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A poisoned playing field

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist, 12/13/2000

ou can't buy a World Series any more than you can buy the White House. Precisely because the prize is so singular, it cannot be so easily claimed.

Big money can distort the race on the playing field and on the campaign trail, but it can't protect an athlete from a torn hamstring any more than it can warn a candidate about the butterfly ballot. In sports, as in politics, it is the unanticipated development that keeps us hooked on the game.

The prospect of capturing its first world championship since 1918 sent Red Sox Nation into paroxysms of glee yesterday at the signing of Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal. That's the most expensive player contract in Red Sox history and the second largest in the major leagues. Coincidentally, that's about the same amount of money that Texas Governor George W. Bush spent on his campaign for the presidency, itself the most expensive (and inconclusive) in American history.

The mentality of owners of sports teams and candidates for high office is not so different: spend big, sit back, and wait to reap the reward. The prophets of sports radio have proclaimed the Ramirez deal a sound investment for the Red Sox, who have been outbid for free agents repeatedly by the deep pockets of the deeply reviled New York Yankees. George Steinbrenner has been buying the World Series title for years, goes the conventional wisdom; now it's our turn.

But the Red Sox and the team's cheerleaders would do well to study Campaign 2000 as a cautionary tale. Money did not ensure Bush the ultimate victory he and his corporate sponsors thought they were buying; it only guaranteed an uneven playing field during those candidate-winnowing primaries. His money was able to bury Arizona Senator John McCain, but it bought Bush no more than an Election Day draw with Vice President Al Gore.

The Ramirez deal comes only months after the Red Sox persuaded Beacon Hill and Boston City Hall to provide millions of dollars to subsidize the construction of a new Fenway Park. It comes only weeks after the organization put the team up for sale. It comes only days after the Red Sox hiked ticket prices so high that a moderately sized family with a moderate income will not be able to afford a trip to the ballpark.

These subsidies from the taxpayers and the fans are necessary, the club insists, to keep the Red Sox ''competitive.'' But baseball, like politics, is no longer about genuine competition. It's about the rich mowing down the opposition with money, money, and more money. On the same day that the Red Sox lined up Ramirez, the Texas Rangers (once owned in part by George W. Bush) agreed to pay Alex Rodriguez $252 million over 10 years, the richest contract in sports history. Bob Hohler of the Globe reports that the $25.2 million the Texas Rangers will pay Rodriquez every year is more than the Kansas City Royals, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Minnesota Twins this year paid their entire teams.

That's competition? A fair fight? A level playing field?

Owners of baseball teams, like candidates for high office, argue that they pay what the market will bear, what they have to pay in order to win. But such outsized salaries as those offered this week to Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriquez corrupt the game in the same way that soft money corrupts the political process.

You can't buy a World Series any more than you can buy the White House. But you can use your money to block access to the playing field to those with fewer resources. (Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Bradley?) The vice president of Major League Baseball has described the gulf between the league's richest and poorest teams as ''beyond alarming.'' Where exactly is the joy in Mudville if exploiting that disparity is what it takes to win?

Eileen McNamara's e-mail address is mcnamara@globe.com.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 12/13/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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