If there was one somewhat dominant retort to the Javy Baez-Francisco Lindor-Kevin Pillar thumbs-down prior to Monday, it was reminding the miscreants that the fans pay their salaries. Well, now. Has anyone really stopped to think about whether that’s really true anymore?
Guess what. It hasn’t been true for longer than you think.
It was true once upon a time, when baseball teams were owned almost entirely by rich men and women for whom it was secondary to the enterprises that made their wealth in the first place. (Jacob Ruppert, longtime Yankee owner, was a brewer by profession; Walter O’Malley, longtime Dodger owner, was an engineer and attorney by profession.)
Some of them did it because they genuinely loved the game. (See Bill Veeck, Horace Stoneham, Joan Payson, to name two.) Some of them did it for things like dumping excess income to duck Uncle Siphon’s tax hounds. You get the idea.
In that generation, men such as Dan Topping (eventual Yankee co-owner) thought he could strong-arm his manager Ralph Houk into changing his lineups to get Mickey Mantle, the fans’ presumed preference over that interloper Roger Maris, the better shot at breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961.
Topping apparently reminded Houk the fans paid his salary. To his eternal credit, Houk reminded Topping—with or without succumbing to the temptation to tell Topping where to stuff it—that, the last he looked, his job as the manager was to arrange the lineup most likely to, you know, win baseball games and Yankee pennants first and foremost.
That was then, when baseball teams really did depend upon the gate to earn their keep. This has long been now, when baseball ownership isn’t just a group of wealthy sportspeople indulging passions: Baseball fans haven’t paid the lion’s share of player salaries for a few decades.
By way of multiple sources, you can look it up if you so desire: Ticket sales account for maybe 30something percent of a baseball team’s revenues. The concession stand takes get divided between the owners and the vendors/manufacturers who provide the beer, dogs, snacks, merchandise, and chatzkehs sold at the ballpark. Those vendors and manufacturers also have that little matter of paying the people who cook, pour, and sell the goodies.
All those player jerseys and player-specific souvenirs? For one thing, they’re not sold at the ballparks exclusively. For another, they have nothing to do with player salaries. For a third, the take there gets split evenly between the clubs and the players’ union . . . and the union distributes their take evenly among all players, no matter whose goodies are how popular. Scrubby Sackostones gets the same share as Shohei Ohtani.
You might want to consider all that the next time you lament how much you spend on food, drink, and souvenirs at the game. If you really think the owners and their vending partners today would cut concession prices, if they could get away with suppressing players’ pay again, I’ve just cut the sale price again on that Antarctican beach club.
Broadcast revenues? Whether it’s those national broadcast rights that fetch megabillions, or the local broadcast rights that fetch individual teams from millions to billions depending on markets, those dollars plus the revenue shares certain teams get from certain other teams get paid before a season even begins. Thanks to baseball’s continuing, insane blackout rules, you can’t watch as much as you think, still.
Ballpark naming rights? You don’t pay for those, either. The companies who buy the rights do. Count your blessings. You wouldn’t have come up with such names as Guaranteed Rate Field, Minute Maid Park, American Family Field, Oracle Park, Globe Life Field, Citi Field, or Petco Park. (Would you?)
On the other hand, you know as well as I that there isn’t a major league ballpark anywhere named for any of the men who made you love the game in the first place—except in Los Angeles and the south Bronx. It’s not the players’ fault you can’t watch a game in Thomas Field, Bagwell Park, Yount Yards, Mays Field, Rodriguez Park, Seaver Stadium, or the Gwynn Grounds.
Let’s try something for argument’s sake. Let’s assume just for funsie that baseball fans really do still pay player salaries. In the non-sporting world, those who pay the salaries have certain rights of authority over those who get paid the salaries. But those who pay those salaries are held to certain levels of accountability—including whether they cross the line between authority over and abuse of the hired hands.
Baseball fans never were and never are held officially to that kind of accountability. Not merely for booing, hissing, or holding nasty sounding signs up, though it does behoove fans to remember that that bad play, or that game-losing pitch or error, isn’t caused by non-hustle, brain freeze, or mediocre arm, as often as you think.
Players make their best efforts and still come up short seventy percent of the time. It’s the game’s nature, for better or worse. Those who continue to obsess about baseball’s “unwritten rules” might want to consider the one nobody had to write in the first place: when people play a game, somebody isn’t going to win. (If a team is that bad, how about holding to account the front office fools who mis-assembled it in the first place?)
Fans have long gone beyond booing, hissing, and holding up snarky signs. In today’s social media universe, they can rip an errant player or a losing team about a hundred new ones—when they’re feeling civil. When they’re not feeling civil, they can, do, and have levied threats against the lives of players and the players’ families.
“Sadly, this is considered ‘normal’ in professional sports’,” tweeted Indians pitcher Nick Wittgren after a bad outing at July’s end. “It’s happened to 90% of players I know and basically after every bad outing a player has. But there is nothing normal about threatening someone and their family’s lives.”
Unless it’s someone like Benjamin Tucker Patz—the California gambler who pleaded guilty last month to threatening the lives of several Rays and one White Sox player, after a July 2019 game the White Sox won in extra innings—fans throwing death threats at players and player families are almost never held to account.
Patz faces up to five years in the federal calaboose. It’s a shame he can’t face five years per threatened player. Writing for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, I suggested it was time to think about doing likewise to the not-so-famous Twitterpated, Instagrammarians, Facebookies, any social media slugs who think it’s a laugh and a half to threaten players and their families’ lives over bad days, bad nights, bad slumps, even whistleblowing.
Tell me why you think the price of a ticket or your beers, snacks, and chatzkehs gives you the right to forget baseball players aren’t androids or automatons. Tell me what fount of wisdom told you that merely paying a baseball player $1 million or $10 million a year means Britt Reid turns automatically into the Green Hornet. Tell me why you think a player struggling during a multi-season, nine-figure contract—or while trying too hard at first to live up to such a contract—gives you the right to be as subhuman as possible.
You want to cling to the long-gone idea that you pay player salaries? If your boss was an abusive son of a bitch to you on the job, you’d have every right to demand him or her being brought to account—and maybe fired. Don’t go there about ballplayers knowing what they signed up for. They signed up to play baseball in public, they didn’t sign up to be saints. Or, to just suck it up when fans go from mere displeasure to incessant abuse and even danger.
Don’t go there unless (hah! you thought you’d escape another mention) you’re willing to go to work with 55,000 people right there in your cubicle, on your dock, in your warehouse, at your drive-through, in your operating room (God help surgeons if their hospitals take the old colloquial “operating theater” seriously beyond a few med students/interns observing from above) . . . and another several million listening in on the Internet, on television, on the radio.
Don’t go there unless you’re ready to just suck it up if you make a mistake on the job, or especially if you get injured on the job doing nothing more than your job . . . but all those people are ready to dismiss you witlessly and hammer you mercilessly as a fragile weenie because you’re silly enough to think it’s not a clever idea to go back to work until your health is restored fully.
(Hands up to every Cub fan who remembers when Leo Durocher’s demoralising of his 1969 pennant contenders included leaving injured players afraid that, if they spoke up when they were injured in the line of duty, as more than a few were, the Lip would rip them as quitters.)
Don’t go there unless you can just suck it up, when those people crowding you on your jobs and listening over the airwaves decide you’re witless bums who deserve to die —with your wives and children—because you committed no crime worse than making an honest mistake or not being better than the other guys for more than two games.
Try to remember that—out from behind the often one-sided relationship between fans and players—all Baez, Lindor, and Pillar did was give playful thumbs down. They didn’t flip you the bird. They didn’t throw firecrackers at you. They didn’t shoot bleach at you with water pistols.
They didn’t burn the White House, sink the Titanic, wreck Mrs. Lincoln’s date night, trigger the Malbone Street subway wreck, blow up the Hindenburg, bring down the World Trade Center, introduce the coronavirus, or make the world safe for Billy Big-Mouth Bass.
The players are supposed to just suck up the booing, hissing, snarky signs, and even death threats. But the fans—who don’t pay their salaries, after all—aren’t supposed to just suck up a measly thumbs-down. Got it.