When the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals take the field at Fenway Park for Game 1 of the World Series in Boston tonight, it will already feel like a victory, in many ways.
For one, it’s a victory for the regular season: the Sox-Cards matchup marks the first time since 1999 that teams with the best records in both the American and National leagues have made it to the World Series together. Both teams are recently familiar with the postseason as well: It’s Boston’s third trip to the Series since 2004, and the Cardinals’ fourth.
It’s a victory for facial hair: Playoff beards are nothing new, but this Red Sox team has taken it to a thistly new level, letting their playoff beards grow to lengths not seen this side of a Daytona Bike Week and encouraging all sections of the Boston fan base to get in on the bearded action (Really, all of them.)
And it may seem, on its surface, like a victory for financial parity. The MLB is a league synonymous with overblown salaries and fiscal inequity among ball clubs. Embattled Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, for instance, made more money this past season than the entire Houston Astros roster. But this World Series doesn’t feature a single player earning one of the top 25 salaries in the league.
Coupled with some of the high-priced, high-profile free agent busts in recent years, that can be sobering for fans of teams with penchants for shelling out big bucks for the Rodriguezes, Prince Fielders, and Albert Pujolses of the world. “Baseball is a sport where it’s really hard for one player to dominate, and there’s no position even like a quarterback [in football] who can be involved in every play of the game,” says Bruce Johnson, an economics professor who specializes in the economics of sports at Centre College in Danville, Ky. “So you need a lot of strength distributed around the roster,” which both Series teams have done well.
Of course, St. Louis and Boston aren’t exactly paupers among MLB franchises. The Red Sox have the fourth-highest payroll in the league, and the Cardinals have the 11th-highest. And the gulf between the richest and poorest teams in baseball is impossibly wide. Unlike the NBA and the NFL, there is no hard salary cap in the Majors, but a luxury tax for teams that go over a certain size payroll ($178 million in 2013). There’s also no salary floor, meaning a team could, in theory, stock a roster entirely of players making the mandated league minimum.
“There is, indeed, a huge economic divide in MLB,” according to Stephen Walters, an economist who has worked as a consultant for the front offices of MLB teams including the Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles. “Talent flows to the big markets because it’s more valuable there,” in the form of ticket sales, concessions, and TV revenue.
In the long run, it’s easier to be good consistently if you have a lot of money,” Mr. Johnson adds. Over 10 or 20 years, teams that have consistently the highest payrolls will have better-than-average win percentages.
But he points out that year over year, and especially this season, parity in baseball is alive and well. Three of the five teams with the lowest payrolls in the Majors – the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Tampa Bay Rays, and The Oakland A’s – all made the playoffs this year. And several teams with some of the highest payrolls, like the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Francisco Giants, and even those World Series regulars the New York Yankees missed the postseason.
And the smaller teams had to take a different tack to find the postseason than the big guys, namely building through their farm systems and sniffing out young, underrated talent. “Smaller market teams have to rely to a much greater extent on younger, pre-arbitration and early-arbitration players, who are paid far less than more senior (free agent-eligible) guys,“ Mr. Walters writes via e-mail. If you do that, as Tampa and Oakland have shown, you can regularly contend on “modest” payrolls. Each of those teams spent about $62 million this past season.
The Red Sox and the Cardinals, though willing to spend, have also succeeded in this route (particularly the Cardinals, with a storied farm system that dates back to the 1930s.) And they got a little help along the way, from some of those top-paid free agents. “St. Louis made a gutsy call when the Pujols bidding got too rich, and they’ve been vindicated. Boston did, in fact, overbid for several players in recent years, but the Dodgers bailed them out of a couple of those poor decisions,” Walters says.