower class teams had a 28 percent chance. In other words, the more you spent the better chance you had for success.
So getting back to our deal, here are a few suggestions:
• More efficient payroll tax and revenue sharing: In its first seven seasons, the tax has been levied on only four franchises. And two were barely nicked. Of the $190 million in assessed taxes, the Yankees have paid 91.5 percent. And the Red Sox have paid 7.3 percent. That means two AL East teams have combined for 98.8 percent of the overspending. That sounds like a system in need of some tweaking. Now that could mean a lower threshold or a higher tax rate. Just do whatever it takes to get rid of the disparity in payrolls.
• Realignment: The AL East is ridiculously top-heavy. Boston and New York have combined to finish either first or second 12 times in the seven years of revenue sharing. That's bullying, not competing. No other division has been close to that type of domination. Splitting up the Yankees and Red Sox may sound heretical, but it should at least be considered.
• Balanced schedule: If you do not have realignment, you absolutely must get rid of the unbalanced schedule. It is not fair to the Rays, Orioles or Blue Jays to play a majority of their games in a division against baseball's richest teams and then make them compete for the wild card against teams with easier schedules in the Central and West.
Now, trust me, I know this won't be easy. You'll run into resistance from both owners and the Players Association. That's to be expected. You are, potentially, taking money out of their pockets and putting it in the wallets of other millionaires.
But look at it this way:
Isn't that the same thing you're asking of Tampa Bay residents? To take money out of their pockets to build a stadium for others to use?
Now you can say a stadium would benefit the area in the long run, but wouldn't a new economic system also benefit baseball in the long run?
So what do you say, Mr. Commissioner?
Do we have a deal?