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The Game I Love Is Losing Me

March 10 Update – Owners and Players Settle, Opening Day April 7th ……. The good news is that the labor stoppage is over with today’s agreement. The agreement, however, leaves a lot of work undone. It is good that the game is back on, but systemic issues remain. This stoppage was about economics, and reasonable compromises were made by both sides. None of which deal with underlying issues about the game itself. Increasing action and interest, improving competitive balance, shortening games, and addressing minor league player issues top the list of work left undone. These are structural issues that will require cooperation by both sides. It’s time to fix the game.

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With all that is going on in today’s world, you would think the Grand Old Game of Baseball would read the wind and do a sensible thing: resolve its labor dispute quickly and fairly. Doing so, of course, would mean putting the game and its fans first. Alas, when this much money, greed, avarice, and ego are at stake, the game and fans must come in last, and they have. Baseball is shut down, Spring Training is dark, and the start of the season delayed.

The economics and egos are not the only problems, and maybe not the biggest. As a lifelong fan of the game and my team, I have concerns. These fall into three general areas: the product on the field is less entertaining, the game has gone political, and yes, the greed is stinking up the place.

Strike One – The game is less entertaining

Baseball used to be a game of motion. The emphasis was on being excellent at fundamentals, putting the ball in play, and being aggressive. Today’s game is primarily a battle between two players, the pitcher and batter. What does that mean? It means you get to watch a lot of strikeouts and a lot of homeruns. So, either no one is going anywhere, or you’re watching a batter circle the bases at a leisurely “Look at me, and don’t forget to buy my jersey on the way out of the park” trot. Whatever happened to the hit and run, squeeze play, and double steal?

Games used to be filled with action and take, on average, two and a half hours to play (1960’s). Today, games have much less action and take on average 3 hours and 10 minutes (2021). That, after tinkering with rule changes to speed things up. Granted, the number of commercials and pitching changes in the 60’s was much lower, but it does not relieve Baseball of the burden of maximizing the game’s appeal.

Strike Two – The game has gotten political

The game I grew up with was about community and the best that was in us, as James Earl Jones reminded us with his memorable speech in Field of Dreams.

Ray, people will come, Ray.

They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.

“Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say. “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace they lack.

And they’ll walk out to the bleachers and sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come, Ray.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.

America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.

This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

In simpler times, the ballpark was a place we could come together to celebrate the game, the things that unite us, our wonder for the joys of life, and join in community with friends, family, and total strangers. It was a place where politics were not generally discussed, but the count and what the runner on first might do, was. Not anymore. As if on cue, the Commissioner last year pulled the All Star Game from Atlanta out of fear of not doing what one vocal segment of society insisted he do, thus denying us the opportunity for healing in a poignant moment and place. When sport turns political, it by definition becomes about dividing us from each other. It no longer reminds us of all that once was good, it emphasizes why we are offended and who is to blame. It no longer watches as the nation reinvents itself, but has the arrogance to believe it has an important voice on the matter.

Yes, America has problems. Yes, everyone should have a voice. Yes, we need to be better. Much better. But knee-jerk reactions to emotionally charged circumstances are never good. Instead of bellowing to be heard as part of the chaos, be sensitive and helpful, and provide a place where the things that unite us can help us heal. Be a constant again.

Strike Three – Oversized money and egos, undersized value

I feel like I’ve time traveled to 1994, the last time the two sides bungled their labor negotiations to the extent the season was shortened, and the World Series canceled. Fans were so irate it took a decade for attendance to come back to pre-strike levels. Could the Owners and Players possibly be that stupid again? Yes, Martha, they can.

There are several issues and it all quickly gets very technical. All you really need to know, however, is that game and rule issues are not the culprit here. It’s all about the economics. Everyone wants more, which means the fans will inevitably pay more. Why not? Inflation seems to be in vogue these days, let’s pile on!

Since the last agreement, the economics of the game have indeed changed. The Owners have done very well for themselves. From 2015 to 2019, team revenues increased from $8.2B to $10.7B, a 30% increase. Revenue is way, way up and they are rolling in it. The Players feel like they got the short end, and the data agrees with them. Player salaries declined by 6.4% during the same time frame, and they want it fixed. That about sums it up. But, just to put an exclamation point on the issue, here is one factoid for perspective. Under the last labor agreement, the 2021 minimum big league salary was $563,500. The Players Association proposes resetting the minimum to $775,000 and increasing it to $875,000 by the end of the agreement term. For a baseball player who is either a rookie or bottom tier talent, mind you. At the top end of the talent metric, Mike Trout’s 2021 contract number was $39,000,000. Yes, it pays to hit a ball a long way.

The game has become less interesting, seems unable to stand above the chaos with character, and a lethal combination of greed and ego are at war over money that has become so big it bears no resemblance to value. The game has forgotten what it is and why people loved it. My response to this mess? I realize it is purely a symbolic gesture, but it is the only one I have at my disposal. I canceled my MLB.TV subscription and will not be paying attention to the games this year. And no, I will not be visiting the team store either.

I know, they will never know and wouldn’t care if they did. But hey, I’m just a fan … I’ve got no skin in the game anymore.

For a calmer and more balanced perspective on the current lockout and negotiations, see Jamie Rubin’s post. Jamie is a baseball fan par excellence, and he has a keen sense of what is going on in the game.

Reference Information:
Spotrack: MLB Top 100 Contracts
Forbes: The Business of Baseball (2021 Club info)
Statista: 2021 MLB Payrolls
Bless You Boys: MLB’s Revenue Sharing Problem and How to Fix It

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