Writing for the Toronto Star, Cathal Kelly mockingly compares the Toronto Blue Jays to an inept cellular phone service provider, suggesting that the current state of the team’s roster shares much in common with a cheap cellular network.

Considering that a separate branch of the corporate ownership group of the Blue Jays deals in such trades, it’s a cute little metaphor. A wholly inaccurate one, but cute nonetheless.

We’ll get into that later, for now, let’s focus on what Mr. Kelly writes after offering up that analogy.

Somehow, not giving Prince Fielder $214 million is being celebrated in Toronto as some sort of victory for common sense. That would be true only if he was being paid with your money. Since it’s not your money, failing to sign Fielder — or any other player with nearly guaranteed all-star upside, however long it may last — is a defeat.

Or, as Steve Buffery writing for the Toronto Sun, put it, less eloquently:

Unless you’re paid by Rogers, why should fans worry about how much money Rogers spends? Rogers has tons of money. Rogers is rich, RICH. Listen, if Rogers splashed out on a big-money free agent like a Prince Fielder or C.J. Wilson they wouldn’t go out of business. They’d still be rolling in it. If Rogers was serious about winning, they would spend more. Period.

I’m reminded of something that I’ve quoted before from our friend Sam Miller of the O.C. Register, and more recently, an ESPN: The Magazine cover story(!), in response to a similar suggestion, that fans shouldn’t worry about big ticket free agent additions because “it’s not your money.”

Yeah, they’re not your home runs, either. Rooting for a team is a vicarious experience, in which you project yourself into the situation and take pleasure (or pain) from the achievements of others. Nobody is arguing that taking on a bad contract is going to have any literal effect on your standard of living. The argument is that a) you want your team to win games, b) getting good players helps win games, c) overpaying for good players hurts your chances of getting more good players or better players. So if (C) hurts (B) and (B) promotes (A), then (C) hurts (A). Bad contracts make you sad.

Any analysis worth its salt looked at the $214 million given to Prince Fielder as an overpay. The only true argument in favour of it, admits this, but points to the added cost of turning the Detroit Tigers into 90+ win team from an 85-87 win team. It places special emphasis on those wins because they’re the ones that are most likely to guarantee the team’s presence in the playoffs.

The Toronto Blue Jays aren’t an 85 win team. And even if they were, becoming a 90 win team is no guarantee for the playoffs. In the Fielder scenario, there isn’t a universal right or wrong step to make. The first baseman is simply a better signing for the Tigers than he is for Toronto.

But Mr. Kelly and Mr. Buffery aren’t merely writing about the Blue Jays not signing Prince Fielder. They’re writing about the Blue Jays not spending very much money at all on the free agent market.

Spending a lot of money is not bad for teams. It’s bad for corporate bottom lines. Successful teams succeed because ownership encourages them to take risks. The Jays ownership is entirely risk averse.

I would suggest that the Blue Jays’ ownership isn’t risk averse, but rather stupidity averse. While there certainly is a correlation between spending money and winning inbaseball, that correlation isn’t a guarantee. A quick look at the Baltimore Orioles’ way of doing business should be all the evidence of this that we need.

Nevertheless, let’s talk about risk. More specifically, let’s look at the teams engaging in the most risks so far this off season: Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins and Texas Rangers.

There exists a misconception that the ownership groups of these teams have somehow become a sort of benefactor for fans. Certainly, there’s no denying that Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is of the fan friendly variety, and his reputation for dipping into his own personal wealth to fund the team is an exception, not the rule. Let’s take a quick look at the other big spenders this off season.

I’ve written about the Rangers before, and how they’ve come to afford high priced talent. In 2008, the Rangers ranked 21st in payroll and 25th in attendance. In 2009, the team moved ahead into 19th in payroll and 18th in attendance. Then, in 2010, the team went all the way to the World Series on a payroll that ranked 28th in baseball, while drawing the 14th most amount of fans to its games. In 2011, the team returned to the World Series on a payroll that last year ranked 13th in the league, while drawing the 10th most amount of fans to its games.

This off season, the Rangers spent something in the neighbourhood of $110 million on acquiring and signing Yu Darvish. Once again, we see that the only time a dramatic increase in payroll expenditures occur is in the year following a dramatic increase in attendance. The well run Rangers have increased payroll as a reward for attendance, not an incentive to increase it.

Of course, adding to the team’s ability to do this is a television deal for which the organization will begin seeing money come their way shortly (at least that which wasn’t already fronted so that the team could afford to take part in the 2010 playoffs). In a similar vein, the Angels were able to make two separate splashes on the free agent market this off season, signing C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols for $317.5 million, not out of the goodness of Arte Moreno’s heart, but because of a new television deal signed at the end of 2011 that commits $3 billion over the next 20 years.

As for the Marlins, it’s quite likely that their owner doesn’t even have a heart. The contracts handed out to Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle total $191 million in commitments, and have everything to do with the Marlins gaming the system, both in terms of collecting revenue sharing while spending little for years, and in convincing a municipal government to publicly fund a brand new stadium for the team.

In Toronto, we like to harken back to the halcyon days of World Series titles when the team was dominant both in terms of winning percentage and payroll, but check out the lead up to that happening, beginning the first year that the team won the pennant and continuing on through the first years of the SkyDome.

  • 1985: 5th in attendance; 18th in payroll.
  • 1986: 5th in attendance; 10th in payroll.
  • 1987: 4th in attendance; 17th in payroll.
  • 1988: 6th in attendance; 6th in payroll.
  • 1989: 1st in attendance; 7th in payroll.
  • 1990: 1st in attendance; 13th in payroll.
  • 1991: 1st in attendance; 19th in payroll.
  • 1992: 1st in attendance; 1st in payroll.
  • 1993: 2nd in attendance; 1st in payroll.

Again, the World Series champion Blue Jays didn’t spend out of the goodness of its ownership’s heart. It spent on a team because it was first in attendance for three years prior to it becoming first in payroll.

To point at the corporate wealth of Rogers, the Blue Jays owner, and suggest that they should spend money on the team because they have money, is to completely miss the point and absolutely ignore the economics of owning a baseball team.

Mr. Kelly compared the Blue Jays to a cell phone service provider, but what he’s suggesting for the team is more reminiscent of Entertainment 720. For those unfamiliar with the sitcom Parks and Recreation, Entertainment 720 is a company that two characters start with no business model and a ton of unnecessary expenses.

It looks like a fun time, while it lasts, but it eventually goes bankrupt.

While Rogers isn’t likely to go bankrupt due to the cost of a couple of free agents, Rogers and the Blue Jays are not the same thing. The team is a separate entity from the corporation, and it’s treated as such. The corporation didn’t become what it is today by simply dumping money on its different areas of business. Yes, it invested in them, but then responded to its actual growth with further investment.

Rogers isn’t alone in treating their professional sports franchise in this fashion. What Major League Baseball teams have invested heavily in its rosters without financial backing specifically from the baseball team itself? Even the New York Yankees at one time weren’t first in payroll. They became so in response to other areas of growth directly linked to the ball club.

As a fan of the team, it can be a frustrating wait to see the franchise return to prominence, but we also have to remember that the 2012 season will only be the third season with Alex Anthopoulos in charge.

As Andrew Stoeten wrote over at DJF, there is a difference between the current regime and that of the past:

Some fans seem to feel betrayed by Rogers and Paul Beeston based on the logic-defying notion that if the club hasn’t skyrocketed payroll yet, they’re never going to; that because they haven’t seen the coming wave of prospects yet, they’re being asked to chase vapours; that because they’re hearing the all-too-familiar refrain of “wait another year,” the club is destined for more of the mediocre same in perpetuity. I guess I understand the impulse to roll one’s eyes at more pleas for patience, but it takes a pretty severe blind spot to mistake the reasons Anthopoulos is doing it for the ones Ricciardi gave.

At the end of his article, Mr. Kelly asks his readers to “not give these corporate mopes a pass as a team on the cusp watches a series of impact free agents receding into the distance, now playing for clubs the Jays will have to climb over in order to ever become serious contenders.”

Before that, he justifies the team spending more money by writing:

Having just opened a monthly cable bill, I feel fairly sure the team can financially weather any sort of “he’s making $20 million to DH for the last two years of his deal” debacle.

I suggest that instead of not giving a pass to corporate mopes, we not give a pass to the type of thinking that equates what we pay for our cable bill with what the Blue Jays have to spend on free agency.

Mr. Kelly is right when he says that the money our favourite baseball team spends isn’t our our money, just as it’s not our home runs or our team. The team is owned by Rogers. But what Mr. Kelly doesn’t explain is why we should we expect the expense of running the team to fall at the feet of another branch of that parent company.

Would it be fair to ask the Blue Jays to spend their revenue in research and development for a new wireless network? I suppose we shouldn’t be concerned though if this was asked of them. After all, it’s not our money.