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The View From Pluto: Indians Biggest Opponent: MLB’s Payroll Problem

World Series at Progressive Field
Amanda Rabinowitz

The Cleveland Indians did more than just win games to make it to the World Series. They beat the money game. The team’s $98 million payroll is ranked 23 among baseball’s 30 teams. And they were the only team ranked in the bottom 15 of payroll to even make the playoffs.

Owners and the players’ association face a deadline today on a new contract deal, but WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says one of the things they’re NOT talking about -- but should be -- is payrolls that give an edge to big market teams.  

"They’re missing the biggest problem," Pluto says. There's a big disparity in payrolls in baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers have the highest payroll in the league, at $253 million. The Indians are 23, at $98 million.

"It's like, we've got a cake here and it doesn’t taste right. And they’re talking about the frosting. The  frosting could look really nice but if you taste the cake and it’s sour and bitter, you’ve still got problem.

You have a problem when your bottom 15 teams, only two of them could have a winning record (the Indians and the Houston Astros)."

An uneven playing field
Major League Baseball has no salary cap, unlike the NFL, NBA and NHL.

"Some caps are tighter than others," Pluto says. "In hockey and football, the payrolls are much closer. Basketball has more exceptions. That’s why the Cavaliers have the highest payroll in basketball. But the Cavs payroll is only $30-40 million more than the lowest NBA payroll. It isn’t $253 million for the Dodgers compared to $98 million for the Indians."

Why no salary cap?
Pluto says it's mostly about revenues from cable TV, which favors big markets like New York and Boston.

"Who do you think makes more money on their cable contract? The New England Sports Network, Madison Square Garden Sports Network or Cleveland? It’s almost like you have two classes of teams."

"The tilt in the favor of the major markets will not be changed by what they do or don’t settle on in these labor issues and the reason is, the owners of the bigger markets always seem to have bigger say and influence with the baseball commissioner than those in the smaller markets. It’s such a wide disparity."

The Indians success
"The Indians had to beat a lot more than just their opponents to make the World Series," Pluto says.

"You’re doing with your players coming up through the farm system or guys you trade for like Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer – young players from other teams. But it’s like you’re drowning, and they send you a string instead of a boat with a rope!"

A World Series windfall?
Pluto says the Indians aren't expecting a huge payout from their World Series run. 

"I did some checking with some executives. It’s worth only between $10-15 million. Because the way this thing is structured, something like 75 percent of the revenues go to the players for their pension fund that was part of an old labor agreement."

"What you hope happens is that after you’ve made the World Series, that it translates into a lot of season ticket sales for next season.

The Indians are going to spend more money next year, but I’ve heard they’ve only sold 1,200 to 1,500 season tickets than they were. They were at 7,000 season tickets and they might get up to 9,000 which still puts them at the bottom.

This is Cleveland. Nothing’s given, everything’s earned. Didn't the guy who won the title say that?”

Terry Pluto talks about what's the made the difference in the Cavs' hot start

Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.