Playing Fair | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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By Sridhar Pappu

Nugent Vitallo was in Pittsburgh on business when his thoughts turned to the Pirates. "I saw these guys, and they never had a chance," he says. "They were struggling economically. The entire market was down. That's what got me thinking: If I'd lived in Pittsburgh, I'd be really down. Here I am a Cubs fan and they haven't won anything in all these years, but they have salaries that are supposed to win something--they just don't use their money effectively. But you have a team in Pittsburgh, they just don't have the money to be in it."

That was in 1995. Three years earlier the Pirates were coming off several division titles. Then they lost to Atlanta in the seventh game of the National League championship series, marking not only the end of their season but the end of an era. Even with the advent of free agency in 1976, teams in smaller markets had been able to compete with their big-city counterparts. In the 1980s Kansas City, Minnesota, Saint Louis, and Oakland had all won championships. But before the start of the 1993 season, lucrative new contracts had lured away the Pirates' best player, Barry Bonds, and their star pitcher, Doug Drabek.

In the years since, the situation worsened. George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner became baseball's gaudy avatars, simply spending their way to the World Series. Last season the three highest-salaried teams in each of the three American League divisions won their titles, and three of the five best-paid teams in the National League won theirs. In 1999 the top ten teams spent an average of $70,800,000 on salaries. The average for the bottom ten teams? $24,500,000. As broadcaster Bob Costas points out in his recent book Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, you won't find such huge disparities among teams in other sports, such as football or basketball.

Vitallo, who's an accountant in Oak Brook, would like to propose at least a partial solution. He says superior talent is responsible for winning, and under present circumstances that goes to the highest bidder. When a team like the Milwaukee Brewers or Montreal Expos competes against the New York Mets, Vitallo says, they're engaging in a contest resembling one in which you or I would play golf against Tiger Woods. On the surface, it's unfair--until Woods agrees to give us a handicap, additional strokes to make things fair. Thus there are two contests: one in which Tiger kicks our butts, and a second meant to factor in our inferior talents. Simply put, Vitallo would like to create a second tier of competition in baseball, giving teams with lower payrolls, like the Brewers and the Expos, additional strokes.

As detailed on his Web site (www.nusada.com), Vitallo's compiled statistics over the past ten years and come up with a mathematical formula that would create additional wins for clubs based on their total salaries, rewarding those who perform better than the expectations of their payroll. Under this system, the White Sox--who finished with 75 wins and 86 losses in 1999 while paying out $24,560,000 in salaries--would be said to have won more than 100 games. A statistical stretch, perhaps, but one that Vitallo claims could be used to save the game, rewarding fans while building weak franchises.

Under Vitallo's plan, at the beginning of each season all teams would contribute 20 percent of the amount they've spent on salaries into a collective fund. Games would be played, lost, and won, and things would take their usual course. But the teams would also compete within the weighted standings for a chance at winning the money in the fund. At stake in this second level of competition would be one-half of the fund for a first-place team, one-third for the second-place team, and one-sixth for the third-place team. The money won would then be split among a particular team's owners, players, and fans. Fans would be rewarded with a lottery at each of the home games during the following season. One lucky fan could walk away with as much as $58,000.

If this sounds wacky, Vitallo says, think about the potential rewards. Owners of competitive smaller-market teams would be able to make enough money to sign their young players while, eventually, larger-market teams would be punished if they spend money foolishly. Players not on high-rolling teams like the New York Yankees or the Cleveland Indians would compete for as much as a 28 percent bonus at season's end. And more fans would come out to the ballpark for a chance at financial reward.

"It's actually a performance factor," Vitallo says. "It's how good you are on the field. If the ballplayer doesn't do well, he doesn't get paid as well. If he does extremely well, he gets a bonus because he has performed."

In all likelihood, teams winning the second-tier contest will still be considered also-rans. "It's a hollow victory, maybe," Vitallo says. "But if they have a competition thing going, the fans and ballplayers have a chance of winning while the franchise has a chance to build itself up.

"We do not stop the World Series," he says. "We do not do anything to what's in existence right now. We just complement it."

In Fair Ball, Bob Costas presents another plan to fix the financial inequities of Major League Baseball: he calls for revenue sharing among all 30 clubs, both at the gate and from broadcast earnings. There would also be a salary cap and a bottom. Vitallo considers this system too burdensome and unrealistic. "To me," he says of revenue sharing, "it's the giving part versus the earning part. Because when you start giving things away, it's never fair.

"Bob Costas is asking for the superstars to take a cut in salary," he says. "You know, that's hard to do. There are too many rules. My plan is simply to get back to an effort where you actually take the average fan in the stadium and reward him for participating with the team."

That sentiment comes from someone who's had to work for everything he's achieved. Born in 1938, Vitallo grew up on Taylor Street and used his math skills early on to help his father, an electrician for Commonwealth Edison, figure out how to calculate bowling scores. After attending Harrison High School, Vitallo went on to Wright Junior College, then to Northern Illinois University, before becoming Arthur Rubloff's personal financial adviser. He later started two successful businesses.

Vitallo has sent his proposal to several major league clubs. He says he heard of some interest in November from a member of the San Diego Padres' front office. Nothing ever came of that.

Perhaps the teams that spend more will dominate, but they still have to play the games. The White Sox, with a $31.15 million dollar payroll (compared to the Yankees' $92.9 million), currently boast the best record in baseball. And in the National League, the Montreal Expos--shelling out $33.5 million in salaries annually--started the season strong before losing seven of their last ten games. Still, Vitallo's encouraged.

"I think it's wonderful," he says. "Especially Montreal. Montreal is the epitome of what we're talking about. Their attendance is always so low, but this would bring people out. All these fans should be rewarded next year for their support."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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