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No matter what happens in the Bronx, Rays are on a crazy crusade

When you consider the payroll disparity between New York and Tampa Bay, this is one of history’s most unlikely pennant showdowns.
Tommy Pham, shown scoring against the Yankees earlier this month at Tropicana Field, is Tampa Bay's fourth highest-paid player at $4.1 million. That would put him 17th on New York's payroll. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times)
Published Jul. 15
Updated Jul. 16

The standings are unforgiving, and you’d have it no other way.

In baseball, there is no place for mercy, nuance or excuses. A 162-game schedule is meant to leave no doubt about which teams deserve to move on, and which should check next spring’s calendar.

So understand what follows is not a lament, but rather an appreciation.

The Rays have no business chasing the Yankees.

Seriously, the Coyote had better odds against the Roadrunner. Even with all of their injuries, the Yankees still have advantages Tampa Bay will never comprehend. And yet the Rays are in New York this week trying desperately to close the gap between second and first place. They got off to a great start with Monday night’s dramatic 5-4 victory in the opener of a four-game series.

You can break down the disparities any way you like:

* New York’s payroll is about 360 percent higher than Tampa Bay’s.

* Major League Baseball’s average salary this season is $4.36 million. The Yankees have 16 players making more than that. The Rays have three.

* New York is paying three players (Giancarlo Stanton, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury) more than Tampa Bay is paying its entire roster.

* The Rays have the lowest payroll in the majors. No team in the wild card era has ever made the playoffs with MLB’s lowest payroll.

So, yeah, it might be helpful to keep that in mind the next time you want to scream about Mike Zunino striking out or Tommy Pham getting picked off.

On the other hand, feel free to curse the commissioner’s office.

As much grief as Tampa Bay has gotten concerning poor attendance, Major League Baseball deserves an equal share for failing to adequately fix competitive imbalance.

The difference is we admit our shortcomings with regards to attendance. On the other hand, MLB owners and officials act as if they’ve solved revenue inequality.

“I’m a data guy,’’ commissioner Rob Manfred said at the All-Star break. “I really try to pay attention to the aggregate things that are going on in the game, not focusing on one individual team and one year but in aggregate what’s happening to us. I see the revenue sharing system, on the whole, as having been successful because of the (lower) disparity in payrolls.’’

Has revenue sharing helped? Absolutely.

Has it created a level playing field? Pfffttt!

Contrary to what the commissioner says, the data shows payroll disparity is one of the best indicators of how teams will perform. There will always be outliers, such as Tampa Bay and Oakland, but it doesn’t take an economist to figure out large market teams have a built-in advantage.

And this year is no different. Of the six current division leaders, five are in the top half of the league in payrolls. The only holdout is the American League Central, and that’s because none of those teams are in the top half of MLB payrolls.

If baseball were serious about addressing competitive imbalance, revenue sharing would be on par with the NFL. Do you know why NFL teams routinely go from losing seasons to division titles? Because the gap between spending is miniscule, which means Green Bay has the same chance as Chicago.

Baseball owners, instead, whine about having to write checks to Tampa Bay and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. If the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers think they could make as much television and merchandising money while limiting MLB franchises to a dozen large markets, let “em try.

Meanwhile, you have situations such as this:

Tampa Bay, with its $62 million payroll, is a little behind the Yankees ($217 million) and a little ahead of the Red Sox ($227 million) in the American League East.

From a fairness standpoint, that notion should be infuriating.

But when you think about what the Rays players and front office have accomplished, it’s not a stretch to call it remarkable.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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