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Why Resource-Rich Teams Don't Always Win The Game


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And it is time to talk sports.


MARTIN: The baseball playoffs are only a couple days away. NPR's Mike Pesca is taking a look at the teams that made it. He has drawn some conclusions I understand connect to the global economy. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. How are you? Yes, this is true.

MARTIN: I'm doing well. So, before we get to your big theory, first of all, let's just walk through the facts. The American League's wild card race is pretty tight right now, right?

PESCA: Yes. There is one game to play. It's a 162-game season and they still haven't decided. Cleveland has 91 wins, Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays both have 90. The Rangers won last night; the Rays lost. So, they're going to all play today. Two of those three teams will make it. They might have to play tomorrow. They might have to play the day after that to figure it out. But two of those three teams will eventually get in a one-game playoff.

MARTIN: All right. Now, on to your grand economic sports theory. Have at it.

PESCA: All right. So, my Nook was malfunctioning, as they are wont to do, and I was toggling between baseball prospectus and foreign policy and it hit me. Do you know this idea of the resource curse? You ever hear that on the global economic scale?

MARTIN: Kind of, like the countries that actually don't have a lot of resources. It ends up being the good thing for them.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you would think, I mean, for years we thought, oh, if you have a lot of, say, mineral wealth or you have a lot of oil, that's going to be really good for development. It turns out to be really bad for development. And if you don't have too many resources, you as a country are less likely to have war and more likely to develop. And I think there's similar things going on in baseball. I mean, we've talked about - we've talked about it earlier - there used to be a strong correlation between how much money a team had and how well it did. Now, that correlation is out the window.

And if you look at three of these teams - assuming the Rays make it - if you look at the Rays, the Pirates and the A's, those are the three teams with the lowest payrolls - not counting the Marlins and Astros, who actually weren't even trying to win this year - and they're going to make the playoffs. So, how does this happen? It's sort of resource curse. And what I mean by that is not oil but money. Let's say the amount of money you have to spend is the resource. And some of these high-spending teams, like the Yankees and the Angels, they just haven't been able to spend their way to success. And some of these scrappy teams have had to develop smarter ways to play, and that's what we're seeing this year.

MARTIN: OK. Your theory breaks down a little bit, though. What about the Dodgers, the Red Sox? Both made the playoffs and they are, I think, rather resource rich, no?

PESCA: Right. But if you, you know, there are areas where it does, where the, you know, there's this whole, like, exchange rate part of the resource curse that I have no way to apply that to baseball. But the basic thing that if you don't have the resource, you're forced to be smarter, you're forced to do things a little bit better. That is absolutely what's going on. And teams like the Rays and the Pirates, they do things like defensive shifting that the big boys with huge payrolls don't bother or have the time to do. And, you know, even if you look at Canada, the United States - these are huge oil exporters - they're rich countries. It isn't an exact correlation between who has the oil and who does well. But it's a general correlation in baseball and in geopolitics.

MARTIN: We'll give it to you. You got a...

PESCA: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...curveball?

PESCA: I do. So, let's stick with these Rangers, one of the teams making the playoffs. And I mentioned the Angels. They played yesterday, and because the Angels wear a certain road uniform and the Rangers on Saturdays wear their alternative home uniform, they were both wearing the exact same uniform. They said it doesn't work...

MARTIN: Oh, no. That's so embarrassing.

PESCA: Right. But they were bright red. So, you know, it didn't - in baseball, you don't even need different uniforms. It's not like anyone gets confused. But from a visual standpoint, this red-on-red action was just assaulting to the eyes.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. We never wear the same outfit.

PESCA: That's true, but you accessorize better than I do.

MARTIN: Yeah. Thanks so much.

PESCA: Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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