In 1881 the future National League wanted to upgrade its image and target a more upscale fan base by doubling ticket prices, banning gambling, and outlawing alcohol sales. Several team owners who happened to be brewers refused to accept the new rules and banded together to form what would eventually become the American League. The National League attempted to discredit the new league by dubbing it the Beer and Whiskey League. This, of course only made the new league more popular. Duh!

Friday, May 07, 2004

Squash that Bug

Originally, I was planning to avoid writing about this whole Spiderman fiasco but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There’s obviously been no shortage of press on this mess and so I won’t bother to link them here since if you’re reading this blog that probably means you read most of the major baseball cyberpress that’s out there. I will point out, however, that Rob Neyer’s recent take on this mess was particularly interesting. Rather than cry out for the sanctity of the game, Neyer very smartly points out MLB’s horrific duplicity in their supposed justification and reasoning behind this promotional tie-in.

According to an official MLB press release, the son of Satan (President and Chief Operating Officer, Bob DuPuy)

[W]e think this is a terrific promotion for Major League Baseball and Columbia Pictures and a great opportunity to reach out to children and families

In response to a similar statement made by Jacqueline Parks, senior vice president of advertising and marketing, Neyer “translates” the PR double-talk:

Kids don't care about baseball like they used to. We haven't figured out how to make kids like baseball without running baseball clinics, opening baseball academies in urban areas, and subsidizing youth baseball programs, all of which would cost us millions of dollars. Sure, that would be a great investment in the future, but you have to remember that most of the current owners will not be owners 10 years from now. Most of the current owners couldn't care less about the next generation of fans, because by the time the next generation can afford to buy its own tickets, most of the current owners will have worn out their tax breaks and will have moved to their next expensive toy.

There are essentially two key (and obviously related) points that Neyer makes here: Baseball is in the business of making money and does not want to sink its revenues into long-term projects no matter how good they may be for the game; the way tax shelters work, most owners are not in the game for the long-run and, therefore, only looking for short-term fixes (like revenue generation movie tie-ins).

As someone who studies historical novels and the culture of nostalgia in contemporary America, I’m always wary of people harking back to the good old days because more often than not, those old days really weren’t so good (especially if you happened to be anything other than a rich, white, heterosexual, protestant male). I also have very little patience with people who cry out for the “purity” of the game. As much as I abhor the Spiderman tie-in, one has to wonder if it’s any worse than going to see a baseball game at Minute Maid Park or U.S. Cellular Field where the first pitch is sponsored by Pepsi and the day’s defensive highlight might be sponsored by a local stereo store (as it is in Seattle).

No, waxing nostalgic is strictly for the birds. But, with all that said, I do miss the days of stable owners (as opposed to ownership groups). I grew up an Angels fan and you always knew that was Gene Autrey’s team and even though I feel no loyalty to the Angels anymore I certainly am glad that Disney got out of baseball and an individual with a real face and a real personality (or at least a public version of a personality), Arte Moreno, is now the chief owner. Hell, I can’t stand Tom Hicks and his soul-crushing music empire known as Clear Channel but I have to admit that, as a fan of Mariners, Inc., I’m a tad envious of any team that has an owner with a real conviction for winning (even if that does mean the occasionally stupid contracts).

Of course, we’ll have to see if Moreno and Hicks stay in the game for the long-term. Will they be like the legendary Walter O’Malley or the Yawkey family or will they be more like the testicle-grabbing Wayne “the video trashman” Huizenga? If I were a betting man, I’d place a couple of bucks on the latter. Jeffrey Loria has done a great job to keep the Marlins together (unlike the trashman) but I’m willing to bet that once stadium financing goes through and the value of the Marlins rises exponentially, Loria too will cash out.

So, what does all this rambling on about owners has to do with Spiderman? Well, nothing and everything. That is, nothing directly and everything indirectly. I thin it’s wrong or misleading to say that baseball has been infected by a culture of greed. Baseball has always been motivated by greed. The legendary owners of whom I just spoke fondly in the above paragraph were also notoriously cheap-bastards who kept their players indentured via the reserve clause. I have no delusion that previous owners of baseball were wonderful people. They, like all Americans, were driven by greed. It’s an ugly secret Americans all know but like to pretend isn’t true.

Just to break on another quick tangent, we have this romantic mythology of the Puritans as the first Americans – that is, we like to believe that this country was founded by people who were out seeking freedom. Well, as any amateur historian can tell you, that’s a load of hogwash. The Mayflower arrived in 1620 … thirteen years after the colony of Jamestown had been settled … fifty years after the first English settlement (in present day Roanoke) had been attempted. No, this country was founded by a bunch of opportunists who wanted to make a lot of money and even the majority of those people who were living in the “Puritan” communities of New England were not Puritans. Those folks simply put up with the Puritans because you could still make lots of money there. (Sorry about this transgression but every once in a while I have to prove to myself that my master’s degree in 17th-century American Literature was not a complete waste of time).

So, getting back to baseball, if greed has always been a part of baseball then how is the new greed different from the old greed? Well, while the old owners always kept one eye on the bottom line, they also kept one eye in the standings. These people may have been cheap bastards but they were cheap bastards who wanted to win and who cared about winning. In today’s market, being competitive is important only insofar as it keeps the turnstiles moving and the cash registers (or credit card machines) jumping. I think Neyer’s suggestion that the baseball teams are “toys” for these owners is wrong. I think the Dodgers, for example, was very much a toy for Walter O’Malley as was the White Sox for Comiskey but these were toys that had value (both monetary and personal as well as private and public). No, the problem with the current ownership is precisely that the teams are not toys but rather cold, stark investments.

When, in 1922, the Supreme Court decided to grant baseball its now famous antitrust-exemption, it did so under the theory that while baseball was most certainly a business, it was also a business that served the public good. I’m no legal expert and so I’m not going to fiddle with the intricacies of antitrust law but I will most certainly agree that baseball does and can serve a greater good but in an environment in which the gross revenue is increasingly more important than total wins, one has to wonder anyone (the owners, the players, Bud Selig and his cronies, and maybe even the fans) really cares about the greater good.

I would like to think the answer is yes … at least for the fans. Baseball, it seems to me, has always been held to a higher standard. The current frenzy and outrage over the use of steroids in baseball seem utterly overblown. Barry Bonds is 6’2” and weighs 228 pounds. Brett Favre is 6’2” and weighs 225 pounds. True, Bonds did not come into the league weighing 228 pounds but is it so difficult to believe that someone as driven and determined as Bonds might, in dedicating the better part of twenty years of his life to baseball, commit himself to a strict workout regimen that would over time turn him from a star athlete to a superstar athlete? Unlike those “good old days” when pro athletes had to supplement their income with off-season jobs, today’s athletes can train year round.

This flack over the Spiderman promotion at first seemed to me yet another example of people holding on too tightly to the great sanctity of the sport. I can understand why Nader would be upset about the baseball players wearing advertising patches on their uniforms but then why hasn’t he lambasted the NFL or the NHL for wearing advertising patches on their uniforms (those Nike swooshes and Reebok logos don’t appear out of nowhere for no reason)? Likewise, what about the hallowed grounds of college athletics? Why isn’t Nader busting the NCAA for forcing their players to wear college uniforms that have commercial insignias?

I’m not saying that I think the Spiderman promotion is a good idea because I don’t. I think it’s stupid and it does cheapen the game but, at the same time, I don’t understand why anyone would be surprised or remotely shocked that this could happen. In fact, I’m more surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

And finally (yes, I’m finally at the end of this rather lengthy post), something I haven’t heard anyone mention yet is the ridiculously small amount of money that is at stake here. The Yankees were supposed to receive $100,000 for participating in the promotion. Do you know what $100,000 would buy the Yankees? About six innings of Alex Rodriguez. The league as a whole was to receive $3.6 Million and while that may be a lot of money to you and me, $3.6 Million in today’s baseball economy will get you Randy Winn and some spare change. Sure, you could argue that putting ads on the bases is crass but putting ads on the bases so that baseball can collect $3.6 Million is just stupid business sense. Yes, baseball is a business but apparently it’s a business that’s currently being run by an idiot.

P.S. A more normal around theo horn report coming up this weekend. I promise.