Diamonds on a Budget: To Win on the Ball Field, Money Isn't Everything
You think it's easy having only $33 million available to pay your major-league ballplayers? Jim Bowden, the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, knows better.
While it's still the final stretch of this summer's pennant chase and his team remains in contention for the playoffs, Bowden's already worrying about the 2000 race. On a drizzly afternoon at Cinergy Field, on the shores of the Ohio River, the Reds are pounding the Florida Marlins. The always-frenetic Bowden watches some from his private box, but he's barking orders to an assistant about a pitcher named Mel Rojas. Currently washed out of baseball at 32, Rojas used to be a premier closer. But in the course of three years he became the baseball equivalent of Pavlov: when he pitched, hitters drooled. The guy stunk. Why on earth does Bowden want to consider offering him a job? He's got a hunch. "I think there's something wrong with his shoulder," Bowden tells his aide. "Let's get him an MRI." Just maybe Rojas needs good medical treatment and his career can be resuscitated--and Bowden can sign an ex-star for peanuts.
Through a series of wily moves, Bowden has made the Reds the surprise of the National League this year. Along with the Oakland Athletics in the American League, they're the fiscal Cinderellas of a sport that increasingly is dominated by big-market--and deep-pocketed--teams in such cities as New York, Atlanta and Cleveland. Spending a lot on players is no guarantee of winning--the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles have the highest payrolls behind the Yankees, and they're pathetic.
Yet there's no doubting a significant correlation between dollars and victories. Small-market teams like the Reds and Athletics--little engines that could--have to make do with less. Their player payrolls ($33 million and $23 million, respectively) are in the lower third of baseball's 30 teams and far below the record $85 million the Yankees spend. Together, the Yankees' top three players make more than the entire Athletics' team combined. NEWSWEEK's calculation of a team's cost per victory (graphic) highlights the disparity. How the penny-pinching Reds and Athletics prosper in a world of fat cats is an object lesson in running a business.
Through shrewd trades, gambles on old players and young ones (Bowden scouts 12-year-olds) and a dose of luck, they've put together clubs that have managed to compete. Billy Beane, the Athletics' GM, compares his own style to that of Native Americans long ago. "We have to try to take advantage of every piece of the buffalo's carcass and discard nothing," he likes to say. …