Lament of the Modern-Era MLB Fan

From Dennis Nealon’s blog


Loving Big League Baseball is Tougher When Rosters Vanish and Players Are Like Actors Hired for Limited Engagements

The MLB as Mega Temp Agency

“Well you know I’ve never met the guys. So you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.”

“I say, Who’s on first, What’s on second. I Don’t Know’s on third.”
— Lou Costello and Bud Abbott, “Who’s on First?”

 

Trading players in the Great American Pastime has been around since the late 19th century, but with its hyper-corporate culture and billions of dollars in play Major League Baseball has taken Red-Rover, Red-Rover to new heights.

MLB has fully completed the transition. The days when fans got to know and follow “teams” with consistent rosters are gone, slowly lost to any number of factors including a massive infusion of cash, establishment of free agency in 1975, and the modern era’s “Moneyball” approach to roster building.

At a time when Major League Baseball floats on an ocean of cash, Moneyball is predicated on paying far less in overall payroll while still notching a lot of wins and playing in the post-season (Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics). But it is that spreadsheet practice, born of one club’s fight to compete with far-richer franchises, that has helped get us to where we are today, where all players are just pawns, money is king, and rosters change on a dime.

Today, wherever baseball is played, it is still a wondrous thing to behold. Few experiences compare to a summer night or sunny afternoon at Fenway Park, or at any ball field for that matter. The game is timeless, and the rules and strategies, the ballpark sights and sounds, all of the wonderful twists and turns of the diamond, will live on. Come what may.

Today’s MLB enthusiasts have unwittingly become fans not of consistent teams, but of single players, franchises and logos, plush ballparks and official MLB gear. Fans in Boston and other cities are living in an era where there is no real hometown squad, only a professional baseball corporation with interchangeable players. Major League Baseball has become, in other words, a giant temp agency.

This change has been building for decades. And it’s driven by greedy businessmen and money – ship loads of it, more and more each year. Teams operate on an MLB-driven business model, which is that putting fans in seats equals revenue. And it matters not who the players are on any given day, so long as they can produce and help the bottom line. Loyalty and team consistency don’t factor into the equation. Not at all. Not for the owners and seemingly not much for the players, either.

For 2014, the average MLB player’s salary, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press, is just under $4 million. Sixteen teams are headed toward the $100 million payroll mark. As far as the 30 MLB corporations go, the Houston Astros are dead last in overall payroll, at $44,544,174 this year, according to AP’s figures. That’s right; salary-wise Houston is the poorest team, at $45 million. The LA Dodgers lead the pack at $235,295,219. The Yankees, with a $203,812,506 payroll for 2014 are second now after years of being king of the MLB big spenders.

Devoted baseball fans everywhere hate what money has done to the game. Some fret less about who’s playing on the field, so long as the franchise is winning more games than it’s losing. But other fans realize that something is wrong when players seem like actors hired for limited engagements, when one day a group wins a championship and the next that same squad is scattered to the wind – fading into the cornstalks like those lonesome ghosts from “Field of Dreams,” bound for other clubs, crushing the true concept of ‘team’ and stealing the heart of what fandom means. How do fans bond with a team when rosters and players change on a dime, and keeping track of them has become a shell game? This is the MLB fan’s lament.

Nothing sums up this journeyman state of Major League Baseball better than that hilarious, Abbott and Costello skit, “Who’s on First?” Originally performed for a national radio audience in March 1938, that bit has become spot-on relevant for today. Go to Fenway Park, for instance, and you are liable to do as I have done: lean in toward the guy next to you and ask, “Who’s that on the mound again? “Oh, never heard of him.”

There has never been a better time for fans to leave the store tags on the player’s shirt or jersey they paid $35-$100 for. Why? Because there’s a good chance that by the time you or your son or daughter wears that shirt once or twice, the guy whose name is on it is going to be playing for another team. You may want to return the shirt once your idol has packed his gear, left town suddenly, and hung his glove and spikes in another team’s locker room.

Recently, I was looking through my son’s chest of drawers and pulled out a Jake Peavy, Red Sox T-shirt, which was next to a Daisuke Matsuzaka Red Sox Jersey. Which was nearby John Lester’s Red Sox shirt. I think there are others in his drawer, maybe Josh Beckett’s. The one shirt that he owns that is still true is a Dustin Pedroia. The second baseman is as rare as a Honus Wagner card these days; he’s been with the Sox for, wow, eight years – a few years less than David Ortiz.

Trades in baseball aren’t new. The original rule allowing swaps or sales of players was established in 1889, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. And the first trade deadline was enacted in the National League in 1917. Every fan knows about the biggest trade of all time, when Babe Ruth was sold by the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920 for $100,000 plus incentives to help with the mortgage for Fenway Park (Society for American Baseball Research).

What is new is that players are moving through the turnstiles more regularly. Sports writers covering the 2014 trade deadline called it historic for the pace of activity. The comings and goings are difficult to track; they happen overnight with increasing frequency. You will recognize the changes when you go to a game or watch one on television.

In pop music we have one-hit wonders. In major league baseball today we have one-time champions – teams that are stacked to win and then dismantled. Look at the some of the more-recent World Series winners. Remember the Florida Marlins? A fluke, unless you factor in the fact that the 2003 squad was almost certainly preconceived as a one-and-done construct. The 2005 Red Sox roster bore only a slight resemblance to the curse-killing 2004 champion nine. The 2013 Sox, consisting mostly of over-performing, little-known, hired-on-the-cheap guns, also won the Series. But now, toward the end of the 2014 season, less than a year later, that team is ancient history. Pedroia and Ortiz are practically the only long-termers left in Boston. Beyond those two and maybe ace-by-default Clay Bucholtz, no one knows who is playing on the team from one day to the next.

There is no sense that the Boston nine, as a team on the field at Fenway, have any connection to each other or as a unit mean anything to the fans.

But there’s good reason to keep watching, regardless of the permutations of trades and players’ salaries. The game played on the field is what really matters. Fans love the game first. It has survived wars and economic depressions, and all manner of societal and cultural calamity. Thankfully, it hasn’t changed a whole lot since September 1845, when a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. “It was then that volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright developed a new set of rules calling for a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines and the three-strike rule. He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them (history.com).”

Today, wherever baseball is played, it is still a wondrous thing to behold. Few experiences compare to a summer night or sunny afternoon at Fenway Park, or at any ball field for that matter. The game is timeless, and the rules and strategies, the ballpark sights and sounds, all of the wonderful twists and turns of the diamond, will live on. Come what may.