In October, it's pay to play.
Those are words that make baseball officials shudder, but the standings tell no lies. With the American League playoffs set to feature the four biggest spenders in the league, the discontent simmering among small-market owners could be about to boil over, at a particularly crucial time.
If this year is an exception, no worries. However, if too many owners believe payroll standings again play too decisive a role in determining the playoff field, Bud Selig could face an enormous challenge in shepherding his owners to consensus for the looming round of collective bargaining.
Selig worked long and hard to persuade owners in New York, Boston and Los Angeles to hand over millions of dollars to owners in Milwaukee, Kansas City and Oakland for the sake of competitive balance.
He briskly rejects any notion that his solution has failed, that this year's standings suggest parity again is the pipe dream of a decade ago.
"I take great exception to that," Selig said. "I think this year is an aberration. In the last five years, I think we've had as much competitive balance as we've ever had. Am I concerned that we're back to where we were in the '90s? We're a long way from that.
"I don't think this year has discouraged me one bit. I know I'm right, to be frank with you."
To the question of whether this year is the exception or the rule, the answer depends upon whom you ask.
From Larry Lucchino, president of the Boston Red Sox: "You cannot reach long-term conclusions based on what appears to be aberrational short-term data."
From Lew Wolff, owner of the Oakland Athletics: "This is not a blip. I hope it's an aberration, but I'm not sure it is. If it's not, we'll have to tweak the labor agreement."
Of the nine teams that started the season with a payroll above $100 million, six are headed for the playoffs, assuming the Detroit Tigers hold off the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. That leaves two playoff spots for the 21 teams below $100 million.
In 2008, three divisions were won by the team with the highest payroll in the division, two by the team with the lowest payroll -- the Twins in the AL Central, the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East. In 2007, two divisions were won by the team with the highest payroll, two by the team with the lowest payroll -- the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West, the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central.
In the last four years, eight teams have played in the World Series. Extend that window to five years, including this one, and 20 of the 30 teams have appeared in the playoffs.
"I'm satisfied we're in good shape," Selig said. "I have no doubt that the next five years will be as competitive as the last five years."
In a roundabout way, Selig brought some of this upon himself. He triggered the wave of ballpark construction over the last two decades, arguing that teams could not compete financially without a new or renovated park. Now every team but the A's and Rays has one, so market disparities have returned with a vengeance.
In 2005, the Milwaukee Brewers opened at $40 million, with the Chicago Cubs at $87 million. The Brewers opened at $80 million this year, with the Cubs at $135 million.
"There are all kinds of disparities not apparent on the surface," Brewers Owner Mark Attanasio said. "It's not just payroll on the field."
Attanasio approved a win-now trade for CC Sabathia last summer, sacrificing four prospects to help push the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.
He offered Sabathia $100 million to return. The New York Yankees signed him for $161 million. That happens.
The Brewers play in baseball's smallest market, but under Attanasio they topped 3 million in attendance this season and last, generating record dollars in sponsorships and merchandising.
They had no chance at Sabathia, sure. They don't print money by running their own cable channel. But they probably have no chance at Aroldis Chapman, and that's just wrong.
Chapman, the 22-year-old Cuban fireballer who was declared a free agent Friday, already has been linked to the Angels, Red Sox and Yankees. The rich get richer.
No salary cap, not now, and not in the next labor agreement. Revenue sharing jumped from $50 million in 1996 to $409 million in 2008, certainly a credit to Selig. In the same period, however, industry revenue jumped from $1.8 billion to $6.5 billion.
That means 6 cents of every dollar of revenue is shared, hardly enough to convince players that owners cannot solve their financial problems among themselves.
"I don't buy that," the Angels' Torii Hunter said. "There's enough money in the game to get it done."
That leaves Selig and the owners with two priorities in conjunction with the next round of labor talks, scheduled to start next year: First, share revenue-generating ideas that help teams help themselves; and second, subject every incoming player to a draft so teams can win more often with smart management than deep pockets.
With the success of mlb.com and the emergence of the MLB Network, the streams of shared revenues are growing rapidly. But teams need to think beyond tickets, T-shirts and television as sources of revenue, in part by turning those gleaming new ballparks into year-round event centers.
"In L.A., you have two of the best-run and most aggressive, imaginative and energetic franchises in all of baseball," Lucchino said. "How much of that is due to fertile ground and how much is due to fertile ideas from the management and front office?"
The Angels bought a radio station. The Dodgers sold the worst seats in the house in promotional packages -- Mannywood, Bleacher Beach, the All-You-Can-Eat pavilion -- and offered fans the chance to take batting practice, watch a movie or sleep over at Dodger Stadium. The Red Sox hold concerts, bridal fairs and hockey games at Fenway Park. They own a cable channel and a racing team.
Some of this revenue is significant, some incremental. But increasing revenue among clubs, shared and otherwise, can help afford all teams a fair shot at incoming talent.
There is no reason that the Washington Nationals should get exclusive rights to Stephen Strasburg while rich teams can trip over their credit cards bidding on Chapman. It won't be easy -- and agents will have a fit -- but Selig and the owners need to subject every player to the draft, no matter whether he hails from California or Cuba, Delaware or the Dominican Republic.
The owners then need to work with the players' union to adopt a slotting system, ensuring that prospects will be paid fairly while offering the worst teams the assurance they can sign the best players. If teams draft poorly and develop talent poorly, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.
Wolff and Attanasio indicated significant modifications would be expected if this year's standings foretell the future. Lucchino deferred to Selig, who said he expected any revisions to be relatively minor.
"I believe we need to tinker with it," Selig said. "I'm satisfied we're in good shape. I have no doubt that the next five years will be as competitive as the last five years."
Never mind the revenues. The ultimate test of the system is this: Can a fan of every team have hope and faith?
"It's easy to blame the system," Selig said. "I'm sympathetic to that. Every year can't be perfect. Do I believe there is enough hope and faith in enough places? You bet I do."