Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Game Called: An Economic Parable in Nine Innings

The 2009 incarnation of the Portland Beavers ended their season yesterday afternoon.Thankfully.

This year's version of the AAA ballclub wasn't the worst - the old ragtime era Beavers still hold that record - but it was in the running. The current rubber dummy wearing a Beaver suit is a wholly owned subsidiary of the San Diego Padres, one of Major League Baseball's 2009 Queens of Suck, and among the worst franchises in the game. In their forty-year history the Padres have won their own league twice, won the Western division of that league five times, and never worn the Big Crown. Their best player is generally conceded to be Tony Gwynn, a hell of a nice man who owns a pile of base hits but who never led the league in RBI or total bases, whose secondary average (that is, what he did with his bat other than slap singles) is .240, something like half of the bottom of the National League's top 100 SA list. In the course of a 19-year career he lead the NL inruns scored and on-base percentage exactly once each (both in meaningless, non-pennant years). Gwynn, then, is the perfect embodiment of the San Diego Padres; the anti-Zen of baseball in which a hell of a lot of activity means absolutely nothing.

And this is who OWNS the Portland Beavers.

Now bear with me here, because I'm going to go a long way around to make a point.

First of all, the Portland Beavers' 2009 season encapsulates, in almost perfect awfulness, the state of professional baseball in the Stygian depths below the big leagues.

The Bevos lost 84 games this year. During this process they went through three managers and 69 - count 'em, sixty-nine, soixante-neuf - players. A grand total of about 370,000 people came to watch this debacle, this mutual fellatio of baseball ineptitude, almost 5,300 per home game. Despite this the owner of the Beavers, Merrit Paulson, is quoted as saying:
"I wouldn't say that losses have impacted us from a business standpoint, but that said, we were way below .500 in 2007, we're way below .500 now and 2006 wasn't a particularly good year either," he said. "You'd like to be able to compete."
Think about that for a moment.

This team finished dead last. They have now finished either last, or close to last, since winning the Pacific Coast League in 2004. Their 4-year record or 320 losses is second-worst in the PCL. And yet...and yet...the team owner says that he wouldn't say "that losses have impacted us from a business standpoint."

In other words...lose? Who gives a shit? We're making money!!

And why is this?

Because, simply stated, the Portland Beavers are slaves. They exist not as an independent entity free to succeed or fail on their own merits. They are compost, a creche' for ballplayers, the reeking humus from which San Diego Padres are grown. The ownership in San Diego has zero - absolutely no - interest in the piddly little PCL "pennant race" and neither do any of the other real PCL team owners, the big league clubs. They will continue to inject money into the corpse of baseball in Portland, Las Vegas and Modesto so long as the walking dead thing grows players for them.What is happening in Portland - and Little Rock, and in Boise, and in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Ossinning, New York and the other 18,415 cities, comunidades, towns, villages, urbanas and the one municipality (Anchorage, in case you're wondering) that don't enjoy one of the 28 teams that DO have the luxury of actually winning anything meaningful in the sport of baseball is a joke; a nasty, mean-spirited joke perpetrated by the Lords of Baseball and those in power who have accommodated their rapacious greed.

Because the state of professional baseball, as Bill James once said, is an abomination and an offense before the eyes of God and man. For the selfish pleasure of the small group of owners and players of professional baseball, and the residents of those thirty cities, and the various fans of those teams, all the other teams in all the other leagues in all the rest of the country; from AAA through AA, High A, Low A, Short-Season A, Advanced Rookie all the way down to the lowly Rookie League, toil as servants, their glories tinsel, their crowns gimcrack, their labors stolen for the enlargement and betterment of their corporate and foreign masters.

Take the Portland ballclub as an example. Portland did decently in April, winning more than they lost. Do you suppose that the director of baseball operations in San Diego gave a rip? He was looking at individual stats, not won-lost records. He cared about who could help HIS club, not some pissant little team in Portland. He was fiercely concerned about what every coach on every team ever has told every player NOT to worry about: individual records, personal goals. If he needed a player to back up the Padres backup shortstop, do you think he was going to care a nanosecond if that player was tearing up the PCL and leading the Beavers?If you do you're either a fool, a hopeless naif or one of the poor sad bastards who paid their $12 to see the team in hopes of seeing a "Portland win".

No. The Portland team exists only for its role in servicing the San Diego team; it is the whore, highly paid, lavishly compensated but whore nonetheless, of the Padres organization.

Is this right? Is this just? Should the peoples of Portland, and Boise, and Louisville, and all the other Portlands, Boises and Louisvilles, get a puppet show, a sham and an empty box, so that the people of San Diego can enjoy the Show?

And the sad truth is that the solution is simple: enact the same sort of antitrust legislation that is used every day in every city and state to force other monopolies to divest themselves of their empires. Force MLB to disgorge the minors. Free the other 18,415 prospective professional teams. Mind you, this is impossible - it will never happen; the economic might of the owners and the pig-blind stupidity of the American public will never let it happen. So it is impossible.

Impossible in practice, yes, but simple in theory.

And then what would happen?

Of course, Major League ball will tell you that it will be pure nightmare, the horror of collapsing leagues, folding teams and the death of the sport. We can disregard this out of hand - they're telling you this for a reason, and it's not to enlighten you. This is, I believe, likely to happen.

Yes, teams will fold. They will move, they will shrink to fractions of themselves. Some will attempt to raise money with idiotic antics; naked "ballgirls", free beer nights and the like. But it's just as likely that others will be bought by ambitious individuals and groups who will attempt to challenge the Lords of Baseball and make their new team the major league team in the area.What will SURELY happen is that the pool of money in baseball will be spread around much more widely than it is now. The multimillion-dollar salaries and billion-dollar profits will dry up for the existing magnates and superstars of the game. The quality of the top level of the sport will decline. And I would suggest to you that this is a GOOD thing. But not in the way you might expect.

For one thing, while the opportunity to make money playing baseball may expand, the opportunity for any individual to make really, really crazy money will probably go the way of the passenger pigeon. Breaking the chain that binds the minors to the majors breaks the choke-chain the players now have on the clubs while breaking the same chain that the owners have on the rest of the sport. Because the ultimate irony is that the minor league system - invented by the major league owners to monopolize and suppress competition from the other leagues - effectively gelds the owners when dealing with their own players.

Contrast the 1987 NFL players strike with the various baseball strikes since the Messersmith case broke the reserve clause in 1975. While the MLBPA has had a nearly unbroken run of success against their owners, the sad NFLPA rout in 1987 was pretty much due to one thing: the lack of minor football leagues.

The eight strikes in MLB, up to and including the 1994 strike, have all featured one huge difference with the NFL strike.

No scabs; no baseball players offered to cross the line, none even seriously suggested it. And the biggest reason was the minor leagues.

The slave minors, as presently organized, offer every player in them an orderly opportunity to make it to the Show. If you stay healthy and produce, you get moved up and, eventually, get a shot at the big club. The NFL, on the other hand, is all-or-nothing. If you get cut you might catch on in Canada, or picked up by another team. But the difference between getting a spot and getting cut may be a tenth of a second or a quarter pound of weight. When the owners fielded teams of scabs in 1987 it was pretty obvious that some of those players were within a reasonable distance of being a major leaguer. After three or four games, with the advantage of the weights, the 'roids, the coaching and the practice it was pretty clear that the end was in sight, with the "real" NFL players getting slower and smaller and their replacements getting stronger and faster. The NFLPA folded its hand and has never really been an effective advocate for the players since.

So freeing the minors wouldn't really be good for the superstars, and it wouldn't be good for the owners, the Lords of Baseball, or the sports networks, and it would be hard for the citizens of the 28 American cities that now have a big league team. Who would it be good for?

Well, the public, first of all, in all the non-MLB cities, who would have a chance to root for their own proud team, to compete as best they can at whatever level they can rise to. The model here might be the European football leagues, where every place has a local team and every local team has a chance to win their own silverware. The baseball fans in every locality, who will have a local team and local heroes, to inspire them and raise interest in the sport. Baseball players, who will have a chance to compete for more than just a promotion to the next level of an increasingly narrowing pyramid. The local newspapers and television, who will have genuine pennant races and local sports news stories to report.

Is this a perfect world? No. There will be lots of broken hearts and broken dreams, lots of chicanery and get-rich-quick schemes and goofy, idiotic promotional ideas. Baseball will become a lot less sleek, a lot less rich but at the same time a lot more lively, a lot more democratic, more part of more people's lives, and a lot more entertaining.

It might just become the National Pastime again.

Our 2009 national paradigm seems to be "bigger, richer, slicker". This seems to please the large, rich, slick components of our nation just fine. But I'm not so sure that its really in the best interest of our nation as a whole. I think that small, modest and versatile might be a better model for the 21st Century.

What do you think?

(cross-posted at Milpub)


Pluto said...

I've got a slightly different perspective, Chief, that might be useful.

We've got one of those 28 MLB teams in our city. Net result: not that much different than what you experience. The reason is that we are in a "small market" (only 5+ million possible fans) and can't pay the big bucks that the Yankees and the Braves routinely pay out.

The players show up and play hard and try to win, not for the sake of the team but to get noticed by scouts from the bigger city teams.

The owners don't mind that much because they get the players for a relatively cheap price and have a decent farm team system to provide more bodies.

Players at the MLB level typically have only one thing on their minds, how to earn "real money."

Things have been worse, the owners were really cheap in the 90's (trying to maximize their profit) and the Yanks came to town and beat us handily (I think I recall they outscored us something like 47-4 in three games) but they had a payroll that was 6 times larger ($120 mill per year vs. $20 mill). There was some talk of dividing the higher paying team's score by the salary difference but they still would have beaten us.

We lost our best player to the Yanks the next year. Guess we showed them who was boss.

Right now we're rebuilding after losing about a third of the team in the offseason (and during the season) to trades. We're playing better than we should and it's fun but expensive to watch (a family of four getting cheap tickets and just a little bit of food typically spends $80+ per visit).

The team is getting a new stadium next year and will undoubtedly jack up prices even higher.

Net analysis: the MLB is about nothing but the money and I don't see it changing any time soon.

FDChief said...

Pluto: Of course they're all about the money - professional sport always had been and always will be. Bill James had a great summary of the Black Sox/ragtime baseball era: "They All Wanted The Money And They All Wanted It All". 100 years and nothing's changed.

The difference COULD be if we had some fairly simple regulations governing the sport in favor of the fans, and the cities, rather than the two colossi that dominate the sport: the big market owners and the players. The 1994 strike was a failure for both sides because the "sides" were aligned wrong. It was as it always was: owners v. players. But it should have been small-market owners AND players against big-market owners.

'Cause, y'see, the real deal breaker here is the cable/TV revenue. The difference between what the Yankees and, say, the Twins, get in gate receipts isn't that huge. It's the broadcast package that kills Minnesota. They get 50 million, the Yanks get 500 million. Same with endorsements; a Twins logo pays the Twins $50, a Yanks logo pays the Yanks $500...

That was the beef the players had in '94; distribution of the licensing and broadcast money. And the small market owners should have been on their coattails. They have leverage; who is going to see the Yanks if none of the small-market teams agree to play them? Good luck selling 76 NYY-BOS games a year; that'd be the Cable Package From Suck-Hell, eh?

Bill James explained this better than I am, but the fix for this is something like:

1. All teams get the profits from the gate receipts and local TV packages.

2. National broadcast deals get split, with 50% going to the local team and 50% going to the visitors. Same with franchising and licensing.

So the Yanks still make more than the Twins, but it's 50% more, not 300% more.

Plus, with free minor leagues, if the Twins want to they can drop out of the AL and start playing in the Midwest League with Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and the former AAA teams in Lousiville and Iowa City and whereever.

Or they can fire up their scouting system and start digging up and buying players for a song from the low-level, independent minors.

Or they can make a deal with the Playboy Channel for "Naked Baseball Night" every third Thursday...

I should dig up that old James essay, because he had some other great ideas, like opening the ballparks to competing vendors...