For a week this month I was a stranger in a strange land. Even though I'm a bit of a baseball nerd and a sick Rotisserie player, my business is football. I'd written all of two baseball stories in my 15 years at SI, but this year the magazine assigned me to preview the American League East. As I crisscrossed Florida, I was struck by a few ways in which baseball has football beat.
?During training camp you can actually see games played. I saw Ken Griffey Jr. face Pedro Martinez on one day and Roy Halladay on another. I realize NFL teams can't have full-scale games in camp, but they'd be smart to give fans a daily 10-play, first-unit offense versus first-unit defense scrimmage.
? MLB spring training is nice and laid-back, giving players much more time than NFL guys to sit around and talk. Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe and I chatted for 45 minutes, mostly about fantasy football and his beloved Lions.
?The scale of baseball camps is much more intimate. When Yankees manager Joe Torre watched starter Jon Lieber test his sore groin in a batting practice session on a back field two weeks ago, fans in the bleachers 20 feet away got nearly as good a view.
Those things make a difference. But are they as important as the ways in which football beats baseball? Consider:
?On the topic that has dominated spring training discourse—steroids—baseball's policy is not just inferior, it's dangerous. In baseball you receive a 15-day suspension when you test positive a second time. Meanwhile, the first positive in football brings a four-game suspension with no pay. I actually believe football may go too far—some of its banned substances can be bought over the counter—but I understand why the policy is so strict: A former offensive lineman, Gene Upshaw, is running the players' union. Upshaw knows it's unfair and unsafe to ask a man whose interests he is supposed to be protecting to line up across from a guy on steroids.
?As I toured the Florida camps I found a stupefying resignation to the gross salary inequities of baseball—and the resulting competitive imbalance. True, the Marlins won the World Series with the 21st largest payroll in the game: $54 million. But the other three teams in the League Championship Series all spent at least $25 million more than Florida. I kept asking executives at spring training, Why don't you fight to have a system like football's, in which tiny Green Bay and big, bad New York both will have salary and bonus revenue capped at $80.6 million this year? As one front-office type told me, "We will never approach parity, because to do that you'd have to convince George Steinbrenner to lower the value of his franchise." Besides, I know baseball union members are more cohesive than the Teamsters, and they will never agree to a salary cap.
As a result, there is no real hope for the Devil Rays or Pirates or Brewers to contend this year—or two or three years down the road. In football, teams go from the bottom of the pack to the playoff picture every season. It happened this year with Dallas (from 5-11 to 10-6) and Cincinnati (2-14 to 8-8). But can the Devil Rays, with their $25 million payroll, expect to be competitive when they face the Yankees, and their $185 million payroll, 19 times this year? I checked out both clubhouses. Along one wall in Tampa were the lockers of Yankees hurlers Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Javier Vasquez, Tom Gordon, Jose Contreras and Mariano Rivera. In St. Pete, home of the Rays, the biggest pitching name is Danys Baez, abandoned by the pitching-poor Indians last year. That's beyond unfair. That's sham competition.
While in St. Pete, I mentioned the issue to Tampa Bay G.M. Chuck LaMar. "I think we use the NFL a lot in our industry to show how good it is to have a level playing field," he said. "But though our playing field is so uneven, it's sour grapes to focus on that As Bill Par-cells says, 'Don't tell me how hard labor was. Just show me the baby.' "
Fine, but baseball won't produce that baby as long as it remains barren of ideas about how to solve its biggest problems. Maybe that's why, as wonderful as spring training is, football is now the national pastime.