BOSTON -- If you just go by the money, the World Series, which starts tonight, would hardly seem like a fair fight.After all, the surprising Colorado Rockies have a total payroll of just $54 million. For the heavily favored Boston Red Sox, the figure is $143 million -- or nearly three times as much. Maybe the Rockies should be allowed to draw on the bench of, say, the $89 million Phillies as well, just to even things up? But here's the great thing about baseball, at least recently. Funny things seem to happen when people get to the playoffs. Money doesn't count for as much as you think. Call it Steinbrenner's Law. Since 2001, Yankees boss George Steinbrenner has spent a staggering $1.2 billion on his team's payroll in a desperate, and so far unsuccessful, bid to win yet another championship. Here at TheStreet.com, we're always looking at returns on investment. So we've run the numbers for all postseason series -- including division, league and championship -- since 2001, and compared them to team salary data. The bottom line? There is little correlation, if any, between payroll and playoff success. The team with the higher payroll beat the team with the lower payroll in 113 games. But the team with the lower payroll won ... 112.
And more than half of all series, 53%, were won by the teams with the lower payrolls. More than half. In many of these cases the teams were within reach of each other. But at other times they weren't. Think of 2003, when the $49 million Florida Marlins beat the $83 million Giants, the $80 million Cubs and the $153 million Yankees to win the title. Or just this month, when the $62 million Cleveland Indians beat a Yankees team with a payroll three times bigger, before taking the $143 million Red Sox team to seven games. Meanwhile, the $53 million Diamondbacks beat a Cubs team with twice its payroll, while the $54 million Rockies were beating the $89 million Phillies. In 2006 the $83 million Tigers made it to the World Series by beating the $195 million Yankees. The year before, the $98 million Angels knocked out the $208 million Yankees while the $75 million White Sox knocked out the $124 million Red Sox. Back in 2002, the Angels had half the payroll of the $126 million Yankees but beat them anyway, while the $75 million Cardinals beat the $103 million Diamondbacks. In the previous year the Yankees had outspent the Oakland A's by an incredible $112 million to $34 million, or more than three to one, but only edged past them 3 to 2 in the division series.
Maybe this has been an atypical period. After all, in the 90s the big-spending Yankees dominated the titles. But you'd think things would be getting more professional as time went on, and spending on players would become more efficient. It is, after all, four years since the publication of Michael Lewis' seminal Moneyball, which touched on this very subject. The reality is that a small number of franchises typically dominate the money in baseball. And over the past seven years, only once -- in 2004 -- has a member of that plutocracy happened to carry home the prize. Usually it has been a team in the financial second tier. In 2006 five teams spent more than $100 million each. But the champions weren't the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Angels, the White Sox or the Mets, but the $89 million Cardinals. In 2005, the victorious White Sox had a payroll smaller than 12 other teams. For the Angels in 2002, it was 14 other teams. Seven teams paid more than the 2001 Diamondbacks. As for the 2003 Marlins -- 24 teams earned more. We live in an era so dominated by money that even the phrase "there are some things in life that money can't buy" has become the multibillion dollar advertising slogan of a credit card company. So it is good to know it has its limits. Money will go a long way to get you to the postseason -- but after that, you're pretty much on your own.
Speaking of returns on investment: How bad has it been for Red Sox owners John W. Henry and New York Times Co. ( NYT) honcho Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., since their team won the World Series just three years ago? Consider this. Henry's investment company John W. Henry & Co., whose fortunes peaked shortly after the last Series win, has all but collapsed. The story has already been well told -- here and elsewhere. But from the end of October 2004, Henry's main investment fund has lost 29% of its value while Wall Street's Standard & Poor's 500 index has gained 42%. No wonder clients have pulled out nearly all their money, cutting his funds under management from around $3 billion to just $431 million. As for Sulzberger? Since the night of Oct. 27, 2004, he has seen about $2.9 billion, or 50%, wiped off the value of his family's company as the shares have plunged. He has been dragged into an unseemly and humiliating row with investment bank Morgan Stanley ( MS) over his family's special "voting" shares. And he has been forced to write down most of the value of the Boston Globe. The Curse of the Bambino has turned out like the Curse of Tutankhamen's Tomb. You couldn't blame the pair if they were secretly praying a Rockies victory this week might undo the effects of 2004, and send the curse back to the team itself.