Political Culture: Break Up the Yankees! (And the Insurance Companies!)

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

It’s baseball playoff time, which has Jon Cummings venting his annual Yankees rage — and, oddly enough, thinking about public healthcare.

Now is the autumn of our discontent … at least for us Los Angeles baseball fans. Last night the Dodgers were polished off by the ruthless Phillies, their forever-teetering staff of pitchers finally crumbling in the face of Ryan Howard and that goddamned Victorino. Tonight the Angels may suffer the same fate – and even if they survive long enough to fly back east for the weekend, the Yankees will have their $161 million man waiting.

Which $161 million man? Now, there’s a question that could only refer to the Yankees. The one I’m talking about is CC Sabathia, the team’s most recent nine-figure pitching purchase, who has already shut the Angels down twice in this ALCS. But I could also be talking about first baseman Mark Teixeira, whom the Yankees plucked off the Angels’ roster last offseason for $180 million and who has repeatedly robbed his former teammates in the field this week (though his offensive numbers are pathetic). Of course, I might otherwise be talking about Derek Jeter, who’s nearing the end of his own $189 million contract. And as for Alex Rodriguez … well, he’ll earn $161 million in about the time it takes me to finish this column.

At least A-Rod is earning his salary (for once) this postseason. Still, like most baseball fans who don’t root for the Yankees, I have a hard time watching the Bombers without becoming queasy from the tsunami of dollar signs. In fact, Sabathia, Teixeira and A-Rod have ceased to function for me as human beings; their uniform numbers may as well be replaced with contract numbers – 161, 180, and 275, respectively. (Jeter gets a pass, since he came up through the farm system back in the ’90s, but the mind reels at the thought of the Yankees’ other free-agent acquisitions this decade – including tonight’s starting pitcher, number 82, otherwise known as A.J. Burnett.) If you add up the number of dollars the Steinbrenners have committed to their Big Three free agents through the end of Sabathia’s contract in 2016 – a total of $616 million – you get a number larger than the expected cumulative payrolls of 18 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams over that span, even accounting for inflation.

The reason I bring all this up – apart from my perennial disgust with the Yankees’ patently unfair revenue and payroll advantages, a hatred which frequently needs venting at this time of year – is because yesterday a phrase re-entered the public sphere that recently had been reserved for discussions of baseball and its competitive-balance issues. The phrase is “antitrust exemption,” and now it’s the latest cudgel being used by congressional Democrats to smite the Corporate Villain of the Day, the health insurance industry. Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee voted to repeal the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945, which removed the industry from federal jurisdiction and instead allowed the states to impose their own regulations. Democrats are furious over a bogus “study” the industry released last week, which claimed that current reform efforts would cause a spike in the premiums that insurers would be forced to charge. Still seething over the timing of that report (a day before the Senate Finance Committee’s vote on the Baucus bill), and frustrated by the continued uncertainty of passing reform legislation this year, the Dems say – or, more specifically, Sen. Patrick Leahy says — that repealing the antitrust exemption will help end the insurance companies’ long history of “price-fixing, bid-rigging and market allocation.” Industry spokesmen, of course, insist that Congress is engaged in an act of vengeance, not policy, and that Democrats are hellbent on fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.

So, what does that have to do with the damn Yankees? Not much, really – except that the last time Congress so publicly bandied about the concept of repealing an industry’s antitrust exemption, the industry was baseball. In fact, such threats have become relatively commonplace in recent years, ever since the players strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. The issues behind that strike were spiraling costs and a lack of fair competition, which will certainly sound familiar to anyone following the current free-for-all over health-care reform. At that time, Congress — powerless to stop the strike, but eager to lash out at the owners who were shouldering most of the blame for baseball’s problems – reached for the only bow in its quiver, the threat of repealing baseball’s long-cherished exemption. That threat resurfaced several years later, when MLB commissioner Bud Selig considered dismantling the financially strapped Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos, and again when baseball was excruciatingly slow to respond to the steroids controversy. So far, those threats have remained idle ones – primarily because baseball’s owners arguably (and particularly in retrospect) occupied the moral high ground during the strike, and because it was the players, not the owners, who resisted implementing a strong steroids policy.

Of course, comparing Congress’ antitrust threats against these two industries is an imperfect, even contradictory exercise, at least as far as baseball’s labor problems concerned the Yankees. Congress is now lashing out at insurers’ supposed fixing of prices at inflated rates … while in ’94 the owners were attempting to fix salaries at reduced rates. George Steinbrenner didn’t even approve of his fellow owners’ battle with the union; indeed, he was never enthusiastic about a salary cap, since his was the spending the other owners were trying hardest to restrain. So he sided quietly with the players, while Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf steered a course for labor unrest and earned Congress’ ire. Afterward, Steinbrenner’s teams of outrageously paid all-stars became the greatest beneficiaries of the owners’ failure to secure a cap – it’s no coincidence that in the 15 years since then, the Yankees have reached the playoffs 14 times and won four championships (for the moment), all while consistently doubling the payroll of the next-richest team.

So, no, the comparison of these two targeted antitrust exemptions isn’t perfect. More important, Congress’ threats to repeal them have served as little more than spiteful red herrings. One can argue that baseball might be forced to operate more fairly on behalf of all its teams (and the fans) if it didn’t enjoy its exemption, but repealing it wasn’t going to end the ’94 strike, save the Twins or solve the steroids problem. Similarly, punishing the insurers in this way won’t provide anything like the fix that’s required for our health-care system – only a full complement of reforms, including a robust public option (eventually approaching a single-payer system) will accomplish that. Repealing McCarran-Ferguson may be convenient, and it might be temporarily satisfying, but hopefully Democrats will come to realize that revenge is a dish best served comprehensively, and during an elaborate White House signing ceremony.

Still, as long we’re here venting … if, as Bill Veeck supposedly said, rooting for the Yankees once was “like rooting for U.S. Steel,” it’s now certainly true that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the health insurance industry. Here’s hoping those overpaid, soulless jerks take a huge tumble in the next few weeks. Oh – and here’s hoping the Yankees lose, too.