Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Care about Baseball Anymore? Part I & II

Spring training is beginning. Commentators wax rhapsodically about the rebirth of hope, spring and baseball. It is that glorious moment with only possibility before teams and fans. No wins, no losses, only hope. The cycle of sport seasons should renew people, offer hope, structure life for the next nine months with hope, conversation and following the execution and sport.

I hate this moment.

Each year I vow not to care anymore. The economic structure of baseball has skewed so radically that nothing resembling hope exists anymore. How much hope can a fan in Oakland,  Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Seattle,  San Diego or Baltimore have? Being a fan is anchored in loyalty and hope, baseball is killing hope.

Without a salary cap and without a mandatory minimum, baseball has evolved into a stable oligarchy of wealth and talent. This is not a monopoly, but with rare and brief exceptions, the winners and participants in championships can be predicted by the cluster of self reinforcing wealth of the top 10 teams. Most professional clubs exist like my old Kansas City Athletics did for the Yankees, as farm systems who develop talent, have them for four to five years and then must trade them or lose them to free agency to the elite wealthy teams like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. You can see by this comparison of the Yankee salary to the average of the rest.

Baseball owners and players both collude in a system that benefits them. Players make exorbitant salaries with long contracts that no other sport would consider. No one who understands the production curve of a professional athlete would award 20 million dollars a year for 7 years to a 32 year old player. This happens all the time among the baseball oligarchs because they do not worry about money in the hobby of billionaires. Small market owners, not faced with a minimum, hide behind the excuse and under-invest in their teams while reaping a profit from under investment and largesse distributed by the Yankees, Philadelphia and Boston with their mega salary structure.

It is already hard being a fan today  because so few teams have stable personnel. Free agency, money and hair trigger billionaire owners with a relentless drive to win produce unprecedented turn over on teams. We follow corporate shells that move fungible players in and out with the rare exceptions of stars who choose and stay at one team for their career. But it is almost impossible to be a fan for a team that offers no hope. It is like rooting for the Cubs but without the romance.

The Cliff Lees of the world are rare. Lee decided to sign for less money and spurned the Yankees for the Philadelphia. Almost no one takes less money unless you are already a millionaire several times over and can decide among winners. Even he  settled for "only" 20 million per year.  I cannot blame Lee and veterans like him who join teams who have real chances of winning championships as well as making him a millionaire. For most of the non-oligarch teams, they can maybe afford one Cliff Lee but cannot provide the supporting cast to be a real contender. The superb players migrate to the rich teams who offer real money and real chances to win. If you look at the Yankees and Boston and the Angels and Philadelphia you see teams built upon the investment and sweat of other systems who cannot afford to keep their players. No player wants to be consigned to a hopeless cause when teams that have the money and a real chance to win pursues them.

The more telling examples is watching the Albert Pujos example unfold. The best hitter in baseball wants a 10 year 30 million dollars a year contract. The Yankees can pay him and not worry a lot as he declines, but for the Cardinals, if they pay him 30 million, that is one third of their total salary structure so the declining production curve undermines their future and makes it impossible to surround him with the talent needed to compete year in and year out. So the deal was not struck, Pujos will leave at the end of the season or be traded late, and a strong well off team will once again lose out to the oligarchs.

So the team identity, investments and future dissipate under the internal ability to pay salaries and the external capacity of a few teams to cherry pick the best and rip out identities from the other team. So much for hope.


The defenders of this oligarchy cite the few teams who make the playoffs and sometimes steal a series, but these are clearly unstable anomalies. A rare team like Florida Marlins can steal a World Series but it resembles a fluke and dissipates immediately. The other model of long term investment and talent pool like Tampa Bay made the AL east so interesting, but they have to be dismantled very several years after their ascendancy. They  lose control of their players at that point, or they must bail out on players earlier to get some return. The bottom half needs an astrological convergence of all their nurtured talent coming together at once coupled with career years by veterans to have a chance. Then the convergence disappears and all that remains is a frame to rebuild again  like the skeletal Tamp Bay  after their recent fire sale.

The World Series winner in the last seven years had San Francisco (10), Yankees (1), Philadelphia (4), Boston (2), St. Louis Chicago (3),  Boston (2). The exceptions like Texas this year (27) keep critics at bay but dissolve under the stresses of the market and their inability to keep players. If they have loaded systems, they can replenish, but not with the strategic consistency as the Oakland failure of the last decade demonstrates.

Baseball now clusters into teams that: (1) always can compete unless hamstrung by stupidity like the Mets or hubris like the Yankees. (2) Some can compete through a combination of reasonable resources and or career years like the Giants or Chicago and  (3) the hopeless ones like my Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh or Cleveland who will never compete under this regime. So Kansas City watches Zach Greinke announce he wants to leave a ship dead in the water (20) and ends up in Milwaukee (18) which has a very small window with its combination of veterans and soon to depart invested players like Prince Fielder.

A great organization, even a corporate shell sports franchise, still needs several attributes to attain excellence. It needs a relentless focus upon core mission--build a winning team--depends upon getting good people committed to the goal; creating a culture where everyone is not only competent but works endlessly to find, evaluate, train and organize personnel to accomplish it. The formula does not change--success grows from committed skill+culture+organization.

The fifty percent turnover in football playoffs each year illustrate what real competition looks like in a quasi equal playing field. Football shows how the combination of talent, smarts, and organization can make a difference. Equal playing fields places a value on every team having to evaluate talent and nurture players and draft or sign free agents judiciously.

This year's Super Bowl represents the impossible for baseball. Two regular not ultra rich franchises compete year in and year out and go through ups an downs, but stay alive because of the salary cap, revenue sharing and then win the test of smart management, supple vision and sustained commitment. A Packers could not even exit in baseball and the Steelers would be the Pirates, so people wonder why folks give up on baseball and migrate to football. Football offers hope, baseball kills it.

Baseball depends upon institutional talent development unlike football and basketball. Basketball burns through talent and relies upon AAU and sometimes college. The modern pro game is so deskilled that  in depth talent development does not matter. Football relies  upon college sport which develops players but also educates them and nurtures the  intelligence required by the sport. Baseball, however, takes much more time. College baseball does not come near the skill development level, and the international base requires heavy investment and maturation in minor league play. This is tragedy of the modern system that spawns an illusion of hope for low cluster teams, but then encourages the talent to bolt to the oligarchs once they reach their prime.

I love baseball. I appreciate the art and combination of individual excellence and spacing with integrated teamwork. I enjoy the pace and social aspect of watching, thinking and conversing. I like the time and space configuration as well as the social dislocation to an intensified but non frenetic or ultra violent competitive space.

I lived through expansions, steroids, lock outs, collusion, but in each case, I possessed the possibility of hope. Each spring brought possibility. The essence of sport competitions lies not just in the excellence it inspires, but in the fact that we do not know the outcome in advance. Baseball is destroying this hope for fans.


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