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Baseball writes new script from ‘To Have and Have Not’

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In 1944, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred in their first film together. To Have and Have Not had nothing to do with baseball, but it is a fitting title for the current structure of Major League Baseball.

Baseball is broken down into the “haves” and the “have nots.” The big-market teams will mostly be buyers this week. These are the haves.

The smaller-market teams will mostly be sellers. These are the have nots.

This week is the clearest demonstration of the inequities of the sport. Friday is the trading deadline. Until then, teams can make trades with other teams at their pleasure. After that, it is much more difficult.

Rays fans know all too well about the trading deadline. Last year at this time, David Price was saying good bye to Tampa Bay and hello to his new team in Detroit.

There is no way then-VP Andrew Friedman and Stuart Sternberg wanted to trade Price, but there was also no way they were going to be able to afford to pay him.

The haves hold the cards. With broadcast rights in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge market for souvenirs and season tickets, they can pay their own players as well as add others this week without shedding salary. The have nots have fewer millions.

A case in point came on Sunday when the small-market Cincinnati Reds dealt one of the top five pitchers in baseball because they could not pay him market value. The Reds sent Johnny Cueto, in the last year of his contract, to Kansas City for three young pitchers. They can only hope there is payback down the road.

Occasionally the have nots can do all the right things in drafting and developing players to become a contender. They can seldom afford to stay there.

Market dynamics normally force have nots to trade their stars for young, hungry players seeking to eventually earn a big contract their current club cannot afford. Not that there’s anything wrong with capitalism in action.

On occasion, the club will make a large commitment to a star player or two. One way of doing so is by offer long-term contracts light in the early years and more expensive in later years. Paying players $20 million when they are 40 years old isn’t recommended, but sometimes the only way.

Kansas City is a have not enjoying current success. They built their club from within and successful trades for non-marquee players like Madison County, Fla.’s Lorenzo Cain. Now that they have a legitimate chance to win a World Series, they went after Cueto, understanding they will not likely be able to keep him any longer than late October.

Frustrated fans point to the NFL and, to a lesser extent, the NBA and NHL as examples of competitive balance. The NFL is the gold standard. The league shares all revenue and has a solid salary cap, meaning all teams are on par.

There is no market in all of major sports smaller than Green Bay, Wis., but they are far from a have not. They do not peddle star players during free agency. They just keep on winning.

Baseball needs such revenue sharing, but the players union – and the haves – will not let that happen anytime soon. Sure, they compensate the have nots with a smaller version of revenue sharing, but nothing like the NFL.

The haves like to say the system works by pointing to the success of have nots reaching or winning the World Series in recent years. They trot out Detroit, St. Louis, Colorado, Kansas City and yes, Tampa Bay.

Oh, please. Kansas City is the current small-market hero, while St. Louis is a single franchise that has developed a culture of winning that is almost Yankee-esque. Everyone else is up and down, knowing there are years they will never compete for a title.

Would it not be fun to see a good organization like the Rays have as many resources as any of the haves? If that would ever happen, baseball could regain some of its lost popularity and we could get a stadium.

In the meantime, the have nots must do everything to help themselves. A ballpark that would dramatically enhance the Rays’ bottom line would go a long way toward making a difference in keeping a player like David Price in the future. Then, once we get it, have more people show up.

Here is some good news. David Price is returning to the Trop to pitch this week. The bad news is he will be wearing a visitor’s uniform.

Unless Detroit trades him this week.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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