Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
The Forest for the Trees
2007-12-06 17:13
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I was going to write a post today about how it's ridiculous that Bud Selig is trying to flex his commissioner powers by punishing guys who aren't rich or smart enough to buy the new kinds of performing-enhancing drugs that they haven't invented tests for all while the free-agent and trade market continues to funnel all of the marquee players in the sport to the same five teams and three cities. Will it be fifteen years from now that MLB starts to deal with its massive competitive imbalance problems, since it's taken about that long to deal with the steroid problem that started becoming an epidemic back when I was in elementary school?

But at the same time, I realized there might be some cognitive dissonance between what I think is happening in baseball, which I love, and what I think is happening in the NFL, which I increasingly detest. I think that the quality of play in the NFL is as low as it has been since before the AFL-NFL merger and it is quickly headed towards the point where even the degenerate gamblers will have to admit this. The salary cap and massive mismanagement on the part of nearly every franchise has led to a league where there are three good teams -- Colts, Steelers, Patriots -- and at least 20 utterly wretched ones. Football is a really difficult game to coach and learn, and since players don't stay with their teams for more than two or three years at a time, the quality of offensive line play, receiver route-running, and the sophistication of defensive schemes has gotten to the point where you'll see better fundamental football in the Madden videogame than you ever will on a real NFL field. Not to mention the unlimited substitution rule and a massive, almost completely league-unacknowledged rash of human grown hormone abuse has created a class of human-cartoon offensive and defensive lineman who hardly resemble men, let alone athletes, and who are mostly incapable of two bursts of four-second activity a minute apart without immediately staggering off the field so a nearly-as-huge backup can lumber on in their place for third down. This is a dreadful league; there have been about three watchable games this entire season and the playoffs at most will offer two more.

But the NFL is doing better than it ever has. Apparently fans like watching beefed-up superteams zip through the regular season meeting as much resistance as the Nazis did in Poland, and all the more so when they're big-city or historically significant franchises. The league has succeeded where MLB has failed in creating fans who like the league first and their team second... with a huge assist from fantasy and gambling. As a fan of a small-market baseball team it hurts me to admit this, but maybe baseball will be better off with five or six megateams and a bunch of also-rans. It certainly didn't hurt the game's popularity in the 50's (Dodgers, Giants, Yankees) or the 70's (A's, Reds, Orioles, Yankees again).

Is that good for fans in Pittsburgh, Denver, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay? Nope, it sucks. But if you've been a baseball fan in one of those towns for the last couple years, you already know how much the lords of the game care about you: Not one least little bit. Their priority is to maximize short-term television ratings. With the star-laden Boston, New York, and Detroit teams that will play every weekend on Fox next season, maybe they will. Good for them, I guess.

How did the steroid problem get so out of control? Well, I don't have the facts drawn as clearly in my mind as some others might since in 1987 I was convinced Jody Davis was the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, but I suspect that a large part of the owners' long-term absent-mindedness on the topic stemmed from the collusion mess -- and then, of course, as has been more widely reported, the desire to win fans' loyalties back in the wake of the 1994 strike. But performance-enhancing drugs were becoming an issue well before Joe Carter ended the last wild card-free postseason.

So, in a roundabout way, we're now seeing the same thing happen again. The owners are insisting there is no need for a salary cap and the revenue-sharing system "works" even though soulless, bean-counting owners in Pittsburgh and Florida are clearly exploiting a broken system for all it's worth. Why? Because a salary cap would depress payroll growth, and the players' union has already done all the compromising that it's going to do this decade on the steroid issue.

I'm reminded of the efforts the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is futilely making to keep college students from illegally downloading their records. The RIAA can't possibly catch every person file-sharing in the country, so they're running a scapegoating and intimidation campaign against the weakest and easiest-to-catch "violators" of their absurd, outdated distribution system. If the major record labels could face facts and start working in this century's reality instead of the last one, they could probably find new ways of creating profit or at the very least better incentives for people to buy their old products -- priority service for concert tickets, added DVD content, access to downloadable bonus tracks, really rad packaging like Tool's records always have, whatever -- and baseball is no different. The owners are fighting a battle they've already lost because they didn't deal with it when the time was ripe; they were too busy fighting back all of the other brushfires their pathologically reactionary attitude had allowed to spread unchecked in the years before.

Baseball management didn't deal with the reserve clause when they had the chance to in the sixties, and it came back to haunt them in the seventies. They didn't set up a fair and transparent system for free agency in the seventies, and it nearly killed the game in the eighties. They didn't wake up to the steroid menace in the eighties, and... well, you see where I am going with this. Baseball has been fifteen years out of sync with the rest of the country ever since it took them about that long to realize that a lot of the people in the United States live west of the Mississippi. (As Bill James notes with increasing smugness in the decade-by-decade summaries of the Historical Baseball Abstract, until 1958 the western border of Major League America was defined by the state of Missouri.)

What's really sad is that the one shining example of a case where baseball was ahead of the curve is the last and best argument for the game's faded primacy in American sport. His name was Jackie Robinson, and he played for the Dodgers, who just made a pretty good deal in signing Andruw Jones. That was the other thing I wanted to mention today.

2007-12-06 18:12:43
1.   Benaiah
Nice article. I don't understand why people like football so much, the only thing I can think of is it is easy to follow if you know nothing (they just go forwards and backwards) and yet impossible to ever understand completely (the football knowledge of a head coach like Bellicheck must be similar to the physics knowledge of people working at NASA). It has a really simple betting system (unlike baseball, which is just a crap shoot) and fantasy is compressed so you don't get worn down by the 162 game season. It is all things to all people, though I hate it but I am a bit indie so maybe I am trying to be contrarian.

The main thing baseball has going for it is it is always on and its played in the summer. That way casual fans can go to the ballpark any one of 81 games and get drunk without caring what happens in the game.

2007-12-07 08:26:00
2.   RIYank
Sweet title.

It reminds me of linguist Geoff Pullum's list of books whose titles are not grammatical constituents. For instance, "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler", and (similar to yours) "The Fire Next Time" and "Dancer from the Dance".

2007-12-20 08:24:58
3.   voxpoptart
You're dead wrong, happily, about the mega-teams "not hurting" baseball's popularity in the 1950s. Baseball's attendance was in catastrophic free-fall throughout the decade; the fact that so many teams moved was partly to take advantage of the U.S.'s shifting demographics, but partly desperation.

On the other hand, the 1980s and 1990s -- when competitive balance was tightening beyond anything previously seen -- attendance was booming, records constantly being set and then broken. Now, I'm not saying the case for competitve balance is as clear-cut as I'd like; baseball attendance is still booming, now, in an era where competitive balance is again, by statistical measures, slipping. But balance remains high historically, and there's the Wild Card Races to boost interest, so ... seriously, I think mega-teams are bad for baseball attendance. Which is what we'd like to believe.

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