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Rays' playoff hopes hang in the balance

By JOHN ROMANO
Published March 17, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - In the spring, everyone is looking for something. Maybe it's a starting pitcher. Perhaps it's a left-handed bat.

Around these parts, we're not quite so concise. As far as we're concerned, a little more faith would be just fine. A bit of hope would be even better.

So what do you say, Bud?

Got anything for us?

At this point in their development, the best the Devil Rays can hope for is a loving glance from the office of the commissioner. An indication that baseball's grand pooh-bah has not forgotten them.

By now, the Rays front office has found a good number of prospects. It even, for a change, has had money to spend.

What the team lacks is a level playing field. What Tampa Bay desires is for baseball to return to a balanced schedule.

In short, the Rays need Bud Selig to be a man of his word.

A few years back, the commissioner was crying to Congress about an urgent need for competitive balance in baseball. He was sending emissaries to newspapers around the country to plead his case. He was challenging the players association to recognize revenue disparities were ruining the game.

Competitive balance was supposed to be the commissioner's greatest challenge and most important initiative.

Yet he pushed for an unbalanced schedule that is a complete contradiction to competitive balance and potentially makes life miserable for the Rays.

In case you hadn't noticed, baseball changed the way schedules were drawn up before the 2001 season. Instead of playing an equal number of games against each team in the league - what is known as a balanced schedule - plans were made to play a disproportionate number of games against division opponents.

The result? About one out of every four games played by the Rays is against the Yankees or Red Sox. In other words, the Rays are fighting out of their weight class for a good portion of the season.

"Basically," managing general partner Vince Naimoli said, "a balanced schedule would be more favorable to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays."

This is not the Rays whining. This is not a team looking for special favors. Naimoli insisted on playing in the AL East when Tampa Bay was being awarded an expansion franchise and he's living with that decision.

So, yes, it is Tampa Bay's responsibility to beat Boston and New York if it wants to be a division champ. That's not the issue.

The problem is the Rays are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for the wild card. Because the Rays play almost half their games against AL East teams, they have a more difficult schedule than a team from the AL Central or AL West. Thus, they are unfairly handicapped.

Consider this example:

Last season, the Rays played their 76 division games against opponents with payrolls between $61-million and $180-million. The White Sox played theirs against opponents with payrolls between $48-million and $65-million.

Now, who would you rather be? I'm not suggesting the Rays would be instant contenders in another division, but don't you think they would have a better shot at .500 this season if they had Chicago's schedule?

You can say these things are cyclical. You can point out, in fact, the Rays had a better record against the East than the other divisions last season.

But there is a larger issue. Selig himself has argued a larger payroll is more likely to produce a winning team. And Boston and New York always will be among the game's largest spenders.

"Our job is to beat everybody. So we're not giving in to our division, to the Red Sox or the Yankees," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "But we want to give our fans the best opportunity to see a playoff-contending club. I think a balanced schedule, not only in the Devil Rays' case but a lot of teams, would help. For that reason, I think it's worth looking at."

Don't misunderstand. There are advantages to the unbalanced schedule. It cuts down a little on travel. It increases the stakes within divisions and creates more rivalries. It also makes schedules easier to draw up.

But are those reasons so legitimate that they're worth perpetuating baseball's competitive balance problem?

If Selig is truly concerned about competitive balance, this is his best mechanism for change.

Additional revenue sharing or a salary cap would be fiercely challenged by the players association. A realignment of the divisions based on revenue streams would not be approved by owners.

That leaves the balanced schedule. It's not like it's a radical idea. The AL used a balanced schedule from 1977 to 2000. The NL had it from 1993 to 2000.

It's not even an issue the players association would fight with any gusto.

"You hear a lot of people who like it and some who would rather not do it. We're too soon into the experiment with unbalanced play to make any decisions," players association chief Don Fehr said.

"The thing we hear the most - this is not to suggest we hear a lot of complaints in this regard - is unbalanced schedules mean the wild card is determined by clubs that don't play the same schedule."

The commissioner says he cares about the weaker links. He says fans in every city should begin the spring with feelings of hope or faith.

If that is true, he should do something about it.

It's a question of balance.

[Last modified March 17, 2004, 01:20:38]


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