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March 29, 2006

2006--Setting the Stage

Put on a Happy Face

by Steven Goldman

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SETTING THE STAGE: PUT ON A HAPPY FACE
(OR, WHY EVERYONE SHOULD BE A YANKEES FAN)

The Florida Marlins have proposed a great new fan incentive for the coming season. In the first inning of each game, between the second and third pitches by the home team, every fan will be gently stabbed with a cocktail fork, left thigh for season ticket holders, right thigh for single game ticket holders. The marketing department anticipates a great response from the masochists who are expected to be the main attendees at Marlins games this year. In addition, the singing of the national anthem will be replaced by dramatic readings of David Samson's, "We're moving to anyplace but here and it's all your fault, you ungrateful bastards," speech by local celebrities.

Halfway across the country, the Royals have done the Marlins one better. Each night, when fans rise for the seventh inning stretch, large, rotating blades will descend and decapitate every fan of adult height. The resulting blood, viscera, and other remains will be collected and used to feed orphaned dogs rescued from abusive puppy farms. The Royals are hopeful that their spin on Major League Baseball's "I Live For This" campaign, "I Die For This," will kindle more enthusiasm than did last season's slogan, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." Special promotions such as "Great Gay Entertainers Bobble-Head Night," "Premenstrual Ladies Day," and "Americans Who Love Lobbyists Night" are expected to nearly double last season's per game attendance of 17.

Baseball is an entertainment. Unlike food, clothing, and shelter, entertainment is optional. As Hollywood has found recently, even when they offer such compelling fare as "Deadly Round Things: The Ring vs. Saw," or perhaps because of it, the theatres stay empty. Gas has become very expensive while boorish behavior comes cheap. It's more cost-efficient, not to mention infinitely more rewarding, to remain on the couch and practice one's reproductive technique. No one is going to be a buzzkill with incessant talking, unless you're into that kind of thing. You won't be subjected to commercials or overpriced popcorn or the Future Juvie Offenders of America hacking at the seats with their box cutters and mocking Richard III for his disfiguring hump. Or you for yours. A man's hump is his castle.

This applies to baseball teams in the same way that it applies to Hollywood. Baseball teams put on a show for the amusement of the customers. That's it. They provide no essential service, create only a few low paying jobs beyond those of the executives and the players, and their stadiums generate an inefficient return on the land that they use. If the teams choose not to entertain, as the Marlins and Royals have surely done, they forfeit their relevance, giving up any claim for public attention or dollars. One can safely stay home, do a Dwight Eisenhower and take up paint-by-numbers, or read Zane Grey novels.

At our recent event at the Yogi Berra Museum, we were asked, "When will the Royals fire Allard Baird?" Assuming the questioner bore Mr. Baird no personal animus--we will assume that young Allard did not run off with the fellow's mother or eat his cat--the question can be paraphrased as, "When will the Royals get better?" The answer, at least from this corner, was, "When Royals ownership cares about winning again." This too can be paraphrased as, "When they care about earning your money," which is to say, "When they again care to be entertaining." Until that time they can be safely ignored, or even disdained. They don't care to provide the fan with a bang for his buck, to give them what they're paying for, which is a true athletic contest. If that last part, the contest, wasn't important, if all it took to bring satisfaction was a visit by the Yankees, then we would eagerly eschew the games themselves and the pennant races and just watch batting practice. No, the game is the thing.

For any franchise, one year of incompetence equals incompetence, while five years of incompetence equals negligence. As the A's and the Twins have shown, it is possible to put together a strong, compelling baseball team without spending like the Yankees or the Red Sox. Even the Brewers have proved capable of reanimation when given the proper attention and the Devil Rays are expected to show signs of life this year. In contrast, the Royals have defied the odds, staying potted for over ten years. As for the Marlins, though Casey Stengel correctly observed that one can tear down a club a lot faster than one can build it up, had they angled a greater return in position players as they traded off their vets, rather than almost exclusively acquiring pitching, the team would have been in a position to quickly rebound. As the Cubs and Blue Jays will soon discover, trading a Juan Pierre never hurt anyone and the world's greatest pitcher isn't an asset to fish or fowl if he spends most of his time on the disabled list. Failing to acquire sufficient position players to actually stock the major league team was an oversight-but true oversights are very rare.

The question remains, then, who benefits from the employment of a strategy that decreases the entertainment quality of their team? Certainly not the teams themselves, nor baseball as a whole. Over time, the general trend in baseball attendance has been upward, but there have been rare times, say the early 1930s, when the Great Depression had reached its nadir, when attendance was flat or declined. One interesting example was 1939, when American League attendance slipped by about 180,000 from the year before. That sounds like a small loss, but when overall league attendance is around four million, it's a significant figure.

Intriguingly, a large part of the shortfall was attributable to a falloff in Yankees home attendance. The Yankees had one of the all-time great teams, with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and so on, so it wasn't a lack of quality on the field that kept people away. It might have been the Great Depression itself; unemployment was around 17% at that time, so perhaps 110,000 more New Yorkers than the year before lacked the (literal) bread to go out to the ballpark.

A more likely answer is that in New York, and throughout the American League, a few fans simply found something better to do. The Yankees were about to win their fourth straight championship. The league hadn't had a compelling pennant race in five years. In 1939 Hollywood had perhaps its greatest year ever, with Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Roaring Twenties, and Destry Rides Again to name just a handful. There was guaranteed entertainment to be had, likely with air conditioning and usherettes. Hollywood had its best year for box office in 1939, while baseball slipped. It wasn't a coincidence.

Sadly, the usherette has gone the way of the dinosaur, but the competition for the entertainment dollar and a mindshare has grown more intense. A good chunk of the public would rather watch "American Idol" than any sporting event. Yet the Marlins eviscerated themselves and blamed the public, blamed the public's elected officials, for their lack of charity. It has been suggested that the Royals, too, will miraculously revive when their ballpark refurbishment handout has been approved.

It would be far simpler if these clubs just did what every other business in the universe does when confronted by unfavorable business conditions: move, fold, or sell. Make a game effort to quit. Stop lying to the public, stop pretending. Play straight with the fans or go away, because farce is tiresome.

There is a lot to look forward to this season. Among those things could be the reconstruction of the Marlins and the Royals as a pure baseball problem, or even a business of baseball problem, but this isn't on the menu.

Kansas City Royals fans: "Superman Returns" will soon be in the theatres. Florida Marlins fans: Your team will be moving to Texas, but you will be better off. Everyone else: Your teams may not succeed, but they're all in there punching.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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