The Decline of the National League
By DARREN EVERSON
July 11, 2008; Page W1
They play the same game. They pick from the same pool of players. For some reason, though, they don't get the same results.
By just about every measure, the 16 teams in Major League Baseball's National League are inferior to the 14 in the American League. The AL has won 11 of the last 16 World Series, including three of the last four. The annual All-Star Game, to be played Tuesday, has practically become a farce: Not counting a 2002 tie, the AL has won 10 straight.
Since baseball began interleague play in 1997 -- where teams from the two leagues play a handful of regular-season games against each other -- the AL is increasingly dominating. This year has been the second-most lopsided ever, with the AL winning 59% as of Thursday afternoon.
The plight of the NL seems rooted in a chain of events that began in 1973 when the AL adopted the designated-hitter rule -- which allows for the pitchers to be replaced in the batting order by a full-time hitter who doesn't play in the field. The disparity was spurred by new ballpark construction; an unprecedented crop of young power hitters who, for various reasons, almost all fell to the AL; a series of disastrous trades and free-agent signings by NL teams; and a tradition of innovation in the AL that began in the mid-1990s with the Oakland A's.
This imbalance is no threat to baseball's viability. Attendance in the two leagues is comparable -- with, indeed, a slight edge to the NL. But it does strike at the hallowed assumption that in sports, there should be a level playing field. Plus, there's a practical concern: From 2003 forward, the league whose team wins the All-Star Game has been awarded home-field advantage for the World Series.
All this is a bitter comeuppance for fans of the National League, the elder of the two and long known as the "Senior Circuit." The National League was founded in 1876, 25 years before the AL became a serious rival. While the leagues agreed to co-exist formally in 1903, the NL maintained an air of superiority. Former NL President Chub Feeney once told a reporter, "We play the game in our league the way it was supposed to be played."
The designated-hitter rule didn't really start to change the balance of power for a decade. That's when another advantage for the AL began to kick in: an unprecedented haul of offensive talent. From 1987 to 1993, through a combination of luck, necessity and good scouting, AL teams signed a group of young players including Ken Griffey Jr., Carlos Delgado, Ivan Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, Mo Vaughn, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada. The Cleveland Indians alone picked up Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, all of whom are candidates for the Hall of Fame. It would turn out to be one of the greatest bursts of talent of all time. "That's a lot of firepower," says Pat Gillick, a former general manager with Toronto, Baltimore, Seattle and now the NL's Philadelphia Phillies.
Two of these players, Messrs. Griffey and Rodriguez, were No. 1 draft picks who fell to the American League by chance. But others came to the AL by design. Because of the DH rule, AL teams place a higher value on players who hit for power and generate runs. And since the DH only hits, AL teams aren't scared off by a player who struggles with the glove. Frank Thomas, a burly slugger who played college football before landing with the Chicago White Sox, was an undistinguished first baseman early in his career and, later on, could barely play defense at all. But by playing almost exclusively as a DH, Mr. Thomas has remained an offensive force -- hitting 65 home runs in the last two full seasons.
Just as this talent haul began, something else broke in the AL's favor: the Tax Reform Act of 1986. This act, which was aimed at simplifying the tax code, was also expected to curtail the public financing of stadiums. It limited the amount that tax-free stadium bonds could be financed by team rent payments. But the law did not make public officials any less eager to subsidize new stadiums. To accommodate the law, they just charged teams little or no rent -- making it more attractive than ever for teams to demand new parks. "It's a major economic advantage," says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College.
While 10 NL teams played in ballparks built in the 1960s and 1970s that were once the envy of baseball, there were more AL teams playing in older parks that needed replacing. In 1992, the Baltimore Orioles moved into Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which inspired a wave of retro-style, baseball-focused ballparks in downtown entertainment districts. Thanks to improved attendance, a favorable lease and the stadium's abundant luxury seating, the Orioles turned an operating profit of roughly $25 million in its first season.
Four other existing AL teams built new parks from 1989 to 1994 and three more built or renovated from 1998 to 2000. Meanwhile, no existing NL team opened a new park from 1978 to 1994.
The result was a huge financial disparity. In 1990, before the building boom, the average per-team player payroll in the two leagues was about equal. By 1998, the increasing ballpark revenue gave AL teams a $5 million edge. And the gap is growing. This season, the average AL opening-day payroll was $97 million, $14 million more than the NL average. Even without the New York Yankees, whose $209 million payroll was at least $70 million higher than any other team's, AL teams still led by $5.6 million.
The money became part of a devastating synergy. AL teams not only signed more marquee sluggers, the new parks made keeping them much easier to afford. These new parks often had smaller outfield dimensions that helped these sluggers hit more home runs -- which helped teams win more games and sell more tickets. In 1996, for instance, there were 16% more home runs hit at the Cleveland Indians' ballpark, Jacobs Field, than in the last season at its old home, Cleveland Stadium. The Indians not only sold out 455 straight games in the new park, they made it to the World Series in 1997.
Eventually, the NL caught up. Nine of its 16 teams have moved into new stadiums since 2000. But when NL teams came into their own ballpark money, another weakness appeared: Management had fallen behind the times.
In the 1990s, while other AL teams were getting rich, the Oakland A's were stuck with a bad ballpark and a low payroll. To keep the team from moving, Oakland business and political leaders recruited a pair of local developers, Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, to buy the franchise in 1995. The two men signed on, but insisted on running the team frugally. Forced to do more with less, team president Sandy Alderson, and later general manager, Billy Beane, created innovative methods for evaluating and developing players that met with wild success. Despite being one of baseball's poorest teams, the A's have won more regular-season games since 2000 than any team but the Yankees.
After suffering humiliation at the hands of the A's, richer AL teams like Toronto, Boston, Cleveland and New York began copying Oakland's techniques. Elements of the A's model helped the Red Sox win World Series titles in 2004 and 2007.
National League teams, who didn't have to compete with Oakland, largely didn't. By and large, the NL's strategy was to acquire established stars, some of whom were declining. When he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, Mr. Griffey had already given his best seasons to the AL's Seattle Mariners. He's missed a third of the Reds' games since due to injuries.
NL teams also made some of the biggest, and worst, pitching deals ever -- from the seven-year, $105 million deal the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Kevin Brown in 1998 to the eight-year, $121 million contract the Colorado Rockies gave Mike Hampton in 2000. The seven-year, $126 million deal the San Francisco Giants gave Barry Zito before last season is looking like a doozy. Mr. Zito is currently 4-12 with a 5.62 earned run average.
To be fair, baseball is cyclical. From 1963 to 1982, the NL won 19 of 20 All-Star Games and 12 of 20 World Series titles. John Schuerholz, president of the NL's Atlanta Braves, says there's no "magic dust" that gives the AL greater scouting intelligence. But for now, the record is not pretty. "I admit to that," he says.
Write to Darren Everson at firstname.lastname@example.org