Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic shutdown, we dove into the history of the Yankees’ status as the Evil Empire for Star Wars Day, highlighting how an off-the-cuff, derisive nickname from the Red Sox team president turned into a court-sanctioned trademark. Last year, we followed up on that piece by questioning whether the Yankees’ claim to the imperial title still holds water, ultimately concluding that because the Yankees no longer throw their financial might around like they used to, Brian Cashman’s proverbial “Death Star has been destroyed, and all of baseball is in an Age of Rebellion to topple the Empire.”
And yet, even if the Evil Empire no longer towers over baseball, the sport nonetheless remains in its shadow. When the Yankees have not been the most dominant team, baseball fans look for a new villain to fill their shadows, rallying against long-dominant teams like the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers and throwing their support behind so-called underdogs like the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 2019 Washington Nationals, and the 2021 Atlanta Braves. As the Yankees have no longer overwhelmed opponents with their cash reserves, the media has sought a successor to the Empire, turning first to the Los Angeles Dodgers and most recently to Steve Cohen’s Mets. But nowhere is the shadow of the Empire deepest than at the top of the sport, in the boxes of the owners whose write the checks.
The Oakland A’s pioneered the types of analytics that would become known as “Moneyball” in large part because they felt they could not compete with the large-market teams; the 2011 movie, in fact, specifically employs the loss of 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi to the Yankees to introduce sabermetric thinking to the scouting department. Around the same time, the modern Competitive Balance Tax, known colloquially as the luxury tax, was introduced specifically to reign in the New York Yankees, whose payrolls in the early-mid-2000s had jumped to levels that would still be considered fairly high today.
With the successful implementation of analytics by the A’s, the rest of Major League Baseball began to follow suit. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as like any competitive enterprise, baseball is a copycat league, and anything successful is immediately stolen, adapted, and exploited by everybody else. Analytics was simply the newest phase in the century-plus long development of the sport.
Within a few years, however, the quest for efficiency on the diamond evolved into a quest for efficiency on the ledger. Teams sought not only to build an efficient ballclub, but to build it in the cheapest way possible. Service time manipulation, a slowed-down free agency, and tanking followed, all in the search for the almighty dollar. Even the largest markets, such as New York and Boston, played by the rules most of the time, while outliers — primarily the Dodgers and Steve Cohen’s Mets — were viewed with fear and suspicion. As revenues soared into record heights, team owners did whatever they could to keep payrolls down, going so far as to tear down contenders and not invest in improving teams. They all hid by the same excuse: we can’t compete with the large markets, so we have to tear everything down and rebuild. Poverty, they cried, even as they signed new media deals worth billions of dollars.
Do these problems sound familiar? They should, because we spent all winter writing about them here at Pinstripe Alley, as did the rest of the baseball world. In some respects, we have the Evil Empire to thank for the recent lockout, as owners have sought to prevent teams from throwing their money around like the Yankees of old. That doesn’t mean, of course, that teams are on a completely equal footing — there are still large markets and extra-large markets (no, truly small markets are more a useful fiction these days), and there are still teams that choose to invest money in their payroll more than others. But no team employs their financial might at a level above and beyond the others.
No Death Stars loom over the galaxy. The Empire, some might say, has fallen. But even now, however, its legacy still lives on, shaping how the league has evolved — permanently.