Babe Ruth, New York Yankees

MLB: Seismic Shifts In Baseball Present New Challenges

MLB is undergoing a series of seismic shifts in how teams operate their business. This is to explore the reasons for the shift in the balance of power and what the future may hold for both owners and players.

I would guess most of us would rather watch our favorite teams play, check the latest MLB standings, boxscores, and stats as opposed to reading a story about the most recent salvo fired by the players against the owners, and then turn around to read another article explaining the owner’s side of the issue.

The trouble with that is the business of baseball directly affects the quality of play we see on the field. A team with a poor business plan or none at all struggles from year to year trying to put things together on the fly, while a team with a firm and far-reaching business plan (see the L.A. Dodgers and New York Yankees) overcome almost everything thrown their way.

With our pastoral sense of baseball as a sport, we still hold onto a belief it is still a game of “gentlemen” who traveled in the late 1890’s across the East River from Manhattan to New Jersey to play a game of “rounders” on a Sunday afternoon.

A few MLB teams, for lack of a traditional business plan, are adopting a plan sending shock waves throughout baseball. A warrant has been issued for teams engaged in what is called “tanking.”

Tanking is a term most often seen in the NBA, rarely seen in the NFL, and just recently noticed in MLB. A glance at the NBA standings today reveals, for instance, a host of teams some as many as 30 games behind the leaders with twenty or so games remaining in the regular season, leaving them with nothing to do except play out the season. Ergo, their 1-9 and 3-7 records in their last ten games.

Ah…but there is something they can do. They can compete to lose, and by doing so, they win when the lottery rolls around these teams get the first crack at the best players in the world via the NBA draft. It’s going on, it’s common practice, and nobody within NBA circles seems to care.

Tanking is drifting to MLB though. Led by the Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins, and Oakland A’s who appear to be tanking even before the season has begun. Both the Rays and Pirates have shed the face of their team (Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen). Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza are no longer with the Rays, while the Pirates sent front-line starter Gerrit Cole to the Astros.

KDKA, a station in Pittsburgh, examined the charges:

The charge is tanking, a felony in professional sports. But what if it falls into the category of rebuilding, a misdemeanor? Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post appears convinced and makes a good argument that tanking occurs in broad daylight and is “no longer sports’ dirty little secret.”

But step back a minute. Long before the Houston Astros won a World Championship in 2017, they lost 100 or more games three times between 2011-2014. Clearly, they were stocking up and developing the players we see in their everyday lineup today who crowd the All-Star game. Rebuilding works, and it has the same stage appearance as tanking, except it isn’t.

The difference, however, may lie in the actions of the Astros last season (especially) and the season before when they didn’t hesitate to be aggressive in nailing down the pieces they needed (Justin Verlander) when the opportunity presented itself to declare themselves as a bona fide contender and no longer a rebuilding team.

Put the Tampa and Pittsburgh teams against that model, and we are more likely to see what the problem is. Do the Rays, Pirates, and A’s, who always seem to be “rebuilding”, have a legible plan in place which puts their franchise in a position to win a title in four to five years? A la the Astros and even the Yankees who spent years fortifying their minor-league system while ridding themselves of expensive and mostly non-productive contracts?

If they don’t, and on the surface that would appear to be the case, then MLB can tackle the issue now, or await the results of the grievance filed by the player’s union, challenging four teams, including the Rays and Pirates, plus the Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s of not using luxury tax monies passed on to them “appropriately”.  Which means some of the money is disappearing into the clouds, or more likely into the pockets of owners and shareholders. From South Florida, Derek Jeter spins it this way:

 But what if that is the case, and we have just one of those greedy son-of-a-bitch owners who say, “Screw ya all,” as former Marlins owner, Jeffrey Loria, is accused of doing with his team, eventually leaving Derek Jeter and his consortium with the mess they have? And what if Loria is, in fact, the “sleazy dirtbag” Deadspin accused him of recently? What happens then?

Here’s Jeter, the new guy. Is he the new boss, or as The Who reminded us a new version of the old boss?  One would think he’s the “good guy” on the way to rebuilding the Marlins, but only time will tell.

To extend some clarity as to the uniqueness of baseball, if McDonald’s see one of their franchise owners going “off the reservation” what are the chances he/she will remain within the realm of the McDonald’s brand? Zero to none. And that’s the key. MLB has a brand to protect just like McDonald’s, but the difference is MLB has little or no enforcement powers.

But even that’s small potatoes when we consider that baseball remains exempt from federal anti-trust laws, the only professional sport granted that privilege by the U.S. Congress. The supposition over the years dating back to 1903 and supported several times by the U.S. Supreme court is that that baseball is merely an amusement, not a commercial enterprise. Really?

What’s the impact on the game today? For one thing, the MLBPA is going to have one helluva time convincing an arbitrator to get any of the four teams being charged to open up their books for close examination to determine precisely where the luxury tax gift money paid to them is going. Whereas, when Walmart or Enron (remember them?) is sued, the Feds come in looking to settle the score, seizing truckloads of files.

With our pastoral sense of baseball as a sport, we still hold onto a belief it is still a game of “gentlemen” who traveled in the late 1890’s across the East River from Manhattan to New Jersey to play a game of “rounders” on a Sunday afternoon.

Baseball is shifting back to the owners, and the players have no answer. The MLBPA is a union in name only for most players. Their vested interests are their own, and the emergence of another Curt Flood to turn things back around in a dramatic manner is not to be found.

But that’s okay as long as free agency remains untouched. The pendulum has swung away from ten-year contracts at the same time owners are acting in what they believe to be their best interests in Tampa, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. And just as when the players held sway, the movement appears unstoppable.

But it’s not. Fans in these cities (eventually) will rule. Empty seats on TV create a lasting, though subtle, image for anyone who is viewing. In the same way, the roaring crowds in Houston in 2017 and the Chicago in 2016 provided a refreshing touch to what can be when the rebuilding process is done right.

MLB is a business enterprise, anti-trust laws or not. As long as we understand that and keep it in mind as we try to sort out why players and teams behave as they do, we should be able to go back to what we enjoy most – the box score from our team’s game the previous night.

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