Sympathy for the Underdog
By Clay Andrews '13, Staff Writer
I now know what it feels like to be a Yankees fan.

Growing up in northern New England, I used to live and die with the rest of Red Sox nation. In 2003 we despaired when then-manager Grady Little left Pedro in too long in the ALCS and Aaron Boone eventually took Wakefield deep in the 12th. In 2004 we rejoiced when base runner Dave Roberts swiped second by a hair ultimately leading to the greatest series comeback in sports’ history and the Red Sox’s first World Series victory since 1918.

Now is different, though. Sure there are still ups and downs. Over the first 20-odd games of the season Red Sox nation has already experienced a mass panic as the Sox were swept in their first two series of the season and collective euphoria in light of the recent five-game winning streak. But the feeling is different.

Since the early 2000s the Yankees were always the team with the money. They have had the highest payroll in baseball since 1999 and more than 15 million dollars higher than the next closest team since 2003. That’s what made beating them feel so great. It was whoever was playing them against the best money could buy. No matter the standings, you were always the underdog.

The Yankees still have the highest payroll in baseball, but they aren’t alone in their status as hated big-spender anymore. A handful of teams have been spending more in the offseason in order to improve their teams, including the Red Sox. Just this winter the Red Sox went out and got two of the best players in baseball, signing outfielder Carl Crawford to a deal worth $142 million and trading for and eventually signing first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a deal worth $154 million dollars. Meanwhile the Yankees were relatively frugal in bringing in outside talent, failing to sign superstar pitcher Cliff Lee.

So as the Red Sox win, I am split. On one hand it is great to have a talented team and owners and management committed to winning. But it feels like we just joined an exclusive club, whose members we have spent the last 10 years despising. Before, we could always say that any splurge was necessary in order to keep competitive with the evil Yankees. Not anymore.

Bringing in Crawford and Gonzalez was too bold, too Yankee-like a move to rationalize. There will always be a twinge of guilt now when we win, especially against teams like the Rays. The Rays have the second lowest payroll in baseball and were unable to retain many of their talented players this winter as they were outbid by teams with more money.

A line has been drawn in the NBA, too, despite the league’s soft salary cap. After LeBron James’ decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, it has become clear that there are big market teams where players want to be and owners are willing to break the bank and small market teams that have to rely on homegrown talent rather than outside help.

This divide in both baseball and basketball, the sports that don’t have hard salary caps, creates a dynamic where favorites and underdogs are dictated by the team’s payroll or status rather than record. It’s a dynamic that already exists in college sports, where the universities with the most resources and prestige dominate.

So what does this mean for us fans? The result is polarizing, which could mean less competition. The regular season would simply confirm that the same handful of teams who spend the most money are in the playoffs. This could be a system that is creating underdogs that are finding it harder and harder to compete. Like the Rays showed over the last couple years, it takes a perfect storm of young talent and cheap revitalized veterans for a low-budget or low-profile team to compete with the big dogs. And tragically, that perfect storm can only last a couple years until rookie contracts expire and most of the talented players are scooped up by those with money.

This phenomenon has to make it nearly impossible to be a fan for that team. How frustrating would it be to root for a team that is either awful or destined to be picked apart? With talk of contraction and moving franchises in both leagues, it seems that the real problem is not the lack of fan support in given areas, but rather the salary system that creates this competitive divide.

A prime supporting example is the NFL, or the NHL. In professional football and hockey there are hard salary caps that stop this divide from forming. As a result, the turnover of playoff teams is greater and fans can feel greater security in their favorite players. Every city with a team can feel like it has a fighting shot, where in the MLB and NBA there are some that know the bitter truth.

As a fan of a team that has the money to do what it wants, I still hope to see a more competitive league where I don’t feel like every game is bought and sold. I’m a sucker for the underdog, and without a fair system in place, the underdogs have no chance.

Issue 24, Submitted 2011-04-27 03:19:15