The union wants baseball out of the tank

2019-02-06 CamdenYards
The Orioles’ beautiful ballpark and too many others look this empty too often. Fans don’t really like tanking teams. The Players’ Association has a great idea to put a stop to it.

What would you say if you knew that, before the parking lots, the turnstiles, the concession stands, and the team stores at any major league baseball park open for the season, each team in each league is guaranteed about $60 million dollars into its kitty? And, that none of those teams has to do one thing to get it other than exist in the first place?

The Major League Baseball Players Association actually has a pretty good idea about what to say. About that $60 million, about the additional likely $100 million more each year that each team pulls down through sources that only include ticket sales. Not to mention that baseball’s total revenues in 2018 amounted to $10.8 billion; or, about $343 million per team if distributed evenly among them. More about all that anon.

And the MLBPA is saying it now. With baseball government and the union now talking about game changes, some sound and some foolish, the union proposes a kind of tax against clubs who, seemingly, couldn’t care less about putting at least a mildly competent and entertaining team on the field as long as they’re making all that money anyway: costing them prime draft pick positions if they continue losing (or, at least not trying to win all that much) past a particular threshold over certain periods.

“It is unclear if the suggestion is that a team must hit at least X wins once in a span of Y years, or an aggregate total of Z wins over Y years,” writes NBC Sports’s Bill Baer. “Either way, incentivizing teams to be at least somewhat competitive is a good thing. It will reduce teams shamelessly tanking and it very likely would also prevent teams from shamelessly manipulating the service time of their top prospects. Ah, who are we kidding? Teams are going to game players’ service time until there’s an explicit rule changing it.”

If commissioner Rob Manfred is as bent on implementing changes that really won’t do a thing for the pace of play—the pitch clock, limited mound visits, and the like (you want to step up pace of play for real, get rid of the television commercials for every pitching change and do away with relief pitchers throwing eight warmups when they come into the game since they’ve already thrown enough warmups in the bullpen to equal the volume of a quality start most of the time)—the players’ association needs to push back with the tank tax. It’s one of the smartest ideas they’ve come up with in years.

Because tanking isn’t fun. Not for the team putting itself in the tank no matter how much money they’re not spending, and not for the fans who know that long suffering is relative. They can tolerate long suffering (really) when they know in their hearts that it’s not for lack of trying. (I’m talking about you, Red Sox.) They’re not going to endure it if they suspect the team couldn’t care less as long as it’s making money anyway. (I’m talking about you, Marlins.)

The real Curse of the Bambino had nothing to do with selling Babe Ruth and everything to do with half competent front-office management married to a few dubious in-game managing decisions and, of course, just enough entries of plain bad (or dumb) luck. The Marlins have made going into the tank their M.O. most of the time. Unless they’re as comical as the 1962 Mets, nobody wants to see the Marlins play against the Rays this year. And they’re about as comical as a cigarette vendor at Sloan-Kettering.

Back to following the money, beginning with that $60 million dropping into each team’s kitty before a single regular season pitch is thrown. “That money comes in,” says longtime baseball writer (co-founder of Baseball Prospectus; Sports Illustrated contributor) Joe Sheehan, “whether you win 100 or lose 100, whether you draw four million people or 400,000. It comes in whether you work every day in the offseason to get the fans excited, or whether you announce in November that you’re keeping focus on 2020 with all the kids coming through your farm system. It comes in whether you appear on the networks spending that money, or if they’d rather air color bars than your team colors.”

Nice lack of work if you can get it. Who wouldn’t want to pocket $60 million right out of the box regardless of whether their team gets to the postseason or waits till next year? (Stop snarling, Marlins fans, we know this year is next year.) That’s what big television money married to shares of the profits generated by MLBAdvancedMedia (MLBAM) does for you.

That’s also before the approximate $20 million minimum teams take in in local broadcasting monies, with a few taking in as high as $30 million or better. So we’re talking about a major league team banking as much as $90 million before the season’s first pitch is thrown, if not before spring training camps open. Married to ticket sales all season long—and in 2018 each team sold a minimum of 800,000 tickets while, as Sheehan needles, every team outside Florida sold a minimum 1.4 million tickets—and you have teams making another none-too-shabby $100 million or more regardless of what’s on the field every day.

Fans grouse over the prices of tickets and ballpark concessions, and they think spending less on playing talent should start nudging those prices down. They might as well start bidding on that cheap old ballpark for sale—at Coogan’s Bluff. Because there isn’t much indication that the owners are putting all that free money back into their teams. Marry it to baseball’s total 2018 revenues and what they’d mean for each team if they were divided evenly among them.

Now, who do you think you’re paying your hard earned money to see when you go to watch a game at the ballpark? You didn’t buy those tickets to see the owners. You didn’t buy them to see the umpires, no matter how much of the show Joe West thinks he is. You didn’t buy them to see the managers, since there isn’t one manager in the game today with half the charisma of Casey Stengel, Whitey Herzog, or Tommy Lasorda. And you didn’t buy them to see the coaches.

If you own a team, and you pull down $343.3 million a year, with practically half of it coming your way free before the season even begins, and before every other consideration, wouldn’t you think that you could put a minimally entertaining team on the field, building or re-building a viable farm system, and trading for or buying reasonably capable major league talent to rebuild, essentially, every year?

That’s what I thought. And we haven’t even thought about those teams ponying up revenue shares after doing their level best to win to clubs who seem comparatively indifferent to putting even a mildly entertaining team on the field as long as they’re making money anyway.

How many clubs are actively trying to win, not just this year but every year they can think of? How many farm systems have we been reading about that are called, charitably, parched? The Giants are thought to be one such aging and farm-parched team on the verge of a rebuild if they haven’t actually begun one. I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to bet that $343.3 million a year that the Giants could yank their farm inside out, leave plenty to put a more competitive team into AT&T—oops! Oracle—Park this year, and still turn their owners a tidy profit.

It’s one thing to look at the past couple of off-seasons as market corrections. You can’t blame teams for being wary of signing players to more than five-year deals anymore. But you can’t forget what’s unique about professional sports, as opposed to an ordinary business. In professional sports, the product is the people who play the games. The Ford Motor Company isn’t selling the people who conceive and assemble their cars and trucks, they’re selling those vehicles. Hoover isn’t selling the people who conceive and execute their vacuum cleaners, they’re selling the vacuum cleaners.

But when you go to the ballpark, you’re paying your hard-earned dough to see a minimum of eighteen young men or more play baseball—depending on how many are emptied from the bench or the bullpens during a game; and, twenty if you’re watching an American League game with the designated hitter. Those people are the product. You’re buying food and drink and a few souvenirs because of the men who play the game, never mind the risk of getting caught on a concession stand line during a six-run rally. If you’re into wearing replicas of the team’s uniforms, you might be buying one with a number and a name on it—and it won’t be the number and name of any owner, general manager (unless he’s an ex-player you rooted for, maybe), umpire, or coach. (Again, unless the coach is a former player you rooted for.)

Few teams are more storied than the Orioles. Time was when the Orioles were either awesome or competing long and hard to be. They’re in the tank now. Do you really think it’s good for baseball that a franchise like that—with their tradition, their still-beautiful ballpark, and their litany of heroes and Hall of Famers (two Robinsons, a Palmer, a Ripken, a Murray, an Alomar, a Weaver on the managing side, a Mussina now)—is going in the tank for who knows how long, just because you’re itching to take those greed-headed players down a few pegs? (How come nobody talks about the greed-headed owners who couldn’t care less about empty seats as long as they’re making big money regardless of whether their teams win a thing?)

Once upon a time the sweetest words of tongue or pen for the fans of teams who didn’t quite make it to the Promised Land despite a whale of a stab at it were, “Wait ’till next year!” For too many baseball fans today, the sourest words of tongue or pen about their teams might actually be, “This year is next year. Again.” And there’s no assurance that all today’s tankers are doing it with eyes upon just how the Cubs and the Astros did it (top down organisational intelligence made their tanks easier to bear for their fans) before ending their protracted lack of World Series championships and going to each postseason after those Series conquests so far.

Say what you will about those imperialist Yankees, but two things remain true: 1) Of every cliche about or around them, the single most truthful is that they don’t like to lose. (Admit it, Yankee haters: even you find something admirable about that.) 2) They may have (count it!) only one World Series ring in the new century, to the Red Sox’s four, but it sure hasn’t been for lack of trying. The Yankees try everything they can think of to win, short of larceny. (Very short: the team stole only 63 bases last year; the top thieves in the American League were the Indians, with 135.) You don’t have to be a Yankee fan to admit or respect that.

The flip side of that coin might be the Athletics. They’re not as well-endowed financially as the Yankees after all the free money to open a season. They’ve had a few dead-last finishes in the AL West in this century. But they’ve rarely gone into a season trying to do it in the tank for whatever foolish reasons. They’ve been to eight postseasons since the turn of this century. They haven’t returned to the Promised Land just yet. But they try everything they can think of within their hard resources and limits (their ballpark plus their coffers) to win. (Short of larceny, alas: the A’s were dead last in the league in stolen bases last year, with 35.)

That’s one big difference between a merely struggling team and a tanking team. The players’ union proposal would begin the end of tanking as we know it if baseball government is smart enough to see that light. Teams want prime draft positions? Put in the effort to make what’s on the field now at least entertaining. Manfred wants pitch clocks? Let him close the tanks. Of course it means the players making a little more money. It also means the owners making a little more money. And there’s no such thing as a baseball owner allergic to making money. Yet.

Now, if only the Players’ Association would begin work concurrently on repairing one of the most bonehead decisions it ever made—the 1980 pension eligibility change that deprived several hundred former players, whose careers were between 1947 and 1979, and who might have had extremely short careers for various reasons, of even small amounts of pension and health benefit dollars.

The pension eligibility became one day’s major league time for health benefits, and 43 days of major league time for a pension allowance, but the 1947-1979 players were excluded from that new eligibility. Douglas J. Gladstone, journalist, baseball fan, and gadfly, is about to publish an updated edition of his seminal book about the issue, A Bitter Cup of Coffee. It’s past time to add cream to those players’ coffees.

A lot of those players joined the actions despite tiny resources and career risks to help usher in free agency and other things that have been great for the game when all is said and done. They deserve better, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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