Most fans don't get it. Even more baseball execs can't seem to explain the origin of it. And yet every August, baseball writers are left to explain not only how the waiver process works, but also why we make such a big deal about a July 31 Trade Deadline that isn't truly a deadline at all.
It's a good question, huh?
For those already fearing that this is about to go over your head, let's first take a refresher in Major League Waivers 101.
Once the clock moves past 4 p.m. ET on July 31, baseball's free-for-all trading period vanishes. That doesn't mean the trade market is closed, it just means that making a deal during the last two months of the season suddenly includes a few caveats.
It works like this: Teams can put any or all of their players through waivers, with the ability to pull back each one who's claimed. Should a player get through waivers unclaimed, the club has no restrictions in finding a trade partner.
That's the easy scenario.
If a player is claimed by only one team, his current team and that claiming club have two days to work out a deal. If no agreement is made, the team who controls the player can either keep him or hand him away for a minimal waiver fee.
Should more than one team claim the same player, the process is the same. However, the only team with a chance at acquiring the player is the claiming team with the worst record in that player's league. If the claims were only made by clubs from the opposing league, the one in that bunch with the worst record gets the crack.
This process can go on through the rest of the season, but for a player to be eligible on a postseason roster, he must be in new uniform by Aug. 31.
So everything is clear now, right?
I'm guessing that's not the case, which brings me back to my initial inquiry: What's the point of all this?
Since when has baseball been run under the same iron fist as my mom's when she pulled out the dreaded you-will-do-it-because-I-said-so line? In other words, why follow a rule when there's no widely known explanation as to its origin or purpose?
OK, I concede. There was once a point to it.
Enacting such a system that gave teams with worse records first dibs on players was initially seen as an equalizer. It kept the top clubs from monopolizing the market, at least allowing those in pursuit to have the larger pool of players to select from.
That sounds idealistic in theory. If only it worked that way in actual practice.
The idea that this system benefits the lowest on the totem pole is a flawed one. That's not to say it has always been that way. But as the disparity between the rich and the perceived poor widens, so, too, does the advantage the August waiver period provides to big-market teams.
When it comes to contenders, these waiver rules unfairly skew the power to clubs with heavy wallets. It's a month-long game of poker, you see. All 30 general managers sit around an imaginary table, the stakes, of course, much higher for the dozen or so who believe there is still a shot at October.
And then the guesswork begins. Some moves a GM makes will be in attempt to position his team for a postseason run. Other moves will simply be dictated by the hand that he believes his biggest competitors hold.
In other words, if the second-place Giants know the division-leading Padres are seeking to fill a particular void, they have the opportunity to block players by putting a waiver claim on whoever they think might be San Diego's target. Remember, if more than one team claims the same player, that player can only go to the team with the worse record.
The inequality in this game, however, is that not all clubs can afford such a risk. The hope might be that by claiming a player, he will be taken off waivers. No harm done. But the reality is that sometimes the team holding the pricey chip buys the bluff, leaving the claiming club stuck with a player it doesn't need or can't afford.
See: San Diego and Randy Myers.
The Padres never wanted Myers in August 1998. They never needed him. Their intention in putting a waiver claim on him was singularly focused on making sure the reliever wasn't nabbed by Atlanta. It seemed harmless enough at the time. Yet, it turned out to be a $14 million gamble that GM Kevin Towers lost.
The Blue Jays gladly handed Myers and his contract over to San Diego. Not only had Myers underperformed, but he was hurt. Myers went on to collect his paychecks for two more seasons, while only pitching 14 1/3 innings for the Padres.
Today, the Rays, for instance, can't take the same risk the Red Sox can in claiming a player the Yankees may want, as Boston typically finds the financial means to do what's necessary. Tampa Bay can't take the risk because it can't afford the potential consequence.
What in that seems fair?
This strategy of blocking players wasn't so much an issue two or three decades ago, when payroll disparity wasn't so great, when player contracts weren't so exorbitant, and when there was the perception of a gentleman's agreement among GMs that this practice wouldn't be the norm.
Now, it seems, all past rules of fair play have gone out the window.
If the Rays or the Reds or the Twins can't afford the risk of being stuck with a waiver claim, too bad -- it just puts those who can in the more enviable position. It gives teams with financial flexibility the upper hand, another advantage in their pocket for a postseason push.
It's fair to argue that this inequality isn't as much of an issue with teams out of contention, as clubs playing for the future can use August to take a crack at shedding hefty and restricting contracts. You saw this last year, as the Blue Jays said au revoir to Alex Rios and the more than $60 million in guaranteed money the outfielder still had coming from a seven-year deal he signed the year before.
When the White Sox made the surprising claim, Toronto jumped at the chance to bolster its future financial flexibility.
If the Dodgers place Manny Ramirez on waivers this week, as they are reportedly leaning toward doing, a claim on the outfielder could relieve Los Angeles of about $4.4 million.
No one is likely to hear complaints about this waiver process from the Astros, who landed Jeff Bagwell (then in Double-A) by trading reliever Larry Anderson to the Red Sox on the last day of August in 1990. Houston was 17 games out of first at the time.
Nor does Atlanta forget how it acquired John Smoltz from Detroit in August 1987 for starter Doyle Alexander. A history lesson isn't needed to know what Smoltz meant to the Braves' franchise from that point forward.
This can indeed be a month where contracts are shed and prospects are procured.
In the big picture, though, this process, which works under the pretense that it was established to help the poor, inherently aids the rich. So why not just get rid of the August waiver practice altogether? No one seems to know where it came from, and this would clear up all that deadline (Is it July 31? Is it Aug. 31?) confusion.
One deadline -- make it whatever date you wish -- with one uniform process for player acquisition would cure a lot of headaches. And for a sport that incessantly tries to convince a skeptical public that there is equality among the 30, it might be a good first step.