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Kovacevic: Baseball sticks it to Pirates

| Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011

There was an awful lot of backslapping going on Tuesday at Major League Baseball's news conference in Manhattan over a new five-year collective bargaining agreement. I'll have to presume Yankee Stadium was booked.

Twenty-one years of labor peace, the suits crowed.

"A really proud day," commissioner Bud Selig called it.

"A good day for baseball," union chief Mike Weiner followed. "It's an agreement that will benefit larger-market clubs, smaller-market clubs and all clubs in between."

They kept straight faces, too.

Which makes their reactions delusional, deceitful and all fallacies in between.

There are some good initiatives: The HGH testing will be a first. Minimum wage goes up by $66,000. No more easy-shattering maple bats.

Closing the economic chasm between haves and have-nots in the only North American professional sport still without a salary cap?

Oh, that's in there, too, but only if you mean reining in ... um, the Pirates.

I kid you not: The defining component of this agreement is a new "luxury tax" to be applied to teams that spend too much on the amateur draft. Any team exceeding the slot recommendation for a pick must pay a tax. Any team that exceeds its allotted draft total, set by inverse order of the previous year's standings, must pay a 100 percent tax.

So, if the Pirates were to spend $17 million in 2012, as they did this June, and their ceiling were set at $9 million, they'd actually have to pay $25 million.

You know, for the "luxury."

No team spent more over the past four drafts than the Pirates' $48 million. That included franchise-record bonuses for Pedro Alvarez ($6.35 million), Jameson Taillon ($6.5 million) and Gerrit Cole ($8 million). They went after elite talent in the most realistic but also most aggressive manner.

What gall, trying to beat a system that had been beating them for two decades.

Turns out that approach upset the Yankees, Boston Red Sox and other big spenders accustomed to getting the talent they seek at every turn. In particular, the Red Sox were vocal sore losers in June after allowing college-bound outfielder Josh Bell to fall to the second round, only to see the Pirates shrewdly take Bell, offer him a whopping $5 million to forgo college, then sign him.

Funny, but I don't remember anyone crying foul about the Red Sox signing first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million contract last year while the Pirates ponied up for Lyle Overbay.

Here's how it works in the myopic world of baseball: The Yankees' massive local TV and stadium revenues and $200 million payroll mesmerize MLB and the union. Even the agents are that way, all of them dreaming of getting their clients to the Bronx someday.

What few can see past their nose is that the other three leagues — NFL, NHL and NBA — offer many more possibilities for marquee franchises and, thus, spending on players. Pittsburgh proves it in football and hockey, as does Green Bay by dominating the NFL in a market the size of Erie. Ben Roethlisberger, Sidney Crosby and Aaron Rodgers are all paid pretty well.

No, it's not all about money in baseball. Lower-spending teams do succeed sporadically.

And no, the Pirates don't make a compelling victim here. They've made countless terrible decisions over 19 losing seasons, and they haven't spent all the money they do have. It's better to point to the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.

Still, fair should be fair.

This pact makes no change to revenue sharing and only a nominal adjustment to a luxury tax that doesn't trickle down to the Pirates, anyway. It goes into a general development pool.

I asked Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president, what's in this for them.

He cited a new draft feature that will award six bonus picks — Nos. 31-37 overall — to lower-revenue teams by way of a lottery, as well as a cap on international signings that's staggered in inverse order of the standings. Both will be welcome.

Coonelly also was adamant that baseball wasn't out to get his team.

"Is this everything the Pittsburgh Pirates hoped it would be• No," he said. "But we don't subscribe to the notion it was aimed at us. For one, this has been in the works a long time. For another, at the end of the day, if teams like the Yankees ever wanted to really flex their muscles in the draft, they could do it. This prevents that. We'll continue to sign the players we draft."

He then mentioned that the Pirates are still seeking a first baseman and a starting pitcher.

Don't expect Albert Pujols.

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