Does winning matter in Major League Baseball?

Recently Forbes updated its ranking of the most valuable Major League Baseball teams from a financial standpoint.  The top 5 teams — the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs — had zero World Series appearances in 2008.  But we should not be surprised.  Relying on a successful product on the field to obtain financial success is a risky strategy.  Superstar players win batting championships by getting on base only a third of their at-bats.  The The New York Yankees, arguably the most successful team in baseball history, haven’t won a World Series since 2000.  The Atlanta Braves defined the standard for excellence in the National League in the 1990s yet struggled with fan indifference.

No, success in Major League Baseball is all about locking in lucrative media deals and providing an experience (not necessarily a great product) for fans and corporate sponsors at the stadium.  Going to a ball game really isn’t much different than going to a rock concert anymore with exploding scoreboards, slick merchandise, and an element of theater keeping fans entertained.

As we all know, the baseball world has been rocked by allegations of abuse of performance enhancing substances by its marquee players, which calls into question the validity of their successes and their teams’ successes.  In other words, fans are probably not getting an authentic product on the field, anyway.  But really, do the fans care?  Banning beer sales from Wrigley Field or removing the swimming pool from Chase Field would be far more damaging to the future of the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks than substance abuse scandals.

Baseball, as it turns out, is just one more option in a world awash with video games, personal devices, a proliferation of TV channels, and many other forms of consumer experience.  Competing to win is one thing; competing to survive financially is a different beast altogether.

They’re tearing down Mount Rushmore

Jacques Barzun once famously wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” On September 21, one of the baseball’s great ballparks, Yankee Stadium, hosts its last game. Ever.

Yankee Stadium isn’t just the House That Ruth Built. It’s not just a symbol of baseball. It is America, like Frank Sinatra or Mt. Rushmore. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was once described (by Mel Allen) as “the Yankee Stadium of churches,” which sums up Yankee Stadium’s cultural significance perfectly for me.

But all things must pass.

Note: check out Tom Verducci’s excellent article about Yankee Stadium in the 22 September 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.