While steroids are certainly a factor, the biggest issue facing baseball has to be the "competitive balance" brought on by the lack of any notable spending controls, allowing major market teams to simply outspend everyone else. In 2006, the Yankees' payroll was more than that of the Marlins, Devil Rays, Rockies, Pirates and Royals COMBINED. There is no easy solution, but at some point, Major League Baseball will have to face the sad truth that half the teams in baseball enter the season with almost no hope of making an impact, and unlike other sports, those teams aren't cyclical.
The bigger problem likely lies in the fact that when two mid-sized market teams like Detroit and St. Louis face off in the World Series, no one tunes in. When the $200 million Yankees take on the $120 million Red Sox in the ALCS, it's a major event. Competitive balance may be important to the integrity of the sport, but when only the Yankees and Red Sox draw viewers, why wouldn't the owners want these teams facing off? Eventually, though, MLB will have to make it possible for the have-nots to get a shot, otherwise the interest level for those teams will eventually dwindle to nothing.
Boston Red Sox
The perception that baseball is endangered by competitive imbalance is a difficult one to overcome, as is the belief that the gap between the haves and have-nots is entirely the fault of the large-market big spenders such as the Yankees and Red Sox. But it's not the fault of the Yankees and Red Sox – who combined to contribute nearly $140 million in revenue sharing in 2006 — that smaller-market clubs such as the Royals, Pirates, Devil Rays and Marlins pocket their revenue sharing checks instead of investing it in the franchise. These four teams received more than $125 million in revenue sharing last season — and still ranked among the bottom five in total payroll and still finished a combined 112 games under .500.
In order for baseball to continue to grow, fans in these cities — and casual fans nationwide — must feel as if everyone has a shot to compete. The big market teams have done their part to remedy competitive imbalance. It's time for those who supposedly need the revenue boost to follow suit. And perhaps the events of this winter — when the Royals spent $55 million on Gil Meche and the Devil Rays and Pirates both invested in international free agents — is a sign these clubs have finally been shamed into trying.
Toronto Blue Jays
The most important issue in baseball today is without a doubt steroids and performance enhancement drugs. Fans are beginning to think milestones are being tainted and the league record books mean absolutely nothing. Historic images like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embracing each other during the home run chase of 1998 are now being erased from minds of fans because of the feeling that McGwire and Sosa were under performance enhancing substances during that season.
Although baseball has tried hard to add stiff penalties in the labor deal to fight this issue, their efforts were too little too late. Evidence points to front office officials both at the club and league level being aware of illegal drugs being taken in the 90's but looking the other way in order for the offense to increase and bring fans back into the game.
The biggest issue in baseball is steroids and more specifically, how they relate to Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's career homerun mark. Baseball itself isn't sure how to treat Bonds and they've been non-committal about how they will celebrate Bonds achievement should he reach the magical mark of 755.
The biggest word in baseball this summer will likely be "asterisk," as the media and fans debate Bonds pursuit. Rest assured that baseball will be searching for a smoking gun when it comes to Bonds, but even if that gun is found, how will baseball handle the record? This could be the summer when significant precedents are set for how steroids relate to baseball records.
It is impossible to accurately rank, by order of importance, what the biggest issue bugging baseball today really is. Topics like what to do when Barry Bonds breaks the all-time homerun record or steroids plaguing the game continue to be hot-button issues with fans across the nation. But, if a resolution is not reached soon, disparity between the big market teams and smaller clubs will cause a rift so wide the damage resulting from it will be devastating.
Certainly the amount of revenue a team makes can't be the only reason why some fans are left with the annual elimination of their team before the All-Star Break. Just look at the A's and the Twins. But on the other hand, changes to the CBA won't be able to solve issues that a set salary cap throughout baseball will. Until the time comes in baseball where the amount of spending by a team can be regulated, fans of the Brewers will always play second fiddle to the Packers on a Wisconsin Sunday afternoon and Royals fans will fill up the adjacent Arrowhead to watch the Chiefs instead of being tortured by the Royals.
St. Louis Cardinals
With the current labor tranquility in Major League Baseball and money flowing like never before, the biggest issue in the game of baseball is limiting access to the fans from seeing their favorite teams on television. First there were the confounding blackouts when fans spend their hard-earned cash on the MLB Extra Innings package only to find out they can't see all the games because of some archaic rules even a PhD couldn't explain – something needs to give. Next is the continuing trend to cut the number of games on free over-the-air television locally. In St. Louis, for example, there are half as many chances to see the Cardinals on local TV (21) in 2007 compared to the year before (41).
Finally, we have the proposed deal by MLB with DirecTV for exclusive rights to telecasts, which would essentially shut off access to MLB Extra Innings to millions of Dish Network and cable television subscribers from coast to coast. There is seemingly plenty of money to go around, yet it is the fan that continues to get squeezed.
Steroid use remains the most important issue in baseball -- whether or not players and owners continually ignore it. Ignorance has always been bliss in the game. Hit some homers and management ignores any and all digressions. But bat .230 and you better not take your cap off unless the manager says so. This issue will not be swept under the rug, at least according to the man who has been "put in charge" of cleaning it up:
"If nothing else, the results of the Hall of Fame voting ... and the reaction to it offer fresh evidence that this issue will not just fade away," Sen. George Mitchell told club owners in January. "Whether you think it fair or not, whether you think it justified or not, Major League Baseball has a cloud over its head, and that cloud will not just go away."
In March, it will have been two years since Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and pals appeared before Congress. That they looked and sounded more like the boot camp platoon from Stripes than American heroes is only part of the problem -- since in true Congressional spirit, not much has really been done except to talk about it anyway.
This is one area where the media can do its job. Yes, the dastardly men and women who draw the wrath of the fawning public can continue to point out the feckless foibles of these larger-than-life idols. After all, the media built them in the first place, so it is their duty to pull the plug on Frankenstein ... or at least destroy the needles.
San Francisco Giants
The most important issue is baseball is the most visible one, and specifically, how it is viewed. The steroid scandal in baseball has become a disturbing mix of misdirection and witch hunt with a focus on users instead of producers and a disturbing series of misconceptions of what steroids are, what they can do, and who is using them (More than half of the suspended players have been pitchers, not the hitters who bore the blunt of the suspicion).
Unfortunately, like a clichéd iceberg, the most important and disturbing effects are the ones no one sees. For instance, how more than half of the players who have tested positive since testing begun have been from the Dominican Republic, yet only 37 of the 169 Dominican born players have been suspended. Why? Because most who have tested positive have played in the Dominican Summer League, where labor laws prevent suspensions. The Dominican Summer League is a league filled with kids as young as 16 doing everything they can to win major league contracts in a country with a per-capita income of $2,500. No asterisk on a home run record makes up for an industry, two governments and a self-praising media corporation ignoring how a league of teenagers is plagued by steroid use, corruption and activity that borders on child abuse.
The most important issue in baseball is the disparity between the richest and poorest baseball markets. With teams like the Yankees and Red Sox finally starting to leverage their economic advantage in the foreign amateur markets, the problem has the potential to get more drastic.
While the measure taken in the recent CBA to compensate teams more appropriately for failing to sign an early draft choice will help small market teams, greater measures need to be taken. A hard salary cap is probably not the answer but an international draft similar in structure to the June amateur draft would do wonders to help ensure that the neediest teams have the most access to the top amateur talent.
The most important issue in baseball currently is the free market for players who are not US citizens. The MLB draft was created specifically so that large market teams could not hoard all of the young talent entering the league. While pre-draft bonus demands have undermined that effort somewhat, for the most part, the only way that small market teams have been able to compete over the past 35 years is due to the amateur draft system. However, with the increase in bonus payments and "posting fees" for foreign players not eligible for the draft, baseball is once again seeing a disparity between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to access to young talent.
Small market teams cannot afford to spend millions of dollars in bonus money on 16-year-old kids who have yet to compete against even US high school-level talent. And there is no way that small market teams are going to be able to keep up with a Japanese posting system in which the right to negotiate with a player runs in the tens of millions of dollars. Baseball needs to reassess its rules for non-American players who are entering the league to ensure that all teams have equal access to this talent.
The most important issue facing baseball right now is its image, and there was no bigger test of that image than the Hall of Fame voting. It was incredibly easy for the Baseball Writers to vote in Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., two players who are the poster boys for 'ambassadors for the game.' However, the name on everyone's minds (even the ones voting against him) is that of the one time single-season home run record holder, Mark McGwire.
When McGwire retired, it was a no-brainer. The soft spoken ying to Sammy Sosa's larger than life yang, McGwire was all that was right with baseball. It is no understatement to say that the same way Ripken brought baseball back from its post-strike deathbed with The Streak, McGwire and Sosa elevated it again with The Race To 62. Baseball will be faced with a choice – as early as next year. Turn its back on one half of the men who saved it, or (for the first and possibly only time) make a decision based on integrity. To enshrine McGwire is a joke; to ignore him is equally ridiculous. This will not affect baseball next year; it will affect baseball for the next two decades. If McGwire is not in, can Sosa be in? If Sosa is not, can Rafael Palmeiro? And obviously the biggest fish to fry is Barry Bonds.
There are no obvious answers here, and those who say there are obvious answers aren't looking at the game as a whole, or should we say as a business. The shadow of steroids will get larger every time Bonds juices another ball into McCovey Cove. McGwire's election, or lack thereof, will do much to shape the legacy of this great game, and baseball is nothing if not its legacy.
New York Yankees
While steroids and the lack of an international amateur draft are two important issues facing the game today, the competitive imbalance and growing apathy among the fan base of the smaller market teams are bigger and more immediate problems. While baseball enjoyed its greatest attendance year of all time, drawing 76,043,902 fans to the ballparks in 2006, the fact is the top ten teams for attendance accounted for nearly half of that number, drawing a combined 33,316,848 fans. Nine of the top ten teams in payroll ranked in the top ten in attendance, with just the Atlanta Braves not ranking in the top ten in both (they were 9th in payroll and 14th in attendance).
The smaller market teams seemingly begin the season each year with little or no chance to compete with the larger market teams and that growing sense of doom filters down to the fans. Whether or not setting a salary cap or salary floor is either realistic or impending, or perhaps realigning divisions to pit the larger market teams against themselves in the same division is the more realistic solution, either way, Major League Baseball must find a way to correct the competitive imbalance of the game to give smaller market teams a better chance of reaching the postseason.
San Diego Padres
While there are certainly a number of issues that warrant consideration, the gap between the large market teams and the small market teams is most evident on the international market. When bidding for international free agents begin, the small market teams are left dumbfounded and out in the cold.
The amplification of the posting process, shutting out the small market teams, is just a part of the problem. Even in Latin America, teams understand they cannot compete with the New York Yankees or New York Mets for star quality players. With upwards of 30 percent of the major league baseball population coming from outside the United States, the advantage of rebuilding through the draft isn't quite what it used to be. If this trend continues, small market teams will be shutout from the "competitive balance" that has been routinely uttered.