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SPORTS WATCH : Strawberry Statement

The public has grown accustomed to astronomical baseball salaries, but it has never seen anything like the dizzying escalation of recent days. The San Francisco Giants have shelled out $33 million for three free agents, the Boston Red Sox are paying more than $6 million to a pitcher who lost 18 games last year, and some journeymen have become millionaires.

Some of baseball’s stronger franchises can play mega-bucks for now, but others have built in an expectation of future winning that cannot possibly be matched by reality. Teams eternally wait until next year and spend freely for it, but not all can be financial winners, and there will be only one champion come next October. For those that don’t perform or draw well, or that languish in weak TV markets, ticket prices inevitably go up to meet the payroll. The role of TV revenue is a question mark: CBS is asking for money back after a disappointing year, and the move to pay channels risks disenfranchising fans who can’t pay.

One measure of how expensive things have become is that Mark Langston, the Angel’s $16-million pitcher, this year has fallen to 14th on the Associated Press’ list of highest-paid players (Darryl Strawberry, the new Dodger, is second.) But the Angels, the soul of prudence in the winter meetings’ spending spree, already have announced higher ticket and parking prices.

All this makes us uneasy. For baseball’s long-term future, you have to wonder if down the road there won’t be an inverse relationship between player salaries and fan access. That would be sad, indeed.

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