market watch

winter about to end? on the contrary, it may just be getting started, warns deadspin editor / cardinals maniac will leitch. in a piece at baseball prospectus titled "offseason of discontent," leitch writes of the stresses that have been placed this winter upon the unique bond between st louis and its baseball team:

It's not just one thing. It's a combination of all of it, the unwanted new stadium, the lack of respect for radio tradition, the sudden (and promise-breaking) penny-pinching. Suddenly, this doesn't resemble the fuzzy love of Cardinal Nation; it feels like just another team. Like a business. It is a business, of course, but when you're messing with Cardinals tradition, you're in serious danger of killing the golden goose. If the fans turn against the franchise, the Cardinals really are just another team. And that's disaster.
it's premium content and i'm not comfortable providing a longer excerpt, but you get the idea. while i don't sense that the fans are on the verge of open revolt, they have at least vented enough snark to hurt bill dewitt's feelings (per joe strauss's monday article). and i think leitch is spot-on in his suggestion that something feels different of a sudden. not a good kind of different. the cardinals have managed for the last decade to escape the orbit of have-nottism that confines other small-market teams -- kansas city, pittsburgh, cincinnati, detroit -- but that's some strong gravitational pull. and if these new rockets -- ktrs and busch iii and encarnacion and ponson and bigbie -- don't fire right away, the loss of altitude could be uncomfortable at the very least. if dewitt thinks the natives are noisy now, wait'll he hears the shrieks that ensue if the team falls, say, 6 games out in mid-june.

what might that sound like? get a load of john perricone, author of the fine giants blog Only Baseball Matters, who posted some advice for cardinal fans about two months ago:

Giants fans will tell you that the increase in a teams' revenue stream generated from a new ballpark does not translate to payroll increases. In fact, regardless of what the team says, I'd tell Cardinals fans to expect the team to spend less money (relative to expectations) over the next five to ten seasons, not more. I've been listening to Peter Magowan and Brian Sabean talk about how tough it is to make their mortgate payments almost from the minute the paint was dry on PacBell. . . .

[T]he fact that the franchise has increased in value by more than 100% since Magowan took over makes it so hard to accept the never-ending stream of mediocre players they are forcing down our throats. There is no question they could raise the payroll by at least $20 million dollars. None. I'm no accountant, but even an idiot like me knows that a franchise worth almost half a billion dollars could find $20 million in about fifty different ways.

and that's after just one losing season by the bay. the giants' payroll is very similar to the cards' (in the range of $85m), and so is their record -- since 1997 they've made four playoff appearances (vs the cards' six) and one world series appearance. but after five straight seasons of 90+ wins, they tumbled last year -- thanks to bonds' unavailability -- to 75-87. that's the new reality confronting sf fans after bonds' retirement, and they're royally pissed about it.

don't misunderstand; i'm not predicting an imminent crash for the st louis franchise. but let's not kid ourselves that the cardinals are somehow exempt from the forces that govern the sport. even if a crash isn't likely this year, over time it's a perpetual threat for this small-market team -- all the more so if the organization mismanages the vast capital its fans represent. as leitch has written before, the embrace of the base largely explains why the cardinals haven't become one of those teams that doesn't see .500 for a decade. dewitt acknowledged as much in his comments to strauss the other day. but am i the only one who thinks the owners are acting suddenly awkward in that embrace -- kinda squirmy? do any of you detect signs of distance -- the kind of distance a girlfriend evinces right before she dumps you? she still says the right things, but they ring hollow; you know something's up, but you won't know what it is for sure until she packs her suitcase.

it has been suggested on chat boards and elsewhere that what's up is an impending sale -- "impending" meaning some time in the next few years. a person whose opinion i respect, recently retired from a long career as a corporate financial advisor, thinks it's self-evident: dewitt & co are larding up with new assets (stadium, radio station) to drive up the sale price, while only spending enough on payroll to maintain appearances. the person who shared this opinion with me is not a passionate baseball fan, not simply speaking out of disappointment over the front office's unspectacular off-season; he doesn't know baseball, but he does know business. and he says these owners are proceeding exactly as he would advise them to if their objective was to cash out.

i've got some queries in circulation to a few sports economists to see if anyone else thinks the club's recent activity portends a for-sale sign. and i throw the same question out to you: sound possible? plausible? or just a conspiracy theory?

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