Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Paying To Watch Out-Takes

I think I must be part of a very small minority of sports fans when I say that I do not care how much money athletes make. Of course salaries are ridiculous; so what? Of course I was outraged that the Mets would sign Oliver Perez for $12 million a year--until I saw that Bud Selig made over $18 million in 2007. Of course I don't like it, but there are a lot of things on this planet that we shouldn't like that are much more important than individual incomes.

My feelings on the subject run deeper than that. I honestly don't believe that any person's income is anybody else's business (unless it's an issue of getting paid the same for doing the same work). What you make is between you and your employer, and the same goes for me. My father used to say, "The best things in life are free; the very best things cost a helluva lot of money." I do just fine with the best things. Some friends of mine are currently on a four-month around-the-world cruise. Yes, I wish my wife and I could take the same trip (if I hit the lottery, we will). But that won't stop us from appreciating the next beautiful sunset we see.

I am baffled by sports fans in general, and baseball fans in particular, who resent players for receiving huge salaries. Part of it is simple jealousy. They're getting paid to play a game, a game that the rest of us somehow imagine we could've succeeded at with a slightly different karma, and nobody should make that much money from a game. Fans forget the fact that the average major-league career lasts only four or five years. Fans also forget the fact that the players have trained and worked hard to get to the top of their profession and earn whatever reward they can gather in their limited period of peak performance.

Why do fans forget? It's very simple: because we spend so much time watching them fail. The very best hitters in baseball history have "succeeded" only one-third of the time. The very best pitchers give up baserunners and runs all the time. Even the almight Derek Jeter's scattershot throwing arm can betray him in the last inning of a must-win WBC game and give the other team three unearned runs. Even the best hitters fail with the bases loaded and the game on the line. Even the best pitchers groove a pitch at the worst time and surrender the game-winning hit. Every single event on the baseball field involves both success and failure. When we think of a player's salary, we concede that he has his successes, but it's all too easy to point to his failures and wonder how he can take his paychecks to the bank in good conscience.

Think of athletes as entertainers, because that's all they are. Now think about movie stars. Today's "A-List" actors and actresses make at least $20-25 million a movie. A movie takes a few months to make. Let's say that Will Smith's next movie takes six months to make, the same duration as a baseball season. That's a lot of takes, and he'll screw up a lot of them, fumble a word, miss his mark, look the wrong way, and so on. But we won't see those on the screen. We'll only see the best version of each scene and each speech. It will be meticulously edited to make Will Smith shine at all times for 100-120 minutes. Every movie is a highlight reel. Do you think you could take one season's worth of what Alex Rodriguez does on the field, pick out all the best spots, skip the strikeouts, the double plays, the errors and all the mistakes, and distill them into a carefully edited 100-minute film which makes A-Rod look as perfect as he thinks he is? Of course you could. Anybody could do that for any major-league player. Even a montage of Luis Castillo's greatest moments on the field would make him look a candidate for Best Supporting Second Baseman.

Marilyn Monroe was notorious for driving people crazy on the movie set--and not the way most of us today would think of her driving us crazy. She would show up late, not know her lines, need to psyche herself up to do the next take, mess it up, go into a funk, have to be coaxed back to the set, miss her lines again, and on and on for hours or days at a time. Countless scenes required dozens of takes, and many directors and fellow actors were pushed to the breaking point and vowed never to work with her again. But did movie-goers know about this? No. Do people today know about it? No. People only cared, and still only care, that what we eventually got to see on the screen was enchanting and wonderful. It often took forever to get her to do something that lasted only a matter of seconds on the screen, but it didn't matter. We did not have to watch her out-takes. Nobody would question her earning whatever the movie moguls paid her. Nobody today questions Will Smith's income. We just enjoy watching him on the screen. We don't have to watch his out-takes, just his highlight reel.

But it's very different with baseball fans. We see all the out-takes, and we pay to witness what is inherent in the game: failure. We need to get over it. That's why I highly recommend my approach; I just don't care. I accept the out-takes for what they are, the inevitable balance-sheet of the great achievements I also get to witness.

I also recognize that complaining about high salaries has always been a part of baseball. A hundred years ago, the guys who played in the 1880s groused about the current crop of players being preoccupied with money and not being content to play for the love of the game as they had. This was when few players were making more than $3,000 a year. In the 1920s, the players from the Deadball Era were outraged that the new players didn't seem to care about the game the way they had, that it was all about the money. That's because some of the players were making more than $10,000 a year. The pattern has repeated itself over and over again, but until the last 20-30 years it was all hogwash, because until free agency came along, it almost never happened that a player was overpaid. While the reserve clause existed (until 1976), players had zero bargaining power (their only weapon was the holdout, but all that meant was that they could exercise the option of retiring if the team that owned them didn't make an acceptable salary offer), and teams didn't pay them a penny more than they had to.

Look at it this way. Take the more than 16,000 players who have played in the major leagues since the 1870s. Calculate the money each player would have earned if salaries were based on some equitable formula measuring his success on the field and a fixed, reasonable percentage of his team's revenue. If you could do those calculations for the 100 years' worth of players who were systematically screwed by the team owners because of the reserve clause, you would wind up with "X" dollars owed to the players. My feeling is that if you could determine a factor by which players in the free-agency era have been overpaid (based on how they perform on the field), you would wind up with a total figure in the general neighborhood of "X". In other words, it has taken 20-30 years of overpaying a generation of players for us to be able to say that "over the entire course of baseball history, players as a group have earned what they deserved." There were at least 500 players from the 1920-1940 period who were deprived of their just desserts, who now balance out what Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez are being overpaid. So I can't go berserk over A-Rod's salary without also being outraged that Lou Gehrig never made more than $40,000 in a season. Somewhere in the great wheel of karma, these inequities are being straightened out, but I'm not about to lose any sleep resenting A-Rod for accepting a salary which another businessman chose to offer him.

That brings up another perspective. Gene Carney, a baseball historian who has been spending time lately looking through the salary records here at the Hall of Fame, pointed out to me that judging by salaries you would think that major league baseball was a not-for-profit industry before the 1970s. Most raises were incidental, a few hundred dollars a year here and there, maybe a few thousand dollars if a player led the league in major statistical categories or won an MVP award. An outstanding year was treated as an aberration not worthy of any special monetary reward, and when it did prove an aberration the salary was slashed back to the usual parameters. Keep in mind that most of the time, a player's salary this year is more of a payment for what he did last year than what he's going to do this year, since last year is measurable and this year is uncertain. Gene, who spent many years in the not-for-profit realm, notes that the reward is supposed to be in the work itself. The same is true here at the Hall of Fame, also a not-for-profit institution.

It is not true in professional sports, and it has never been true in major league baseball, despite all the disclaimers from players who insist they would have played for nothing, and all the disclaimers from owners who portrayed themselves as sportsmen willing to lose money just for the prestige of saying they owned a team. The owners instituted the reserve system in 1879 (!), as they openly declared, to stifle competition and reduce salaries. The tug-of-war has existed ever since. Until 1976, the players' end of the rope was greased and leverage non-existent. Since the reserve clause ended, the players have had the best of it.

The bottom line for fans is this: only in the current decade did the owners and the players have it so good that they couldn't avoid admitting that there is more than enough money to go around for both sides. The charade is over. Players are making tons of money, but the owners have made so much more that they can afford to overpay their talent. The catch is that we, the fans, are paying for a lot of that excess. We're going to ballparks in record numbers, paying higher prices for tickets, concessions, and everything else that is gradually turning an outing to a major league game from a family experience to a corporate tax write-off. It will be very interesting to see what happens to attendance this year, when the recession will cause all constituencies to think twice (or more) about going to the ballpark. If we think the players (and the owners who collect our money before turning some of it over to the players) are making too much money, stop giving it to them. Stay home, watch the games (relatively) cheaply on television, listen to them (very cheaply) on radio, enjoy the action on the field, and stop caring that the bum who just struck out is making more this month than you'll make in a lifetime of honest toil. Believe me, you'll be happier that way.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Fantasy League Draft Day Prayer

Let me remember that this is not a Bush League. It is a Riske venture which I must Winn.

Let me find the Wright player for a Lowe Price.

Let me seek Wise Counsell and not be taken in by any Lyon Messenger.

Give me no Meek players, but only Buehrle players of Braun.

Bring me Coffey so I may stay awake during the draft; it will not be enough to Sipp Cherry Coke.

Allow me to safely Wade the Waters and Span the Banks, over Hill and through Wood, along Rhodes that are Miles from my own Street.

Provide Sheets and Towles for my new charges, and Cotts to sleep on. If not, at least find us a Park where we can Camp.

Provide Geer that Shields my newest Knight from the Howell of the Wolf.

Spare me a Cook who Byrnes the Lamb to a Crisp. Give me a Bass and Byrd to Choo and Gobble.

Let my wife be patient as the night drags on, let her not Harang me, or be Wagner finger at me. Her patience will be rewarded. When I'm Dunn, if my team is Hardy, my Wang will Harden into a Bulger.

Let her not distract me with St. Patrick's Day talk of the Carpenter for whom the Church has many a Holliday--I only know of DeJesus today.

Let me not pay a Penny of Ransom for my team, and may they give me a Weeks' Werth of production before they Dye Young.

Finally, do not let the other managers Mock me, or see my first draft choice and Seay "Hu?"

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do You Believe In Miracles?

If you missed the second WBC game between the Netherlands in the Dominican Republic, that’s too bad for you, because you missed the biggest upset in sports history. I don’t make that statement lightly. In surveys about the biggest sports upsets, the event that usually takes the top spot is the USA hockey team defeating the Russian team in the 1980 Olympics. Their stunning victory prompted announcer Al Michaels to carve his niche in broadcasting history with his exuberant “Do you believe in miracles?” Well, what the Netherlands did was a bigger miracle, and I’ll tell you why.

The mismatch in personnel was comparable. In 1980, the USA had a bunch of college kids representing their country, facing the USSR’s conglomerate of professionals from its two biggest leagues, which furnished a bunch of ready-made stars for the NHL later in the decade when it became okay for the NHL to sign Russians. The USSR team had dominated world hockey for a couple of decades, with superior skating, passing, and teamwork thanks to their government forcing the same guys to do nothing but play hockey together year after year. The American college kids, much younger, less experienced, and relatively unfamiliar with each other, did well just to make the finals of the Olympics tournament. But there they were.

The Netherlands team in this year’s WBC tournament faced the same disparity in talent and experience. Only two members of their starting lineup (along with a couple of pitchers) have even played in the major leagues, and neither one (first baseman Randall Simon and right fielder Eugene Kingsale) had done much in the majors. The rest of the team consisted of players who had never played outside of the Dutch league back home or had a little bit of experience in the low minor leagues here. That was it. The best Dutch pitcher, Jair Jurrjens, had declined a spot on the team, and the most formidable hurler in a “Nederlands” uniform was their pitching coach, Bert Blyleven. More than once, announcers jested that Blyleven, at age 57, might have a better chance out on the mound than the kids he was coaching.

The Dominican Republic team, on the other hand, was full of major league All-Stars, including former MVP Miguel Tejada, who moved over from his natural shortstop position to play third base because the team had young studs Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez to play short. The team was projected as one of the favorites to win the whole tournament, but they put themselves in jeopardy by blowing the first game of the tournament, handing the Netherlands three unearned runs in the top of the 1st inning (mainly thanks to a horrible throwing error by Ramirez) and failing to overcome the deficit, losing 3-1. After crushing Panama 9-0 in their second game, they had to face the Dutch again last night, with the loser eliminated from the tournament.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands put a major scare into the host team from Puerto Rico, holding a 1-0 lead in the 8th inning when their bullpen faltered, walking the bases loaded and giving up a pair of hits which netted three runs for Puerto Rico. The 3-1 decision advanced Puerto Rico to the next round and left the Netherlands needing another win.

Let’s put last night’s game into focus. There have been a couple of other upsets in this tournament, notably the Italian team beating Canada, and when a lightly regarded team beats a big favorite, it is sometimes a case of the better team thinking it just has to show up to win, getting careless, and losing focus just enough to fail to make those big plays that matter in any game. That’s what happened to the Dominican Republic in that first game, careless fielding that gave the Dutch a 3-0 lead and an inability to drive in runs when they had a chance. But they’d be geared up for the rematch, and it simply wouldn’t happen again. That’s the first reason why this was a bigger upset than the 1980 Olympic hockey game. The USA hockey game only had to beat the Russians once, not twice.

Watching the game, the mismatch in talent was clear. Dominican starter Ubaldo Jimenez (of the Rockies) faced 13 Dutch batters and struck out 10 of them. They didn’t have a chance against his major-league stuff. Jimenez was followed to the mound by Pedro Martinez, who is struggling to sign with a major-league team so he can prove that he isn’t washed up. For the second time in four days, he mowed the Dutch hitters down for three innings of hitless ball. Through seven innings, the Dutch had exactly two baserunners. By that time, the Dominicans had already left 11 runners on base, including a squandered bases-loaded threat. As they had in the opening game, they had plenty of chances, but couldn’t get the big hit—which is to say that the Dutch pitchers found some way to make good pitches when they counted.

The game moved on, but nobody could push across a run, so the game went into extra innings. The Netherlands was the home team, and it seemed obvious that if the Dominicans scored a run that would do the trick. Going into extras, the Dutch had scored exactly one run in their last 26 innings, and still had only two hits in this game. They weren’t going to touch the Dominicans’ pitching, it was that simple. Every Dutch pitcher who entered the game had a slimmer resume than the one he replaced, and it had to be only a matter of time before they surrendered a run.

But nothing happened in the 10th inning, and into the 11th it went. Dutch reliever got the first two outs by walked Jose Reyes. With Reyes running, Jose Bautista sliced a ball to medium right field. Kingsale charged in, possibly losing the ball in the lights, and attempted a sliding catch, but the ball glanced off his glove and rolled back toward the fence. Reyes scored easily to break the deadlock, and Bautista raced to third on the error. Blyleven visited the mound to calm Boyd down, and he managed to retire dangerous Hanley Ramirez to limit the damage to one run.

But that’s the second big reason why this was a bigger upset than the 1980 hockey game. In that one, the American team was outplayed by the superior Soviet squad, but not by a whole lot, and they had the lead in the 3rd period. All they had to do in the final minutes was hold onto the lead, which isn’t an impossible task in hockey. Teams kill penalties all the time when they’re outmanned, so sitting on a lead is standing practice on the ice. Imagine the 1980 game with the USSR team taking a one-goal lead with two minutes left, and the Americans still winning. Now that would have been a miracle!

That’s the task faced by the Dutch after Reyes scampered across the plate. Now they trailed by a run with only three outs to play with in the bottom of the 11th. Not only that, the Dominicans had saved their bullpen ace, Carlos Marmol, for just such a spot. As the announcers pointed out more than a few times, Marmol is one of the most talented and unhittable relievers in the majors. Last season, against big-time hitters, he recorded 114 strikeouts in 87 innings. In the last two seasons for the Cubs, he has pitched 156 innings and struck out 210 batters, allowing a measly 81 hits with a 2.13 ERA. What chance did the Dutch have? The Dominican pitchers hadn’t allowed an earned run in 28 innings, and now their toughest guy was on the mound. It was like asking the USA hockey team to score two goals in two minutes with two goalies guarding the opposite net.

Yet they did it. First, Dutch manager Rod Delmonico put up a pinch-hitter who hadn’t even appeared in the first two games. Damned if Sidney de Jong didn’t rip Marmol’s pitch into the gap for a double, the team’s fourth hit of the game. The next batter shot a hard ground ball up the middle on which Jose Reyes made a terrific play, nipping him at first while de Jong advanced to third. That brought up Kingsale, whose error had landed his team on the edge of the cliff. After a tough at-bat, he looped a ball to right center which dropped in safely for the game-tying single. That in itself was a miracle, staving off the defeat. Think in terms of the USA hockey team tying the Soviets, forcing an overtime in which anything could happen.

But they weren’t done. Marmol tried to pick Kingsale off but made a wild throw, and Kingsale raced to third with the potential winning run. The batter was their shortstop, a kid named Schoop (I can’t remember his first name) who has been the most helpless hitter on the team. He waved feebly at a Marmol breaking ball to strike out for the fourth time in the game. That brought up Randall Simon, whom the Dominicans elected to walk intentionally, bringing up third baseman Yurendell de Caster, who had made a few key defensive plays in three games but had only one hit in 10 trips to the plate. No problem. He hit a sharp one-hopper to first base, where it clanked off the glove of Willy Aybar and rolled into foul territory. By the time Aybar recovered and threw the ball, de Caster was safe at first and Kingsale had raced across the plate with the winning run.

It was stunning, unbelievable. In the Dominican Republic dugout, the players sat with their jaws at their feet, stunned and disbelieving. In their native country, which has churned out more major leaguers than any country besides the USA, their fans wondered what to do with their tickets and plane/hotel packages for the second round in Miami, now that their team isn’t going anywhere except to disperse back to their major league teams in spring training. Who knows if they’ll even be welcomed back after the season. The term “national disgrace” was floating about the airwaves last night.

And the Dutch play on. Many people forget that the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” gave the USA team the gold medal. That was only the semi-final game, however, and they still had to defeat the team from Finland to win the gold medal. I don’t think anyone is pretending that the Netherlands is going to win this tournament. They have to win a few more games to do that, all against star-studded teams. But they never should’ve gotten this far, scoring their only earned run of the tournament with only two outs separating them from the oblivion now occupied by the Dominicans.

By my reckoning, that makes it the biggest miracle in sports.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Baseball's March Madness

Watching the USA-Canada tussle in the World Baseball Classic on Saturday, it felt great to enjoy a gut-wrenching 9th inning in early March. What better way to dive head-first into a new baseball season than to pace the floor as closer J. J. Putz struggled (and I do mean struggled) to preserve a two-run lead against the Canadians in front of a nearly full stadium in Toronto. Putz surrendered one run but held on to retire Jason Bay and nail down a 6-5 victory that prevented the American team from reliving the shocking comeuppance they got from the Canadian team in the inaugural WBC in 2006.

Nor was that the only exciting moment of the tournament's first round. Far from it. Earlier that day came a jolting upset by the Netherlands over a star-studded Dominican Republic squad that put a ton of runners on base but couldn't get them across the plate. Mets fans can tell you why the Dominicans lost: they benched Jose Reyes in favor of Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, and Ramirez's ghastly throwing error in the top of the 1st inning helped the Netherlands take a 3-0 lead which they never relinquished. DR manager Felipe Alou nearly had a stroke in the bottom of the 9th when, trailing 3-2, speedster Willy Taveras tried to steal third base with one out and got nailed, effectively killing their only chance to tie the game. Earlier, the Netherlands had brought in a relief pitcher nobody in this country will ever likely hear of again, with the bases loaded, and he promptly threw a double-play ball to kill a DR rally. But maybe the Dutch team is for real. Yesterday they held Puerto Rico scoreless for seven innings and were poised for another upset, leading 1-0 until Puerto Rico scored three runs in the 8th inning to win. Now the Dutch will have to beat the Dominican Republic again to advance. Don't tell them they can't do it.

In the USA's second game of the tournament, they faced a Venezuela team that also has its share of major leaguers and had trounced Italy 7-0 in its opening game. No problem. Again, Mets fans can tell you what happened here. Trailing 3-2 heading into the 5th inning, the Americans looked up to the sight of Victor Zambrano toeing the rubber for the Venezuelans. Although Mets fans cringe at the very thought of Victor "The Wrong" Zambrano, the wild-armed bustout for whom a general manager whose name I can't even bring myself to type traded prized prospect Scott Kazmir, at least this time he had a chance to help the team we were rooting for. Zambrano got through the 5th inning unscathed, but fell apart in the 6th. Two hits, two walks and a wild pitch later, he gave us that familiar head-down trudge to the dugout, and the USA team was in business. Before the inning ended, it was an 8-run rally and a 10-3 lead that opened the door to a 15-6 rout. Thank you, finally, Victor, for giving me a performance I could cheer.

As its reward, Venezuela will get to play Italy again, thanks to the Italians' stirring 6-2 win over the Canadians yesterday. The "crowd" in Toronto looked meager (the official attendance was 12,411), and maybe the fans took the Italians lightly and were waiting to show up for a game against Venezuela, much like Atlanta Braves fans of the perennial division champs stayed away in droves from first-round playoff games, figuring the games weren't worth watching until the World Series, only to see the Braves flounder over and over again in the first round. All those fans who stayed away in droves deserved what they got, in this case a high-energy effort from the underdog Italians, who simply outplayed their hosts. Maybe batting coach Mike Piazza was masquerading for some of the unknowns in the Italian lineup, but they also played great defense and thoroughly earned their rematch with Venezuela.

With the USA team packed with power--you know it's a scary lineup when the last three guys in the batting order are Ryan Braun, Brian McCann, and Curtis Granderson, and you have to platoon Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter at shortstop--and Japan, Korea, and Cuba looking strong, this could be quite a tournament. There are more great games ahead, and the teams seem to be taking this competition more seriously than they did in 2006 (that is, the Americans are). That first time around, some people thought of the games as exhibitions. It was March, after all, a time for leisurely preparation for the long season ahead. This time, it is definitely a competition, and for fans like me who have endured a long, harsh winter, it is never too early to see teams battling for every base and every out, and never too early to feel the anxiety of every pitch as my team tries to grab that next vital victory. So bring on the Cubans and the Japanese!