NASHVILLE — Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg spoke with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times here at the Winter Meetings. And he was waxing pessimistic. Pessimistic at the fact that the Rays don’t make a lot of money or draw a lot of fans and that the cost of players keeps going up and up and it makes it hard for his baseball operations folks to make the team better.
We’ve heard this from Sternberg in the past. Many times, in fact. This time, however, he has a lot of vivid metaphors for the Rays’ plight which makes it a more entertaining read than usual. He’s not just not on a level playing field or on the same field as everyone else, he’s out in the parking lot, looking in at the field. The other teams have tanks, he has a three-speed bicycle. He’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And so on.
He’s certainly not wrong about the relative financial disadvantage at which the Rays find themselves. They don’t draw at all, even with several good on-the-field years in their recent history. And even if they did, their ballpark is not a cash register like most other teams’ ballparks are. He can’t get a new one built or get out of his current lease. The Rays do well on television but are still a year or two away from cashing in on good ratings. They get revenue sharing money, but the checks which are cut to the Rays are now far closer to Ben Zobrist money than they are to top-flight starting pitcher money.
But despite all of those challenges, my sympathy for Sternberg only goes so far. Because while he’s right that no other baseball owner would want to trade places with him, that’s a pretty damn privileged group of men to which he’s referring. Men who have, thanks to monopoly protection, taxpayer subsidies and the public’s acceptance of their maintaining opaque financials, defined what it means to be successful so comically upward that even the worst in their club is doing fantastically well.
Take the Rays, for instance. Granting — with a respectful nod to Oakland — that they’re in the worst shape of any team in baseball, they’re still profitable. Granting that the money isn’t liquid, Sternberg’s investment in the Rays back in 2004 has grown dramatically. Forbes financial numbers for baseball teams are sketchy at best, but the Rays are generally thought to clear around $8 million a year and have gone from being worth $152 million to $625 million in the decade and change Sternberg has owned them. That pales compared to what the other teams are doing, but find me an example of a bottom-performer in any other business which is still making money and seeing such dramatic appreciation in value. Baseball is a pretty sweet business to be in.
I do get that this all stinks for Rays fans. The fact that Sternberg is still making money doesn’t make it any easier for a fan to get excited come hot stove time and the Rays can’t sign any big names or extend most of their players to long term deals. It’s pretty depressing, actually. But the linked article — as so many local media profiles of the Rays plight are — is couched in terms of Sternberg’s unhappiness, not that of Rays fans. And it’s really hard to gin up sympathy for a sophisticated financial mind who knew well the challenges of buying a small market team with a bad stadium situation before he did so.
Maybe he hoped that, like a lot of other cities, the local politicians would print some money for him with a taxpayer-subsidized stadium deal. Maybe he expected that the 150-year history of professional baseball which, in large part, has been defined by vast financial inequality among clubs, would suddenly reverse itself and equitable distribution of baseball revenues would commence.
If he did hope that I guess I can see why he’d picture himself sitting on a three-speed bicycle, about to be run over by a bunch of tanks right now. But if so it sure was dumb of him to ride his bike out onto this very well-established battlefield like that.