Money! Follow the money. It’s all about the money. Money makes the world go round. Money talks and you know what walks. In Baseball, the color of money is ugly.
The subject of money suffocates the game. You can’t talk about baseball without getting into it. It pervades every decision, permeates every plan, colors every discourse, dominates every policy. No move is made without calculating its weight and effect. No step taken without factoring its cost and consequence.
Can you say this about every business? Maybe! Is there anything new about this? Maybe not! Salary hassles in baseball driven by money go back to the 1880s. The first union drive for it was in the next decade. The first player revolt over it came on the eve of World War I, and the gravest scandal triggered by the obsession with it immediately followed, and all that was a full century ago.
Bickering over gate receipts is as fundamental to the give and take of our erstwhile national pastime as cussing the umpires, second guessing the managers, or warbling “Take me out to the Ball Game.”
Well, if there’s nothing new about it and ‘tis ever been thus, why are we agitating over it? Because, Old Sport, one vaguely has the sense the potential for some sort of crash grows. How can it possibly go on this way?
The upheaval has been colossal since the iron grip of the owners over the players was shattered 40-odd years ago. But it’s been “nice” as revolutions go in that there’s been no de facto loser, unless you consider the suckers who pay the freight.
That would, of course, be the fans who apparently, and amazingly, don’t seem to resent that it costs them at least ten times as much for the family to spend a merry evening at the ballpark than it did in 1980. They come out in record numbers, jollier and more intensely committed than ever. It’s as if the absurdity of the expense somehow increases the value of the experience. You can write that off to the inscrutable psychology of the American consumer, if you wish.
Otherwise, everyone’s been a winner. Players have gone from being paupers to living like plutocrats, their fabulous gains exceeding their wildest dreams. The many industries linked to the game, from media giants to memorabilia hawkers, have profited mightily, too. But one can argue that the owners, however undeserving, have benefited most of all.
Some 40 years on the owners are immensely richer. Profits soar year after year. Equity has multiplied. They’ve never had it so good. When the estimated value of the Yankees reached a billion bucks back in the late ‘90s, everyone was agog. Now, twenty years later, Forbes Magazine, the alleged expert in such matters, says they’re worth $3.75 billion. Only a couple of years ago the Dodgers astonishingly sold for $2 billion and already they’ve appreciated another 50 percent, according to Forbes. In 15 years, the value of the Red Sox has roughly quadrupled for John Henry and his cohort. The Cubs value jumped near 100 percent in three years.
All this in the era of the liberated ballplayer via free agency, which, of course, the owners so bitterly opposed, branding it the evil machinations of baseball Marxists led by the gentleman they regarded as the devil incarnate, the illustrious Marvin Miller. Marvin called it. He predicted the free market would be a spectacular success. If the owners had class, they’d collectively demand his election to their precious Hall of Fame, then grovel before his shrine and beg his forgiveness.
But if everything seems rosy, you do wonder if baseball in the spring of 2017 might be perched on an abyss comparable to where American prosperity was smugly settled in the summer of 1929? As the “Roaring Twenties” were rollicking to an end, the American gravy train looked infinite in length and depth. But just around the corner came October, when alarm bells would be sounded and margins called and service on debt demanded with nobody being found home.
You wonder: Is baseball now reveling in a comparable bubble on the edge of bursting? The follies of recent years have been mind-boggling, dripping with the wretched excess and mindless illusion that made the Twenties so ruinous on that other playing field.
So much is askew, with just one example being the amount of “dead money” teams are paying out. It’s staggering. Every team in the game carries brutal contracts of failed characters either washed-up or already disappeared. The classic example is a Josh Hamilton whom the Angels are annually paying $24 million to get lost.
Take the Red Sox, widely considered a clever outfit. They’ll end up paying roughly $276,000 to have had Allan Craig and Rusney Castillo fade away in Pawtucket, Pablo Sandoval malinger on the disabled list, and Yoan Moncada play for the White Sox.
Or take the Yankees. Currently they pay Alex Rodriguez another $27 million to avoid further embarrassing them and C.C Sabathia $24.5 million to struggle through here and there nursing an ERA at 5.77. In 14 years, the Yankees have paid $345 million in payroll luxury taxes, essentially a penalty for having paid their players too much.
How crazy is that?
What business can long survive thusly? And these are two of the most respected and allegedly competent teams, not only in baseball but in all of sport.