Baseball always had its long cycles of dominant teams that mature, milk their success for years then gradually succumb to age, injury, horrid contracts, minor league systems eviscerated by win-now trades, internal conflicts and life in general.
But we may have to wait a long time to see three teams as rich, adored in their home markets, still loaded with name stars but so very much in trouble.
Just months ago, baseball changed its playoffs to include two more wild cards. The justification: So teams besides the perennial powers, especially these three money-minters, could hope to play in October. Pity was focused on teams condemned to play in the AL and NL East, such as the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles, Nationals, Braves and Marlins. Help ’em dream.
Now, it’s the BoSox, Yanks and Phils who look like the ones in dire need of wild cards. Philadelphia and Boston are in last place while New York only escapes that distinction because of the Red Sox. Circle the date: The top three payrolls combined have a losing record.
Don’t say “goodbye” to these household-name teams; they have the most wins in baseball over the last nine years. But feel free to say “see you around,” as in, see you around second, third or fourth place but not much on the top of the heap for several years.
Over the last 10 years, the Yanks (975 wins) and Red Sox (932) have dominated the sport — in marquee magnetism as well as wins. In the last five years, the Phils have joined them in raw intimidation, with five straight NL East titles and 42 more wins than any other NL team.
However, all three franchises have had bad luck in choosing this precise moment to lose their edge. Their money doesn’t spend as well as it once did. MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement has already inhibited spending with luxury tax penalties. The payrolls of the Yanks, Phils and BoSox increased by only 1.5 percent last offseason; the Yanks acted like paupers.
Long ago, this trio had their huge bumps in revenue from regional cable TV money and new or renovated ballparks. Now, every seat is full and every TV dollar extracted. They earned their sellouts. But you don’t get a new Yankee Stadium or create the New England Sports Network every day — or even every generation. That bonanza era has leveled off.
Meanwhile, the Marlins just got a splashy new park. Vast regional sports network dollars motivated the Angels and Rangers to make monster bids for Albert Pujols, Yu Darvish and C .J. Wilson. Prince Fielder ended up a Tiger.
More teams, including the Astros, Nats, Padres and especially the Dodgers are due for big TV money increases. Just when the old powers need to reload, the sport’s rising teams still have fresh revenue streams to expand.
The most basic reason the Yanks, Red Sox and Phils have had mundane springs can be found in the simplest location: the disabled list. The better you are, the harder you probably play. The further you advance in postseason, the more games you endure, year after year. Parades have a price.
Along the road to glory, essential joints are eventually ground down. Now, the bills come due. Or, sometimes, bad luck hits. The Yanks’ emblem, Mariano Rivera, 42, may never pitch again (knee). Michael Pineda, 23, acquired at high cost in a trade to be the Yanks’ next pitching cornerstone, is out for the year and may never throw 98 mph again (shoulder). And Joba Chamberlain demolished his ankle.
Many stars who are hurt now will return. The Red Sox will get Jacoby Ellsbury, one of seven Boston outfielders on the DL, back in the lineup. The Phils expect Chase Utley to return (date still vague) though he’ll be the 11-homer version of 2011, not the 33-dinger model of ’08.
The inevitable link between age and injury is only exacerbated by long contracts. Success in baseball forges its own anchors. Sooner or later, almost every World Series winner, hoping to keep everybody happy, signs a contract so long and so dumb that, with hindsight, you can hardly believe it.
In the Bronx, Alex Rodriguez is in his fifth straight year of offensive decline, yet is still owed $113 million through 2017. The Phils gave Ryan Howard a $125 million extension just before he blew out his Achilles’ tendon. Return date: unknown.
In Boston, ex-GM Theo Epstein, the legendary Ghostbuster of Fenway, will be remembered with mixed feelings. He’s starting fresh in Wrigley Field. But he left the contracts of Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka — with $175 million due — in his desk drawer.
For now, the Yanks and Red Sox have a common bond: starting rotations that look irredeemably mediocre, at least for 2012. With Ivan Nova (5.69 ERA) slumping in his sophomore season, the Yanks are so desperate that they begged Andy Pettitte, 39, out of retirement. Hint: That isn’t going to be enough. Anybody got Roy Oswalt’s number? Or Mike Mussina’s?
Great success sows seeds of intolerance for failure. After their historic collapse last September, the Red Sox had a witch hunt, complete with firing manager Terry Francona and leaked tales of various Bosox blithely guzzling beer and munching fried chicken in the clubhouse during defeats. As dynasties devolve, there’s a bitter period of denial. Somebody must be blamed. In East Coast baseball-crazy towns, that somebody is always found.
As a group, these three old favorites will trend toward .550 as the summer plays out. But they used to end up near .600. That’s their problem: One makes you a potential champ; the other may sneak you into the playoffs.
When baseball restructured its postseason, the goal was to reward division champions while giving wild cards a miserable trip to the World Series — starting with a crapshoot play-in game, full of excitement, but fluky.
MLB’s unspoken assumption: Give more teams a chance to taste the postseason but tilt the table so more glamour teams meet in the World Series.
Little did the sport suspect that the identity of those glamour teams was about to change. We don’t know who they are yet. But we know who they probably aren’t. The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies — getting older, not better every year — are still contenders, but probably for wild-card spots.
Which, for them, may last one day.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.