The End of One Thing and the Start of Something Else (5)

May 25, 2020
(This is the final part in a series of essays. The first can be read here, the second is hear, the third is he’re, and the fourth is over yonder.)
 
 
It is my belief that baseball has lost its way.
 
When I say ‘baseball’ I mean the game as a whole: the institution of baseball. I believe all of the individuals within that institution are complicit in that lost way. The players and coaches. The owners and agents and executives. The fans. The writers and bloggers. We’re all contributing to making baseball something ‘less’ than it was, and less than it could be.
 
The question we’re facing, all of us, is whether we’re content to allow the game to fumble to some reduced version of itself, or if we want to muster the collective will to change course, and find a better direction.
 
I wasn’t thinking about this two months ago, but I’m thinking about it now. The COVID-19 pandemic has offered us a useful moment to take a breath, and look with clearer eyes at our lives and the stuff that makes them matter.
 
I care about baseball. As there are no games to distract us, no standings to keep abreast of, I think we have a chance -perhaps the only one we’ll get - to take stock of where baseball is and where it is going, and decide if we like the future it is heading towards, or if we want to opt for one that is better.
 
I want a better future. That is the concluding point. But before we get to that, we need to understand what is wrong.
 
*            *            *
 
 
Let’s start with something simple.
 
If you tuned in to watch a television broadcast of a Wednesday game in the Bronx last season, the odds are good that you’d see a lot of empty seats behind home plate.
 
Why is this the case?
 
Let’s say that the number of seats in view when the camera is showing the batter at the plate is 500… 500 seats visible to the person watching at home. These are the best seats in the house, the ones you’d most want to sit in to watch a game of baseball.
 
Does it make sense that the Yankees wouldn’t have 500 people willing to sit behind home plate on a Wednesday night to watch the Bombers take on Baltimore?
 
Of course not. The Yankees play in a city with a significant enough population, and they have a long and storied history. There is ample public transport to their stadium, and they had an excellent team last year. There are, on any given night, 500 people with the proximity and interest to fill those seats.
 
So why are the seats empty?
 
This is, on one level, a child’s question. Those seats are all paid for: corporations and wealthy individuals have paid sizeable sums to reserve those spaces, for the time that the game is being played. Some people (or corporations, which are people according to the laws of our land) have purchased those seats: they just have something else to do. Maybe the possessors of those seats don’t have clients to impress. Maybe a more pressing engagement has arisen. Maybe they’re late to the seats…they’ll show up in the third inning.
 
Those seats will not be counted as empty. When they announce the attendance in the box score the next day, those empty seats will count as occupied. Someone paid, so their presence counts, even if they busy doing something else. We don’t care if you show up: we just want you to pay.
 
Viewed from another lens, those empty seats are a missed opportunity. Those empty seats are a space where a kid could’ve sat and watched Aaron Judge crank a baseball into the stratosphere. Those are seats where an older fan could’ve witnessed Tanaka’s windup, and imagined it against the windups of Righetti or Guidry or Ford.
 
If we understand baseball as a business - if we understand the game of baseball as a cog in a capitalist system – we see those empty seats as a necessary extension of capital’s spread.
 
But if we understand baseball in a different light, if we consider the game as a public good or a sacred trust, or as something more than a business, then those empty seats are something very different.
 
*            *            *
 
 
It’s too early to ring the Marxist bell, and that’s not my criticism, really. I’m trying to say something else, and if this reads as too socialist too quickly, I might lose a reader or three.
 
A different angle, then.
 
Baseball is one of America’s greatest innovations, right there alongside McDonald’s burgers and the Tesla.
 
It is a great sport. It has a balance between individual effort and team aspiration that has no parallel in sports: as many people have observed, you play on a team, but you are also called to moments as an individual, as one person working against an entire team.
 
The game has no ‘clock’…a few people have noticed this and waxed poetic on this detail. It’s not entirely true, of course: baseball has a clock, but that clock - the innings and outs that mark the progression of the game - is satisfyingly organic to the structures of the game. It is not a controlling, external factor, but a boundary within the game.
 
Baseball does not have the problems of basketball, which is the problem of a game that moves in a predictable line. If you had to pick a quarter of basketball to watch, you’d pick the fourth quarter. There is no way to divide a baseball game so distinctly. I say this as a fan of basketball, and as someone who enjoys playing basketball a lot. Basketball is a fine game, but it is not perfect.
 
Baseball is an improvement on cricket, where each team has just one chance at offense and defense. Baseball is not physically damaging like football, and it has the broadest range of athletes: you can be a beer-bellied slugger of brawn and you can be a lithe shortstop who punches singles. It is a game that rewards speed and strength and agility and intelligence, and it has less specialization in skills than other sports. You can be tall or short. You can throw one hundred miles an hour and you can throw sixty-mile-an-hour junk. If you’re Zack Greinke or Yu Darvish, you can do both in one at-bat.
 
The strategy is ever-changing: the structures of baseball allow adjustments in approaches that have a broader range than the adjustments in other sports. The game allows moments of pause to consider strategy, but the pause is not so long that it pulls you out of watching. Soccer has strategies, too, but the mind cannot process all of the intricacies of what is happening in real time. Baseball’s scale is small enough to be able to understand all the dynamics of a moment in real time.

The game has a history that is tangled up with the history of our country, and is thus richer than the histories of other American sports. If you want to understand America, baseball is the sport that comes closest to mirroring the strangeness of our national identity. And the game has better numbers: a line of baseball statistics acquires the power of language in the way that the statistics of other sports cannot match.
 
It is the greatest team sport invented, or at least the greatest American sport. The only thing I’ve ever witnessed that might rival it is Aussie rules football, but I have only a fleeting understanding of that game, which seems to merge the athleticism and kinetic grace of soccer with the pace and physical torture of a rugby game played by marathoners, all taking place on a field big enough to land a jet plane on. But they’re still learning to count down there in Australia, so forget about any good statistics.
 
In short, baseball is the perfect sport.
 
And baseball is losing its hold on our collective imagination. It matters less than it has ever mattered in the broader sphere of American life, and its impact is waning more and more with every season that passes.
 
I do not think that baseball will cease to exist. The game will endure because it is too good of a game not to endure: it has a history and an architecture that is too great to fall apart. Baseball will go on.
 
What concerns me is the kind of life the game will come to have. Baseball is giving up its history and its status as our preeminent pastime. It is heading down the road towards being a niche sport, a thing that some people care about but most people don’t pay any attention to.
 
Are we content to have this happen? I’m addressing all of us: players and owners and fans and writers and readers. Are we OK with this, or do we want to do something about it?
 
*            *            *
 
Going astray: how much does it take to pull us away from the world? What is the dollar amount that will take us away from a connection to the rituals and routines that most of us share? What number keeps us at distance?
 
In 1958 Duke Snider received $44,000 dollars to play for the Dodgers. The average household income for a family was $5,100 dollars, and as this was 1958, we can assume that some percentage of ‘family incomes’ would’ve been single-earner incomes. To play baseball for a year, Duke Snider was compensated a salary that equaled eight years of work for an average worker.
 
And that is probably too high an estimate. Snider was playing in Los Angeles at the time, a city where we can guess that the cost of living was higher than the national average. Adjusting for that, his salary was probably four or five times that of his neighbors.
 
This is not, in my mind, a number that isolates one from the rest of the world. Duke Snider had a salary that would allow him to live a comfortable life, but he was not removed from the greater society by $44,000 dollars. He still would have had to take the car in for repairs, or shop for groceries. His children would’ve likely gone to the public school.
 
In 1980, when Nolan Ryan signed the first million-dollar-a-year contract, the average household income was about $12,000. That is 83 years of work, roughly. That is more than a family will earn in a lifetime.
 
But Nolan Ryan was the exception. The average salary for a major league player in 1980 was $143,000 dollars a year. That is twelve times the national average, perhaps eight-to-ten times the average for people living in cities, Nolan Ryan was making a lot, and other players were making a lot…but most players weren’t. For every Ryan, there would’ve still been hundreds of baseball players making salaries that were very close to what Snider was making in 1958.
 
Let’s move to the present.
 
I talked about Ozzie Albies in one of the earlier articles. By one lens….by the lens of baseball’s current economy, Ozzie Albies is criminally underpaid. He will make $6 million dollars a year, when his approximate value according to FanGraphs would be in the neighborhood of $30 million a year.
 
He’ll be underpaid…but he will make the approximate earnings of 66 families for every year of his contract. He’s making Nolan Ryan money.
 
Gerrit Cole, the wealthiest pitcher in baseball, will make the equivalent of 356 households of income. And considering that most households have two workers, we can approximate that Gerrit Cole’s one year has a parallel of five or six hundred years of Americans laboring at work that is menial or meaningful.
 
We can break it down into fields, if we want to be really depressing. Gerrit Cole is getting paid a thousand years of social workers, or eight hundred teacher years. Two hundred lawyer years. Three hundred years of tenured professors.
 
The easy criticism is to stay whether this is fair, or just. Of course it’s not fair. Of course it’s not right. Gerrit Cole will likely have a slight positive impact on the lives of a great number of people. A social worker will impact the lives of very few people, but their impact on those lives will be orders of magnitude greater than Cole’s contributions. It ain’t fair.
 
And I’m not interesting in talking about fairness. Fairness is an important issue, but it’s not the issue that interests me.

What interests me is the question of whether it even matters. What I want to know is whether or not Gerrit Cole, in making five times what Ozzie Albies makes, will live a life that is comparatively better.
 
My belief is that it does not matter. Gerrit Cole will not live a life that will be five times better than the life Ozzie Albies will lead. Both men have passed into an earning bracket where the margins will have almost no bearing on the outcomes. They have passed into a space where the difference in salary is an abstraction. Neither man will ever have to work, or have their children work, or even think about money as a concern. The difference is in degrees: Gerrit Cole gets to have a bigger sailboat.
 
I have never wanted wealth because I am afraid of what it would keep me from. For someone who isn’t likely to ever have money, I have given more thought to the subject than is probably useful, but I’ve thought about it a great deal, and I don’t think the payout is worth the cost. It is tedious to have to go to a grocery store, but it keeps me in the world. In our new moment of isolation, going to the grocery store has been the only experience I’ve had in the broader world: it has more significance than we recognize.
 
I am fortunate that many of my friends are artists, because that has meant that most of them don’t make a lot of money. Because of this, I don’t face any significant pressure to go on fancy vacations or purchase expensive vehicles, because the Jones I am keeping up with are concerned with something very different than money. Because I am interested, at least to some extent, in understanding the world, I want to stay in the world.
 
Baseball players, and agents, and teams, spend a great deal of time talking about these dollar amounts, and those of us who think about the game follow suit. But what, in essence, do these amounts matter? What does it change, fundamentally, if you make $6 million or $60 million?
 
*            *            *
 
 
This is going off on a tangent, but this whole process has been a long tangent, so what the hell.
 
How many of you watched the security camera footage of David Ortiz getting shot in the Dominican Republic?
 
I found myself rivetted by the video. I wasn’t interested in the shooter, or the aftermath: what captivated me were the moments shown before Ortiz was shot, when he was sitting in a crowded bar, enjoying the company of his countrymen. It was a scene that I hadn’t ever witnessed before, and I was struck by what the moment captured: our need to live in community, and to share public spaces with others.
 
People who live in the public realm give us their lives in specific and controlled ways…controlled and at a remove. The act of watching David Ortiz hit a dramatic homerun, and running around the bases as the crowd at Fenway cheers is an act of witnessing a man in his solitude: we cannot reach him, and he cannot allow himself to be reached, because the press of our attention would be too much to bear.
 
But this video, of David Ortiz in his country, surrounded by people who knew the place where he had grown up and the path of his life, was something that felt different. Here was David Ortiz, finally in the world. Here was the great man, in his life.
 
And the world of that life proved unsafe. Whatever precautions and protections David Ortiz takes when he enters the world, whatever control he efforts towards, that control is not a sure thing. A man with a gun reached to him.
 
There is a freedom in not having much. If a thief broke into my house, they would find a few unreliable laptops and a television set that cost $100 bucks, and a few knick-knacks that matter to me, but have no monetary value. They would find books…maybe they could take a shot at out-hustling Amazon.
 
What I am trying to say?
 
I am not, at my heart, a rationalist, or a logistician. I realize that what I am trying to give voice to can be read as an economics argument, but I am not much interested in the economics, except in how they can be used to illustrate something of broader significance.
 
What I am trying to suggest is that within the economic shifts that has taken us from the world of Duke Snider to Gerrit Cole, baseball has lost something significant. Duke Snider made a comfortable living that did not take him away from the world. Gerrit Cole makes a living that not only takes him away from the world, but ensures that the world is, at least on some level, a threat.
 
There is a cost to that; a profound cost. The escalation of salaries isn’t just bad because it means there is less available to the minor leaguers and the staffs and the peanut vendors who work to support the game. It has a cost for the people making those salaries, too.
 
Wealth blinds us…all of us. Every step up the economic ladder takes us further and further away from the world. I have been slightly poor, but not significantly, and my exposure to poverty is very limited now. There are people who live a stone’s throw away from where I am writing this who would count as poor by any metric you could use to measure poverty. Some of their children ride the bus with my children, and attend the same school. I know their names, but I don’t have any real idea what shape their life has.
 
Baseball is like this, too. The structures around the game are blinding: if you reach the major leagues you forget what it was to be in the minor leagues. You forget the names of the ones who don’t follow you. And the people around you are people who don’t matter, either, for they are no longer of your world. They are ancillaries to your world, as the grocery baggers and bus drivers are ancillary to our lives. We don’t know their names.
 
*            *            *
 
 
Imagine two brothers…twins.
 
They are the only children to a wealth couple, and as such, they are the eventual heirs to great fortune. They are fortunate, but their fortune means that their childhood will be spent in relative solitude: mom and dad are too busy to take much notice of them, so they are raised by a caring butler and a rotation of buxom au-pairs. Or maybe it is the butler who is buxom, and the au-pairs all speak with clipped British accents.
 
The kids live on an isolated manor. Their father has no interest in frivolities like sports, of course: he cares about important things like the stock market. As a result the children have no access to traditional sports, but they have some humble assortment of balls and sticks, and they do what kids would do: they invent games. In the absence of official sports, they invent unofficial sports.
 
Years pass, and mom and dad die of natural causes…let’s go with ‘arsenic’ and ‘public beheading.’ The kids come of age and inherit $50 million dollars each. From their riches, they decide to make a professional ‘sport’ out of the games they played in their youth, the games that sustained them through their solitude.
 
They choose different sports. Twin #1 decided to make ‘SockBall’ a professional sport. Twin #2, who always lost at SockBall because of a platoon differential, but excelled at ‘Pin-The-Arrow on the Butler’, decides to develop that sport.
 
The brothers choose different routes to making their game a success.
 
The first brother, in trying to develop the game, decided to hold a contest. He posts the rules of SockBall on the internet and announces that in one year he will have try-outs for the first professional SockBall League. From those tryouts, the best fifty players will be selected. The players will receive a starting salary of $200,000…that’s $10 million there. A large chunk of money will pay to build infrastructure around the game…great stadiums and television cameras and popcorn machines.
 
The second brother takes a different approach. To develop Pin-The-Arrow on the Butler, he gives $1000 dollars to 1000 middle school gym teachers, and asks them to teach Pin-The-Arrow for a couple weeks during the spring. That’s a million bucks. A year later he expands it to high schools…another million.
 
He hires a company in Jakarta to make him ‘Pin-the-Arrow’ kits for $50 bucks a pop, and buys 100,000 of them…that costs $5 million dollars….he’s spent $7 million so far. He starts a club in twenty cities…the club is a field with some knocked-together grandstands and a structure to shelter in if there is rain. A little concrete clubhouse with bathrooms. Anyone can try out for the official team, and the best players will get hired, but they won’t get much money: let’s say $1,000 bucks to play, and a free uniform.
 
The games are free to fans…free popcorn, too. Fans can pass the hat if they think an Arrower has a good game, or if a Butler throws a no-arrower. There’s a game every week, but people in the town are invited to use the field for Pin-The-Arrow when there is no game. It is a public space, the old Arrow ground. They give away those ‘sets’ to play the game to kids in the stands, and they leave some equipment around in bins so kids can play if they wander past. A groundskeeper is hired full-time at each stadium: the groundskeepers are the highest salaries person in the league so far.
 
Which game will take off?
 
It is very obvious which one takes off: Pin-the-Arrow will crush SockBall.
 
Sockball gives a handful of people the chance to make a lot of money, but the business model that it endorses will not generate a fanbase to sustain the game. In two years, the brother will be out of cash and no one will take SockBall seriously, except for the fifty people who have worked their butts off to be stars in the fledgling sport. They’ll have their money, but there will be no legacy for them. No one will care who held the record for most socklettes in a single game, or who tossed the fewest anklets.
 
Pin-the-Arrow, on the hand, will succeed. It will be the brother’s legacy because it made the effort to make fans first…to build up the interest in the game. The early players will play because the game is something to do, and it’s new, and maybe if you’re good enough you can make a few bucks. Low stakes for everyone, and the kids like the popcorn. Some of them will take up the game and some won’t. Some teams will fold and other cities will want their own teams. Leagues will start and fold, and different trends and rules will flow in and out of style, but the game will last. It will take years to happen, but it will endure.
 
Pin-The-Arrow is following, in essence, the route that baseball took to become a popular sport in America: it started on the game, on amateur play…and gradually structures arose from that game to turn it into a business.
 
And Sockball, which echoes a little the ways that people tried to make Jai-Alai a marketable sport, is the path that baseball seems committed to following: towards a strategy of ‘let’s give all the loot to the best-of-the-best, and to hell with everyone else.’ The line to becoming Gerrit Cole or Ozzie Albies is already a blurry one: for every millionaire, there are hundred of men who have given it their best shot and ended up with less-than-nothing. Eventually, those people will stop lining up. And the money will go with them.
 
 
*            *            *
 
 
I should get to the point. It’s been long enough, and I have other things I’d like to write about.
 
I am concerned with the ways that structures of baseball’s current economics are weakening the foundations of the game in ways that are big and small. My belief is that the end result of this path is an America where baseball has the same cultural cache as professional darts, or the Metropolitan Opera. I am not trying to mock those institutions: both contribute positively to our society. But baseball should do better.  
 
This is where baseball is currently heading. Day-by-day, season-by-season, baseball is sacrificing its hold on the American collective imagination, and that loss is something that the game will struggle to get back.
 
And maybe it shouldn’t get it back. Maybe baseball has no business being so central to American society. Maybe it should be allowed to die.
 
But I am on the side of baseball. I can’t help it: it’s too beautiful a game for me to shake off. My love for the game has put me at odds with most everyone I know. I think baseball matters, because it has mattered so much to me, and because I believe it has an inherent value. I think it is something good that is being allowed to decay, and I want us…all of us…to work together to stop that decay.
 
How?
 
*            *            *
 
 
Let’s start small.
 
Baseball should start subsidizing Fangraphs. Baseball should fund Baseball-Reference. Baseball should fund The Athletic. They should fund a bunch of different websites and blogs and writers…they should fund a few bloggers for a few teams, a la SB Nation. They should support good platforms that currently exist and fund new platforms to appeal to different audiences.
 
Why?
 
Because these sites, and the people who produce content for these sites, are doing work that inevitably builds and sustains an interest in the thing that Major League Baseball is selling.
 
FanGraphs keeps people interested in baseball, and they keep people talking about baseball. In this moment in history, when no one is thinking about baseball, FanGraphs is doing a service by distracting us, and allowing us the chance to think about baseball.
 
These sites are doing what Rob Neyer did for me years ago: they are keeping the game alive in the minds of fans, so that when the game comes back, the fans will come back to it. They are filling in the gaps left behind by older forms of media – newspapers and magazines – and they are making us stay interested.

Baseball has been mostly indifferent to these platforms, and now some of them are dying off. If FanGraphs disappears, a whole swath of baseball fans will lose the site they go to first every single day. That would be a tremendous loss to the game, and baseball has shown little inclination to understand this.
 
Baseball should do it the right way: they should provide money to keep writers and analysts fed, and they should stay out of the way of managing the sites. Don’t control the messaging of these sites: allow their own distinct voices to emerge and develop. Foster new media platforms that are critical in providing small exposures to the game.
 
I am not trying to make a moral argument: I am not suggesting that baseball owes a debt to these sites, a belated payment for services rendered.  
 
I am saying that baseball should support these sites because it is in the best interest of the game to have good writers producing interesting content about baseball.
 
Newspapers and reporters were a daily, essential conduit between fans and players and teams: today that role is undertaken by the thousands of keyboard jockeys who are attempting to tell the story of the game on laptop screens. Baseball should a better job of supporting them.
 
A good parallel for what I’m trying to communicate is the relationship between the NBA and the WNBA. The WNBA…the only professional women’s league in America…makes a fractional percentage of what the NBA makes. It is a league that is massively subsidized by the NBA. The WBNA is a fiscal loss for the NBA.
 
So why does the NBA pay for it?
 
Because the NBA is smart: it is the smartest professional league in America. The NBA understands that having games where girls and women can watch women play their sport, and imagine themselves playing on that same court, has benefits for the sport in total.
 
The NBA, in supporting the WNBA, has said, "the game of basketball is the most important thing. We’re second to that, and we’re going to make sure some of the money we make goes to supporting the game, and not just our league."
 
Baseball hasn’t had that realization.
 
I talked, in the first article, about a local minor league team here in Virginia. Right now, it is facing an uncertain future. Pulaski, Virginia might lose the town’s link to professional baseball, a link that has existed for eighty years.
 
That link, once broken, will not return. If baseball leaves Pulaski, it will not come back. It will be gone forever.
 
Well…what does that matter? What does it matter that a hard-off town is losing one more thing that gives the people who live there some pride in their history? What does it matter that the one thing motivating an outsider like me to visit a place like Pulaski might close its gates?
 
What does it matter if that same thinking is being undertaken in hundreds of towns across the US? Why should baseball spent money to keep baseball close to central Virginia, or central Iowa…when the denizens of those places could just drive four hours and plop down a thousand bucks to see the real deal in D.C., or Chicago?
 
It matters because it is another broken exposure. If there is no baseball within three hundred miles of your house, what makes you want to care about the baseball being played on a field you’ll never see?
 
I am asking a lot from ‘baseball.’ Who, exactly, am I making the request to?
 
Everyone. All of the people involved. If you are a player, you should understand that what you’re doing on the baseball diamond is a story that someone else has to tell. You’re doing the hard work of playing the game…but someone else has to do the work of telling your story. Maybe you should be willing to give some percentage of your income to those folks, who are getting nothing. The Players’ Association should chip in and fund the storytellers.
 
If you are an owner, you should understand that the value of the thing you own is held in the hearts of the fans, and nowhere else. Fenway Park prints money because the fans care, and if you take that care for granted…if you do not foster that passion and allow access to that world, your riches will turn to dust. It is about the game, first: you are just the gatekeepers. If you keep the gate locked, people will look for something else.
 
Baseball should worry. I talked about the Yankees earlier, but I could have talked about the Marlins.
 
The Miami Marlins are a major league team that plays in an aesthetically interesting stadium, located in the heart of a thriving city that has a baseball-obsessed population…and their home-games are about as well attended as a Thursday night poetry reading in Antarctica. Something is damaged.
 
And it is damaging the experience for everyone. What must it feel like, to be Giancarlo Stanton or Christian Yelich, to reach the majors and have to play four or five years in front of a home crowd of a couple hundred Floridians looking to escape the heat? Is the lessening of that experience mitigated by getting paid a lot of money, or does the experience itself have some value that merits consideration and protection apart from the money involved?
 
 
*            *            *
 
 
There are easy solutions to these challenges.
 
How do we fix the attendance problem? How does baseball fix the problem of teams selling off their best seats to corporate interests who don’t give a damn about baseball?
 
Easy enough. Baseball could hire three people and send them video feeds every night and ask them to provide a count, and they’d have a number. We could call the number ‘Quota of Public Trust.’ The Yankees average 22% capacity at first pitch, 44% by the fifth, and 31% at the end. The A’s are at 41%, 54%, 51%.
 
Once baseball had the data, they could use it to enforce consequences on that number. "Sorry, Yankees, but you’re not getting an ESPN home game this year: you’re failing your responsibility as public institution. Get your numbers up…get some actually faces in the seats…and we’ll talk next year."
 
Think it through: is it in the best interest of baseball…not the teams or the corporation of MLB, but the game…to have the best seats empty, or to make an effort to get fans into those seats? Which sustains the sport, and which rots it out?
 
The game is better if people can enjoy watching it from the best seats. Baseball should encourage teams to make that happen, and enforce consequences on teams that don’t do enough to ensure access.
 
How about empty seats?
 
Again, an easy fix. Baseball could subsidize teams in cities that aren’t drawing enough fan. "Hey Miami…we noticed you’re having trouble building a fan base. Here’s what we’d like you to do. Tell fans: at first pitch, tickets are a dollar. You can stand in line and if there are empty seats we’ll sell you a ticket for a dollar. Do it for a year, and get people in the stadium. We’ll throw you some money: your job is to build a fan base. Next year, you can raise it to two dollars. Then five. Then we’ll see if you have a fan base."
 
Wouldn’t that work? I know that the economic argument is that people won’t pay $50 dollars for something they can get for $1…but it’s a better long-term strategy to get people in to see what your selling. This is the drug dealer philosophy, and those guys don’t seem to be hurting for income. Give people access to baseball…make sure it is easy and cheap and enjoyable…and once they seen what it is, once they’ve enjoyed the charms of your park and the exciting players you have, once they’ve become habituated to going to a game, then you can start charging more.
 
This is why the minor leagues have to be saved: not because they are an important training ground for players, but because they are an important access point for fans. You cannot go to Fenway Park and sit behind the dugout for anything less that five hundred or a thousand dollars a head…but I can get front-row seats behind the dugout in Salem for $12, and my kids will get a ball tossed from a coach or player just about every time we go.
 
If baseball continues to treat the minor leagues as something expendable, it will kill that access point. In a perfect world the minor leagues would be free, and independent, and sell-sustaining….but we’re in this world, and I’m trying to be practical.
 
Baseball cards are a very easy fix. Baseball could tells Topps: "Hey, how about you stop making all these silly sets, and just make one baseball card next year. No more Topps Heritage and Topps Vintage and Topps Premium and Topps Ultra-Orthodox…just make one Topps set next year, like you did for most of baseball history, and we’ll pay you for it. Sixteen cards a pack, a dollar each. We’ll make sure to get in on the shelves in Kroger and Wal-Mart, and we’ll cover any loses. Your job is to make one Mike Trout card a year with his batting stats on the back and a nice picture on the front. No curse words on the bats. Do you think you can handle that?"
 
I never see baseball cards anymore. If they were on the shelf at my grocery story, if they were cheap, I’d buy ‘em for my kids. Baseball cards were my gateway into the sport…they need to come back.
 
Everything has a solution, and most of the solutions are easy. What is required is a shift in thinking. We cannot think about Major League Baseball or The Boston Red Sox or The Appalachian League or Mike Trout or Joe Nobody first. We need to make decisions that consider the game first, and orient all of the component parts towards strengthening that.
 
The current commissioner has shown a better understanding of this problem than I imagined anyone in his position would be capable of mustering. He’s on it: I think he sees it, and I think he’s trying to use his position to make positive changes. But he can’t do it along, and his efforts aren’t on the scale needed. There needs to be a radical sea-change in the game.
 
Owners and players have frequently understood their conflict as adversarial…and I think both sides would be better off if they started from a recognition that all of the profits and perks they are fighting over are things we have given them. They have earned nothing: they are the recipients of a gift. Both sides have to decide if they want to honor that gift, or reject it.
 
*            *            *
 
 
We have given it to them, so now it’s our turn. We’ve made mistakes, too.
 
A small one, first:
 
The history of the game is one of the things we carry. We are responsible for holding our memories and years of fandom, and connecting it to the moments that came before us, and giving them up to the moments that will come after. It is our trust: it is something we fans carry more than institutions. 
 
And we have not done a good job of passing the game along.
 
The other day I gave my oldest son a box of 1988 Topps Big Cards. It is a weird set: the backs have three panels of comics that tell some facts about the player’s life. My kid likes them because they have stories on the back, and cool pictures.
 
Looking through the set of cards, I pointed out who the brightest stars were, and I realized that I started caring about baseball at a moment when most of the very brightest stars were all being undone by drugs. The hottest cards of 1988 would’ve been Daryl Strawberry and Jose Canseco and Doc Gooden, but we didn’t get to have their careers. Drugs wiped those guys off the books, along with many others. That generation came of age and flamed out. And while that flameout can be laid at the feet of individuals making individual choices, those choices it must have at least some connection to the broader problem I’m talking about in the Duke Snider essay. If you make a child a millionaire, how can you expect them to make good decisions with that money?
 
That was a profound loss for my life as a baseball fan: we lost many of the great stars of that generation.
 
And that generation was followed by a generation who used a lax policy and ready access to performance-enhancing drugs to have careers that boggle the mind. There was certainly a crossover, of course: the stars of the 1970’s and 1980’s were using steroids, just as the stars of the 50’s and 60’s were using amphetamines. But it was the generation of the 1990’s who have had to bear the brunt of baseball’s steadily escalating drug war.
 
The result is a broken line of history.
 
Barry Bonds won seven Most Valuable Player awards, and no one else in the game’s long history has won more than three. Yet no one can seriously talk about his place in the history of the game.
 
Roger Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards…a few other pitchers have three or four, but no one’s come close to matching his run. If he isn’t the greatest pitcher of all-time, he has to be in the conversation…yet he has no plaque in Cooperstown.
 
We can add to the list. Manny Ramirez was an indelible, puzzling, captivating player who hit like McCovey or Foxx: he isn’t in the Hall. Gary Sheffield, one of the swaggiest players to ever step to the plate, doesn’t have a chance. Big Mac and Sammy Sosa, whose shared journey to break baseball’s most venerated record was one of the most positive and upbeat stories of my fandom, are now considered pariahs to the game, and their record is remembered as a disgrace.
 
Instead of Canseco or Strawberry, we got Harold Baines. Instead of Big Mac or Barry, we got Edgar Martinez. Instead of Rocket, we got Jack Morris.
 
I stopped caring about the Hall of Fame because I realized that the Hall of Fame wasn’t ever going to come around to honoring the years when I most cared about the game, and the players who were most indelible to those years. And I’ve stopped wanting to talk to most of you about it because I am sick and tired of hearing you tell me how just and moral your vision of the world is.
 
It is not justice of any kind: it is a destruction of the arc of the game’s history, done in the name of selective moralizing that imagines that a systemic problem can be boxed up into a ten-year period and set aside and ignored, and we’ll get something purer out of the process. Never mind the sixty years where men were sidelined to a second league because of their skin color: we wouldn’t want to box away those seventy years of baseball history. That would be too much, for a sin that isn’t quite significant enough to merit a real reckoning. Let’s ignore, too, the pretty terrible injustices that have taken place in Latin American countries in recent years, where baseball school are mining poorer countries for talented players without significantly compensating those places. Let’s fixate on the issue of steroids, instead.  
 
It’s nonsense, and it reduces the game. The chain from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Willie Mays to Mike Schmidt passes through Barry Bonds. The chain from Walter Johnson to Grove to Gibson to Seaver passes through Roger Clemens. To weary ourselves in prolonged debate on one generation's efforts to skirt rules that all generations have efforted to warp is to participate in a specific kind of deconstruction that keeps the past as something that has no capacity to reflect on and speak to our present.
 
*            *            *
 
 
What else?
 
The writers - those of us with platforms on various websites – could be doing a better job.
 
In the discussion about baseball economics, we have been demonstrably on the side of the players. Perhaps, going forward, we shouldn’t be so in the bag for one side in a fight of millionaires battling billionaires. Maybe we should be on the side of people closer to our pay grade: the peanut vendors and minor league lifers.
 
The salary structures in baseball are a problem, but when we participate in the conversation at the level of players and owners, we are advocating for winners against bigger winners: we want Apple to beat Amazon.
 
No one is behaving equitably, or compassionately. In writing to support one side, we are lending legitimacy to structures that handicap the game, and structures that do not benefit us in any way. Writing an article as simple as "Is this deal a good contract or a bad one?" means that we are normalizing the notion that some contracts within the current system are good. I don’t believe that is the case. Any deal that happens within the current, flawed system is sacrificing the long-term life of the game to pay off today’s stars. It is short-sighted, and we need to speak to the broader flaws.
 
Baseball writers should be more critical, frankly. Baseball used to have platforms that spoke truth to power - Deadspin is the latest casualty - and as we lose those places we lose realizing that criticism is a central part of our work as observers and commentators. Baseball needs to be criticized, and we are the people who need to do the critiquing.
 
That is easy for me to say, of course: my check is small, and my boss has never been shy about turning over tables in the temple. And I’m not perfect, either. I’ve been cautious, too: I should take more risks.
 
*            *            *
 
 
Who else?
 
Stop being passive, fans.
 
Stop pretending that you don’t have agency, when you hold all the cards. You are the ones who give baseball meaning, and you can force the game to change for the better. There is no reason for baseball fans to not act collectively towards shaping the game into something that you want.
 
It is not some impossible thing.
 
Let’s imagine a very unlikely scenario: let’s imagine that the owner of the Boston Red Sox decides to move the team to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Let’s say John Henry announces that he’s closing up Fenway and packing all the gear into trucks and moving south.
 
Can he do this?
 
Sure. He has the deed, and the copyright. He can do whatever the hell he wants.
 
Except…the stuff that John Henry only has the value we, collectively, decide to allow it. He owns a team that is worth a great deal because we have decided it has value, but we – the fans – can impact that value. If we stopped caring, John Henry would have a team that had significantly less value than it used to have, and he’d a bunch of players he is contractually bound to pay a lot of money to.
 
Can he decide that the memories of Ted and Yaz and Boggs and Pedro are now the memories of New Mexico? 
 
He can certainly try, but we don’t have to allow something like that to happen. John Henry would be able to move the trophies and trinkets that currently reside in Fenway Park, and in doing that he could attempt to move the legacies of Ted Williams and Yaz and Rocket and Pedro and Nomar to Albuquerque. He can hang retired numbers on a new façade and claim the legacy. But fans would not be obligated to accept that. Carlton Fisk did not, after all, make the church bells ring in New Mexico when he reached the foul pole, and there is no red seat where Williams hit a homerun. The value of the Red Sox, the worth of the franchise, is held much more in the shared memories and traditions of New Englanders, and we would not have to stand by if Henry tried to take them.
 
What could red Sox fans do?
 
We could pressure elected officially to preserve it as a historical landmark. We could crowdfund an amateur team to play on the field and call them the real Red Sox. We could celebrate the memories of Ruth and Lynn and Dewey and Papi, and make it so fans could pay five dollars to walk around the ballpark. We could embarrass the Arizona Red Sox for their fraudulent claims at a legacy that has nothing to do with Arizona until they got sick of trying to cling to that legacy and gave it up. No one wears socks in the desert, anyway.
 
I’m not intending to pick on John Henry, who seems like a very good guy. I’m trying to say that baseball fans operate under an illusion that we have little control over the game. We have, in fact, all the control: we hold all the cards. If we were to mobilize our efforts, if we were able to figure out a way to work collaboratively and collectively, we could change the game. We’re not at the mercy of anyone.
 
*            *            *
 
 
In writing all of this, I have felt increasingly that I’ve been pretending to write about baseball, when I am really writing about something much broader.
 
At its core, baseball satisfies us because it is a microcosm of the wider universe, a game that reduces what is vast and unknowable into something that is slightly less vast, and thus more knowable. It is very difficult to grasp the economics of the globe, just as it is very difficult to determine how one can live a good life. It is easier to understand the economics of baseball, just as it is easier to say what makes a good baseball player.
 
I was reading an article the other day, and the author made the same point about CEO salaries that I had been attempting to make in my comments about Duke Snider and Gerrit Cole. CEO’s used to get paid ten times what the lowest-paid employee of company X…now they make three hundred times as much.
 
I feel like much of what I’ve been talking about are thing that are happening everywhere in our country. If a small town in Virginia is losing a baseball team that they’ve had for eighty years, that’s a small version of what hundreds of small towns are losing across the country.
 
There is a looming sense that we are giving up something good for something that is fleeting and insufficient. I am not a pessimist by nature, but I have felt profound doubts about our shared future. I wonder if I am afraid for baseball because I am afraid for all of it, all of this.
 
But that is a topic that is beyond my grasp, and beyond your patience for me to blunder through. I hope this is enough.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
  
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

steve161
Steven: gotcha. I'll look forward to the article.
7:30 AM May 27th
 
evanecurb
I don’t agree with everything here, but I don’t need to. This is a topic that needs to be discussed and that fans, executives, and writers need to care about: the future of the game.

There is one point that I’d add to the discussion: Baseball is boring to many people - to many of the same people who at one time did not find it boring. I’m not proposing a solution here, just noting a topic that needs to be added to the discussion.
6:39 PM May 26th
 
bearbyz
Great essay. A lot of great ideas.

One thing about the Yankees. I think there are certain high price seats behind home plate where the owners of the tickets are not allowed to scalp their tickets. If they don't go to the game, they have to give the tickets back to the Yankees to sell them. At least that is the way I understand it. I wouldn't be able to afford those tickets, so I haven't done any real research. Anyway, my point is that could account for some of the empty seats.
1:44 PM May 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
steve161, let's continue this digression in the comments to my article if or when I ever write it up. "Likely" seems to me not to the point, but I'll explain my point more fully and you can then rip it, ok?
1:20 PM May 26th
 
steve161
Steven, I think we agree on what we'd like to see happen. But seriously: do you think it's at all likely that it will?
10:45 AM May 26th
 
voxpoptart
I love this essay. Great job. Plus, I learned that the WNBA is a loss leader belonging to the NBA, which is news to me, and reflects very well on the NBA indeed.

The part of me that earned an honors degree in Economics (while also minoring in Psychology and Anthropology and thus coming to disagree with a lot of my Econ courses' basic premises) can't help thinking about the economics of it. You urge the league and the players' union to do economically rational things -- to recognize the power of promoting their sport -- and I've spent my life watching large organizations get less and less rational. I want to see the teams bought out by their cities; I want the cities to use the free stadiums they've built as a down payment on the price. I would like to see some of that baseball money going, by the principle of how tax bases work, to people who are neither millionaires nor billionaires.

Maybe, at that point, the rationality of "let's fund Fangraphs and Baseball Reference and Topps" would get through. Probably not, though. Negotiating with unions (of, e.g., park vendors and maintenance crew) is something cities are often better at than private companies. Long-term investing, less so, alas, in these we-built-the-sewer-system-decades-ago-and-expect-it-to-last-forever days. :-(
9:33 PM May 25th
 
Poincare
Please forgive me David. I accidentally referred to you as Stephen in my previous post. I am very embarrassed by that, but I want you to know that I meant every other word. Your article here is pure gold.
4:52 PM May 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I think you mean "Dave" rather than "Steven." I agree with you, except for that.
4:33 PM May 25th
 
Poincare
I have always loved reading your work Steven, but you have surpassed yourself with this article. I honestly think this is the best thing you have ever written, and agree wholeheartedly with all of your key points. Great job and keep up the fine work.
4:16 PM May 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
More of a comment on steve161's comment than a comment on your fine article, Dave:

steve, you keep making the point that X will never happen, so forget about X, but already this season, and the past few seasons, all sorts of things have happened that I might have posited happening but you (and others) have made the same case against. If I had discussed "What if there were no MLB for an entire year?" you might have said "Never happen. Stupid to discuss even." Right? (Of course, "right"--don't even bother protesting that you wouldn't have responded that way, because if not, someone Shirley would have.) I often propose outlandish positions in my own articles, and I can usually count on someone chiming in with "Never gonna happen, so why discuss?"

I've been thinking of devoting an article to this theme, entitled "Being Right First," but I'm searching for a way to couch it without seeming smarty-pantsier than thou. A few years ago, I wrote a piece that outlined the strategy of using closers to begin games rather than end them, since there are many games that your closer needs work and very few games where you can reasonably expect a complete game from your starter--and BOY, DID I GET JUMPED ON by the "Never Gunna Happen" crowd. But now openers are just a part of the game. Ho hum.

Lots of other examples, that I'll save for my piece, if it ever gets written. (Geographic rearrangement of leagues, for example, so each division is in a tight geographic radius of teams--now being raised as a practical possibility.) This "never gonna happen" argument is more an argument for your limited imagination than it is, as you seem to think, for an argument promoting a practical perspective on speculation.
3:57 PM May 25th
 
steve161
Dave, I generally agree with most of what you've said here, but I'm going to quibble about a few things.

I am still waiting to read something about the economics of baseball that doesn't include the old "millionaires versus billionaires" cliche. You're right that this is about capitalism, but the Marxist critique of capitalism lost its steam decades ago. The social democratic critique is more to the point, but it's interesting to note that salaries of superstars in social democratic countries are very much like those in baseball (last I looked Lionel Messi was making about the same money as Gerrit Cole, though he'll pay a significantly larger chunk of it in taxes, assuming he pays his taxes).

The big difference between the two systems is that baseball teams are companies, while soccer teams still have at least some of the trappings of clubs, allowing for differences from country to country. If I were a boy I could join FC Bayern and, if good enough, maybe even play for one of its youth teams. The same would be true if I lived in Paderborn or Darmstadt rather than Munich. Even if I didn't play for ZFC Meuselwitz or VfB Germania Halberstadt in the Northern Regional League, friends of mine might, and I would have the same hometown identification that a Bostonian has for the Red Sox. And there is zero chance that they would pack up and leave town.

There is absolutely no chance, not a hope in hell, that this system could work in the US, which is why there will never be relegation, and to hope for it is silly and unrealistic.

There is a foreign league that is structured a bit more like American baseball, and that is the Australian Football League. Salaries aren't as high, because there isn't as much money to go around in a nation of 25 million as in a nation of 330 million. But when I first discovered the game in the 80s, South Melbourne had just become the Sydney Swans. It was still the Victorian Football League then: the Western Bulldogs were still called Footscray, and there were not yet teams in Perth and Adelaide. The VFL continues to exist, as do other regional leagues, serving as minor leagues to the AFL.

Naturally the expansion of the league has increased the amount of money in the game, and salaries have increased along with it. And that is ultimately the bottom line: salaries are a function of the amount of money in the game, of total revenue. Complaining that players are getting too much of it is the same thing as complaining that the owners are getting too little. I would love to see that revenue distributed so that minor leaguers and peanut vendors get a more equitable share of it, but capitalism doesn't work that way.

Incidentally, you're wrong about statistics in Aussie Rules Football. Watch a game on Fox Footy and at the end of every quarter they'll show you, not only who scored how many goals, but such stats as disposals (kicks and handballs), marks (contested and uncontested, and intercept marks), possessions (contested and uncontested), hit-outs (and hit-outs to advantage), clearances, tackles--that's just off the top of my head. If anything, they count even more things in Australia than we do in baseball.
3:28 PM May 25th
 
 
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