If you're reading this, you probably hate the New York Yankees. As a "hate map" generated by Reddit users earlier this month showed, baseball fans all over the country despise the pinstriped 27-time World Series champs. Sometimes it has to do with the Yankees beating them (sometimes, in the case of the Red Sox, beating them over and over again), but the most common complain against the Evil Empire is that they buy their way into the postseason. Basically, the Yankees are like a 16-year-old driving a new luxury car that Dad bought him and lecturing you on personal responsibility.
The American League division leaders this season, on the other hand, are more like a feculent pub crawler using a '98 Dodge Neon as an ad-lib crash pad. When normally lousy teams like the Kansas City Royals or the Oakland Athletics are able to best a team like the Yankees, most of the country seems to smile in unison. Everyone was rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year against the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs, because it's much more fun to root for the lovable small-market underdog. This year, at least one team from the bottom rungs of the payroll ladder will make the postseason, and they'll probably attract fans who are sick of the frontrunners, the teams like the Yankees who use their massive payrolls to lure stars from more deserving teams and build a wicked baseball hegemony that tricks ignorant bandwagon fans into rooting for them.
But why shouldn't those fans root for the Yankees? They typically have the best players. They have the most championships. The most wins. Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio. How is a guy in Montana who likes watching the best players in the game a "bandwagoner" or whatever you want to call it for liking the Yankees? And could you blame our hypothetical Treasure Stater? New York is almost always an exciting team, thanks to the money they spend on players.
But you can't really blame the Yankees for their perch at the top of the MLB payroll rankings. The team pulls in $300 million in revenue or so a year—they'd be slashed to pinstriped ribbons if they didn't spend the most. Instead of complaining about all the attention lavished on the Yankees, people would be complaining about their owners being tightwads.
Teams in smaller markets, like the Royals, the Colorado Rockies, and the A's, tend to complain that they can't compete with the Yankees because they don't have the money. Sometimes, they provide numbers that state their cases,but fans don't easily forget that owners are normally sitting quite comfortably on billions in assets.
Still, franchises take a perverse pride in not spending money and being seen as a scrappy bunch of overachievers. A team like the St. Louis Cardinals can boast about not being in the top ten in payroll— they were 11th in 2013—and deride the Los Angeles Dodgers for being spoiled and wasteful. The Dodgers and the Yankees can afford to make mistakes and take on bad contracts, their critics say.
The storyline St. Louisians pieced together for last year's NLCS made plenty of sense. The Dodgers spent their way to the playoffs while the Cardinals earned it through guile and thrift. The Cardinals Way! The silver-spoon Hollywood boys came to town and were shown a thing or two about hard work and virtue! After all, the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in the series, so they must have a world-class front office.
But while the Dodgers spent a lot of money on payroll, they did so while operating at a loss—the owners did what all fans say they want by going after the players they wanted regardless of the bottom line. Meanwhile, according to Forbes St. Louis's spendthrift ways earned them a $65 million profit. The Cardinals could have spent the way the Dodgers did, but they opted for financial prudence, a.k.a. cheapness, instead. On paper it sure looks like the Dodgers ownership is more invested in winning.
Spending the money to become a super franchise like the Dodgers or Yankees (who also operate at a loss) requires a willingness to breach informal restrictions—tax ceilings like the luxury tax and international spending limitations, to name two. The penalties for defying these rules might seem like slaps on the wrist, since the money doesn't mean that much to the owners, but the fees they pay go straight to their competition, thanks to the ever-mutating collective bargaining agreement. It's far from a perfect system, but the behavior of teams like the Yankees and Dodgers is pretty normal in relation to their financial environments. They burn a lot of money by spending the way they do, and even bottomless resources don't guarantee on-field success. In any case, can you imagine if the teams in the MLB's biggest markets spent like the Royals? They'd be screamed at endlessly for hoarding profits, and deservedly so.
They're damned if they spend and damned if they don't. At least with the former, the team is usually fun to watch.
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