Luxury tax not working

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

You can pick at the scabs of this Blue Jays season all you want, but no amount of introspection will solve the real dilemma that keeps this team perennially out of the playoffs.

The true concern has nothing to do with the John Gibbons' propensity to get in his players' faces. It has nothing to do with the offence or the defence or the bullpen or anything else related to actual baseball issues.

To take it even further, what ails the Blue Jays is not just Toronto's problem, but baseball's problem.

The Jays jacked up their payroll by nearly 40% this year, from $50 million US to more than $71 million. It was a big step up for this team's ownership, which has lost a ton of money over the years. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of competitive balance within the American League East, that increased spending by Toronto is only a drop in the bucket.

PUNITIVE MUZZLE

This is a division in which the two biggest spenders in baseball -- the Yankees and the Red Sox -- reside and, until Major League Baseball is able to figure out a way to put a punitive muzzle on the free-spending ways of those two rich franchises, the other teams that exist in the AL East have no real possibility of rewarding or growing their fan base. And any team that has no way of rewarding its fans, even occasionally, is courting disaster.

Since 1994, when baseball split up into three divisions (creating a playoff structure of three division champs and one wild-card), the Yankees have made the playoffs every year for the past 11. Nine times they have won the AL East and twice they have made it as the wild card.

In that same 11-year span, the Red Sox have made the playoffs six times -- five as the wild card, once as division champ.

During that period, no team has come even close to spending as much as the Yankees on an annual basis.

Teams in the AL Central and Western divisions at least have the opportunity to compete, more or less, against teams in their own economic strata for the division titles. That's how teams such as the Angels, the A's, the Twins and the White Sox have been able to create some excitement in their own markets by making the playoffs.

In the cases of the White Sox and Angels, they've even been able to win a World Series.

Occasionally, as it looks like it might this year, one of the also-rans from those divisions even gets a shot at the wild-card.

In baseball's 2002 labour agreement, a luxury tax was instituted to penalize teams whose player payrolls exceeded a defined threshold. For the 2006 season, the Yankees, with a payroll of about $200 million, will pay a tax calculated at 40% of their total player salaries that exceed $136.5 million.

It didn't even make the Yankees blink. They earn revenues in excess of $300 million a year and that doesn't even include all the money they earn from their local TV package, reputed to be the best in baseball.

Yes, it's complicated, but all you need to understand is that, whatever the penalty is, it's not large enough to deter the Yankees from spending whatever it takes to not only put the best team on the field, but to fill in the mid-season gaps when players are injured or fail to produce.

What it all boils down to is that baseball needs a hard salary cap and it needs to share more of its revenue if it wants to build and maintain a healthy competitive balance.

The Jays have a decent team and a lot of folks wonder why more fans don't show up. Well, it's simple. Fans aren't stupid. How can you make an investment, both emotional and financial, in a team that begins every season with only a vague chance?

Last year's NHL labour impasse was a wrenching ordeal for everybody involved. But, in the long run, there are indications that the entire game will be healthier and more stable as a result.

In the NFL, where many revenues are shared equally, the small centres such as Green Bay and Minneapolis, can compete on a level playing field.

When their teams fail, fans in every NFL city and every NHL city can legitimately criticize their team's management, coaching and talent evaluation and hope that things get better next year.

In baseball, and especially in places like Toronto, the playing field is so badly tilted that it's not even a real issue.

It's baseball's obligation to make it an issue.


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