NEW YORK – Twenty-five years ago, this game meant something. When the New York Yankees played the Kansas City Royals, no one snickered. It wasn't The Boss' $200 Million All-Stars against David Glass' Wal-Mart Washouts. It was the two best teams in the American League engaging in series after epic series.
"It was as good as any matchup," Reggie Jackson said Wednesday. "Because both teams had the people. Without the people, there's nothing. If the Red Sox were in last place, the rivalry would go away. We don't enjoy crushing bad teams."
On Wednesday, the Yankees, who have the people, did crush the Royals, who are a pretty bad team, 12-5 at Yankee Stadium. The Royals are baseball Benadryl, the team that gets you through a cold spell. And every time they play the Yankees, it's impossible to watch the game and not wonder how two franchises can look so different.
Ultimately, the discussion comes back to money, and while that's a simplistic view to take – the Yankees' successes and the Royals' problems extend far beyond their payrolls – it's one we're going hear about plenty this year.
That's because in December the current collective-bargaining agreement expires. The owners and players' association will dance their dance and lob their salvos while another battle, secondary in nature but primary in importance, takes place: Owners, divided in their stance on the smartest revenue-sharing model, will duel for their pieces of the pie.
Franchises such as Kansas City depend on shared money. The Royals received around $50 million last season, $30 million of it from a central fund that distributes money to every team and $20 million from a Robin Hood fund that takes local revenue dollars from the top earners and allocates them to the teams with poor revenue streams.
Last year, the Yankees paid an estimated $75 million to that fund, by far the highest in baseball, and they lost money. The Royals, whose payroll was around $37 million, made money. And the bargaining talks will center around that very scenario, which looms as baseball revenue as a whole swells toward $5 billion.
"The teams that get the money should be made to spend it on the teams," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "A lot of teams complain about the Yankees. Meanwhile, they love when the Yankees come to town so they can sell every ticket they have. There's sort of a Catch-22 there."
He is right.
While a check-and-balance system is built into the agreement to prevent teams from pocketing revenue-sharing money, it looks sketchy when the Marlins, who undoubtedly will earn revenue-sharing dollars this season, enter the year with payroll a hair below $15 million. Kansas City's payroll this year is back at $47.2 million, the same it was in 2002, only the Royals are receiving far more in revenue sharing.
All of the trouble dates back to the 1990s, when the salary structure in baseball soared. Generally, the big-market teams spent big dollars and the small-market teams spent small dollars, the curd going to the playoffs and the whey shuttled to last place. While revenue sharing helped that disparity – the Marlins would not have won the 2003 World Series without it, and baseball wouldn't have six champions in six seasons, either – it also showed that sticking a thumb in a hole won't stop a dam from bursting.
"Remember," Royals manager Buddy Bell said, "the Royals were the highest in payroll for a long time."
He, too, is right.
During the Royals-Yankees battles for AL supremacy in the late '70s and early '80s, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman went dollar for dollar with George Steinbrenner. In 1985, the year the Royals won the World Series, Kansas City's $11.7 million payroll was highest in the AL West. The Yankees, at $15.4 million, were the highest in baseball, but the difference was manageable.
The disadvantage now is palpable. The Yankees can afford to make mistakes. Two of their free-agent signings in 2004, pitchers Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, made $14.6 million last season. They combined for nine wins. And the Yankees still won the AL East.
"We have to be perfect," Bell said, "and we have to do it from within."
Not perfect, necessarily, but close. Oakland, Minnesota and Cleveland, three teams with minimal local revenues, seem to get it: identify free-agent bargains and build a strong farm system. Even then, it's not fool-proof.
Yeah, life is different in New York and Kansas City. The Yankees' starting infield of Jason Giambi, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez makes $67,090,398. The Royals start Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Grudzielanek, Angel Berroa and Mark Teahen, who might as well be called the Sesame Street infield (more because their last names comprise 18 of the alphabet's 26 letters than their play, which, on occasion, looks rudimentary).
After Wednesday's 3-hour, 14-minute mercy killing ended with Shane Costa swinging through a Ron Villone pitch, the Royals retreated to their clubhouse with a loss, same as they've done 210 times the last two seasons. Bell lamented the eight walks his pitchers issued and wished he had the firepower of the Yankees' lineup. He said, "We'll get it. We'll figure it out."
During the bargaining talks, Glass will be among the leading proponents for increased revenue sharing. He advocates parity in baseball. Steinbrenner, or whoever represents the Yankees, will be against it. He's tired of giving up his money to teams that don't know how to spend it.
There is no easy answer, and that's what will make the issue as prevalent as steroids and far more divisive. The Royals want what's fair, and the Yankees want what's fair, only their definitions of the word don't jibe.
"The Royals lost, what, 100 games last year?" Jackson said.
"I like them better this year," he said. "I think they're going to win 70, maybe 75."
And Jackson said that like it was a good thing.