Instead of railing on about the San Francisco Giants’ refusal to go over $130 million in player payroll — even though they sold 3.4 million tickets in 2011 and appeared to be on their way to becoming THE marquee MLB franchise on the west coast until the phrase “rainy day fund” was seared into our brains — there was something that struck me last week that I can’t get out of my head.
It comes from a familiar source, Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles, someone who regularly pushes all of us blogger types to work harder, be funnier and quietly envy his talents when it comes to encapsulating everything we’re all feeling about the Giants and baseball in general. God, I hate that guy (just kidding).
Anyway, here’s the passage that got me thinking, from a post written last week after the Angels signed Albert Pujols titled “Why You Don’t Have To Be a Spoiled Brat To Be Annoyed With the Giants’ Self-Imposed Budget”:
The Angels made a calculated business decision. All day long, the Dodgers’ writers were tweeting news from a bankruptcy court. The Angels announced they acquired one of the best hitters ever. The juxtaposition is stunning, and it was mostly intentional. The Angels are trying to become a thing, a presence. They’re trying to own Southern California. They’ll never have the same baseball gravitas that the Dodgers’ franchise does, but they don’t have a problem trying.
The Giants made a calculated business decision, too. They saw a wave pop up after the World Series victory, and they’re going to ride that baby for as long as possible. Tickets will still be in short supply. Season-ticket prices will still go up. Money will still come in. What’s the problem? There’s no need to fritter it away for an extra couple of wins here and there.
The Giants own Northern California these days, buoyed by a World Series win that wasn’t much more than a happy accident. They didn’t think going into 2010: “This is the year we finally bring one home to San Francisco.” They went into that season like almost every other season since Brian Sabean became the general manager, thinking that they had a team good enough to compete in the NL West. Then they got lucky. They stopped pretending Buster Posey wasn’t ready to catch in the bigs before it was too late. Momentum built in August and September of 2010, almost despite the team’s best intentions. Jose Guillen was the big post-deadline acquisition, and he became several fans’ least favorite player over less than half a season (before Guillen was dismissed after accepting a shipment of HGH). Cody Ross wasn’t even supposed to be on the team, but the Marlins were a tad more frugal back then and said, “Fine, you pay him.”
The World Series provided a massive windfall of fan support and cash. Now many Giants fans are annoyed because they were told by everyone how much of an effect their support had in 2010. And with the increase in support, they thought the Giants would respond in kind with corresponding boosts in player payroll and all the other stuff Bill Neukom wanted to spend money on until he was shown the door.
The fans thought a championship would bring enough pressure to force the Giants to do things differently — that they’d finally decide to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies (or this year, the Angels and Marlins) for the top free agents and turn AT&T Park into Fenway West. However, the Red Sox have the Yankees to contend with. All of the rivalries the Giants enjoy with their NL West opponents are on a downward trend in terms of intensity. And who are the Giants fighting for the Bay Area’s disposable income?
The Oakland A’s.
Back when the Giants were the A’s…
After the investment group headed by Peter Magowan bought the franchise and kept the team from moving to Tampa, they made their biggest free agent splash up to that point (and ever since), signing Barry Bonds to a 6-year, $43.75 million contract.
To say the MLB landscape was different back then would be similar to proclaiming that Bonds was one of the better left fielders in Giants history. In 1992, the Giants drew 1,560,998 fans and their player payroll was an estimated $33,163,168. The Athletics drew 2,494,160 fans in 1992 and had a payroll of $41,035,000. The A’s were one of five teams with a payroll over $40 million that year, and none of those other four teams included the Yankees (who paid their players a combined $37,652,334). The team with the highest payroll in ’92: the Toronto Blue Jays, who drew over 4 million fans.
The Giants were the second-class citizens in their region in 1992, as the A’s had the better team in every measurable way. Also, Oakland’s stadium was more aesthetically pleasing, in a more convenient location and featured the better fan experience.
So the Giants’ owners worked their asses off. They gave Candlestick a minor facelift, installing bleachers and a real fence in the outfield, replacing the awful Harry M. Stevens concession stands with food choices that were actually edible, and even splashing a little bit of paint on strategic locations. At the same time they were working tirelessly to build a new ballpark, even going to the almost unheard of length of privately financing the place.
In the meantime, the Athletics’ home was altered in a way that removed all of its existing charm, and with the Giants’ territorial rights in San Jose holding the A’s hostage, they’ve been in a holding pattern for years. As a result, the Giants have been able to coast not just since November 1, 2010, but for over a decade. If the Giants have a winning record and at least threaten to contend for the postseason, the AT&T vs. o.Co comparison leads almost every non-diehard to attend Giants games if given the option.
Let’s go Oakland (or San Jose)!
A lot of Giants fans are like their favorite team’s ownership group — they’d be happy if the A’s were either contracted or left the area entirely. But that would ultimately prove disastrous to the Giants’ on-field fortunes. As the only game in town, the Giants might not sink so far as to become the Royals or the Pirates, but they’d have no real motivation to do anything other than the least amount possible to keep the team profitable.
If the A’s get a new ballpark, their increased revenue stream would force the Giants to react in kind if the Athletics made an Angels-like move (like signing a high-profile free agent for the first time in several years). Sure, now it seems like the Giants are entrenched as the region’s preeminent team. But most sports fans are fickle, and existing sports fans keep on procreating and making new ones — impressionable young fans who might be swayed to root for a good American League team in a newer, warmer ballpark.
Two healthy MLB franchises in the region would keep prices from skyrocketing on the Giants’ side (since they’d no longer be selling a unique product: games in a luxurious facility). It would also force the Giants to stop taking their current situation (extreme profits, minimal competition, loyal fans willing to overextend themselves to attend games in a way the Giants are unwilling to do to provide a league-average offense) for granted.
It’s clear how Athletics fans would benefit if MLB ever made a decision on their fate in regards to San Jose and the Giants’ territorial rights. But in this two-team market, Giants fans would benefit from some clarity in the matter as well, especially if it leads to a more equal playing field.