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Going for Broke

The Dodgers’ big-money push for marquee players might pay off, but it doesn’t always

Author Tim Marchman Illustration Martin O’Neill

thefan

When a consortium of deep-pocketed investors fronted by Magic Johnson bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion last spring, L.A. fans felt their quarter-century drought of a World Series berth might finally come to an end.

The team’s new owners went on a spending spree, snatching up every available bold-faced name on the market. As team president Stan Kasten told me earlier this year by way of explanation, “Ownership wanted to turn the dial all the way to the right.” I half expected him to pull out a guitar amplifier that went to 11. If he’d had one on hand, it would have made for a fitting symbol of what seemed to be the team’s new philosophy, which might reasonably be termed “celebrity baseball.”

But well into the month of June, it looked bleak for the star-studded Dodgers as the team floundered with a losing record. Of their new glitzy recruits, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Zack Greinke had spent considerable time on the disabled list. Josh Beckett was headed for season-ending surgery, and slugger Adrian Gonzalez was OK at best.

Then Ramirez and Greinke came back from injury and re-found their former greatness, Gonzalez became more consistent with his power stroke and the team entered the All Star break in a battle for first place of the National League West. By the end of July, Crawford was back to form, too.

The team owners’ strategy of throwing wads of cash at marquee players and telling them to have at it might still pay off, but history shows it often doesn’t.

Think of the L.A. Lakers of the late 1960s, who somehow contrived not to win a championship despite having mega-names like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on their roster. Or the Galácticos, the famed Real Madrid team of the early 2000s that added David Beckham to such stars as Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo and, almost immediately after Beckham’s arrival, endured a prolonged slump. Or even the New York Yankees of a decade ago, who got a little bit worse every time they brought on some new great like Randy Johnson.

The problem with all of these teams, and others like them, is obvious. There are exceptions—and by mid-summer, the Dodgers were definitely looking like one of those exceptions—but if a celebrity player is on the market, that’s generally because something’s wrong with him. He may be past his prime, or making too much money, or a huge pain, or all of these and more. Bringing together several such players is often just a way of ensuring that you end up with damaged goods.

But even assuming the Dodgers do well for now—which is, more and more, looking to be the case—there’s potential for future misery for teams employing this strategy, particularly as star players begin that inevitable decline yet remain too expensive to bench. But the Dodgers are hardly the prime offenders.

For the last decade, there has been the maddening sight of the Yankees amassing an annual payroll in excess of $200 million with only one World Series ring to show for it, while there are clever teams doing well with the amount of money the Bronx Bombers have had sitting on the disabled list for much of the 2013 season. The Tampa Bay Rays win 90 games every year while running one of the lowest payrolls in MLB. Give them, or the Oakland A’s, $200 million a year to spend, and you’d get a great team that stayed great. At the very least, they wouldn’t pay champagne money for a superstar past his prime.

Worse than that, though, is that profligate teams like the Yankees undermine the basic point of fandom. It isn’t about idle wealth or a tenuous relationship between money and sense, really; it’s about meritocracy, along with old-fashioned notions like loyalty and collective identity.

In sports, and especially in baseball, with its vast array of esoteric and ever more precise statistics, who you are is supposed to matter much less than what you do. While the success of teams like the Rays or the A’s is often credited to their use of advanced math or their inspired experimentation, what it’s really about is their willingness to ignore reputations and focus on how players perform on the field.

The concern with turning the dial all the way to the right is perfectly summed up in Yasiel Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban phenom who didn’t make his debut for the Dodgers until June 3, well into what was then starting to look like a losing season for the club. In spring training, it couldn’t have been more obvious that he was, at worst, the team’s second-best outfielder. He hit .517, caught everything hit anywhere near him and ran the bases like a bull. The issue was that he was an outfielder, and the team already had about $400 million worth of those—all of whom were too famous and too well paid to sit.

Eventually, two of the Dodgers’ celebrity outfielders got hurt, and Puig got a chance. He hit .456 his first month in the majors, cracked home runs off pitches he shouldn’t have been able to reach and scored from second on infield hits. In addition to big names to cheer for, the Dodgers had one of the most exciting new players in baseball.

Actual baseball, it turns out, is so good and strong that it will break out even in the midst of a billion-dollar marketing campaign. There’s a level on which the Dodgers know that; if they start to act like it they might field the best team their town has seen in a long, long time.

TIM MARCHMAN is deputy editor of Deadspin. He’s remained a New York Mets fan his entire life, despite their best efforts to repel him.

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