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High-spending Yanks make MLB parity impossible

Back in July, in a column I wrote during Major League Baseball's All-Star Break, I said that the Seattle Mariners would make it to the American League Championship Series. No big prediction there, right? They had a 19-game lead in their division and were playing like champions.

But then I said that whether or not they will beat the New York Yankees remains to be seen. Who was I trying to kid? Bet against the Yankees? I must have been on crack to think they were even remotely fallible.

I know the New York media constantly talks about the Yankee mystique, but damn if it isn't true. The mystique is not something new. The Broadway play "Damn Yankees" dates back to 1955. They have 26 world championships and the next closest clubs, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia/Oakland Athletics, are tied with nine.

This club continues to find ways to win, as evidenced by this year's comeback from an 0-2 deficit against the A's, the famous Derek Jeter cutoff and flip, and Alfonso Soriano's game-winning home run Sunday night against the Mariners. But the mystique is no longer just an aura that hangs over Yankee Stadium, beckoning walk-off home runs to fall by the row of statues commemorating the heroes of the past. The modern mystique is now the money behind the operation.

Don't get me wrong, it takes great players to make clutch plays in championship situations. But baseball used to be about farming talent in the minor leagues and occasionally making strategic trades to build up your club. An arbitrator's decision on Dec. 23, 1975 changed all of that.

On that famous day in sports history, Major League Baseball became the first sports league to allow free agency for its athletes. It was a momentous day for the athletes because they could no longer be treated as indentured servants to the owners.

But the system soon began to spin out of control. By the 1978 season, the average baseball salary nearly doubled from $51,000 to $100,000.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who has owned the club since 1973, held his team together while facing the new format of free agent spending. The Yanks won consecutive titles in the first two full seasons of free agency in 1977-78. After the series win in 1978, however, managerial problems and misplaced spending in the free agent market led to a Yankee drought.

It has taken the most expensive payroll in baseball from 1996 through today to return Steinbrenner's ball club to the top. He has spent big bucks to retain the likes of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and, most importantly, manager Joe Torre. Big time money also has been used to skim the free agent market to pick up big name pitchers like Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina to solidify the staff.

There is no doubt that these are outstanding players that the Yankees have brought in, and don't be surprised if you see more - Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, or both - in pinstripes next year. The draw of a ring, along with Yankee Stadium magic and money, is too much for even the most loyal player to resist.

But this is exactly what is killing the league. Commissioner Bud Selig has not ruled out contracting the league by one or two teams - Montreal, Florida and Tampa Bay are possibilities - because these small markets can't compete with New York spending and television revenue.

You don't see these problems in the NFL because Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has done an excellent job creating parity within the league through revenue sharing and a salary cap. If you think the NFL's method doesn't work, then tell me why the Yankees/A's deciding Game 5 drew a smaller television rating than a Monday Night Football game between two winless teams, the Redskins and Cowboys.

Everyone knew the Yankees were going to win the game. Baseball has lost the sense of drama that football has reclaimed, which is sad considering this is the postseason of baseball and football is not even halfway over.

If MLB has any hopes of renewing a national interest in baseball to all-time highs, then former Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig must be removed from his place as commissioner and replaced with someone who will stand up to the owners.

NFL-like parity is the only way baseball can rekindle the magic lost in this era of free agency.