February 19, 2007
The Ledger Domain
MLB Needs to Reconnect
Ignorance is learned; innocence is forgotten.
This isn't a call for alarm. The world will not stop spinning on its axis. Lives are not in the balance. Baseball will remain baseball, and the game will not cease. It is still timeless, and still has a hold on the collective consciousness of generations. Maybe it's just me, but I feel there's some sense of critical mass. Over the past few months, I've seen MLB's need to reconnect with its foundation become an issue more than it ever has been, particularly because of the direction it is taking on a couple of fronts.
This isn't some purist's cry for "the good old days." Baseball lost its innocence when the likes of William Hulbert and later Ban Johnson arrived on the scene, so I'm not blind to seeing MLB as a business. Still, at the game's core is that sense of wonder that requires its stewards to be mindful that the game itself is what binds us to it. Some of the bean counters have lost sight of this.
Consider the most recent news from the boardrooms: the announcement to place MLB Extra Innings exclusively on DirecTV will occur this week, even after cable came back with a counter offer; the Cubs announced that, for the first time in Wrigley Field's history, ads will adorn the field of play; and the sale of the Atlanta Braves has all the drama of a megalithic conglomerate transaction, as baseball passion gets relegated to the back seat of a tax-free transaction worked out among CBS, Liberty Media and Time-Warner.
MLB's most ardent fans ask where they are in this mix, with many feeling that they have been shoved aside. This all came home to me over an extended series of phone calls I had with Peter Bavasi. Breaks in the conversation would leave me the time to keep going back to wires and stories of MLB as a multi-billion dollar industry, and made me ponder the tension between those stories and what really commands our interest in baseball-the purity of the game itself.
The Road Trip
The way the conversation moved conveyed the remote feel of the drive itself, as the conversation would drop in and out of cell phone range, only to be reconnected. This was because Peter Bavasi was driving back up I-5 from San Diego after attending a function in honor of his father, Buzzie, and our conversations filled the miles and the time as he passed through the endless farmland of California's San Joaquin Valley. When we dropped out of contact, a few minutes later one or the other would call back, and we'd start back in.
Peter Bavasi has been the general manager of the San Diego Padres, the founding president of the Toronto Blue Jays, and the president of the Cleveland Indians, during which time he served on Major League Baseball's Executive Council. He was also president of ESPN SportsTicker, and has been working as a consultant in the business of baseball, most recently working with Washington, D.C. on the relocation of the Expos. His brother Bill is executive vice president and general manager of the Seattle Mariners, and the entire family, led by Emil "Buzzie" Bavasi, has been involved in professional baseball in some fashion since 1938.
Somewhere along the line, Peter has come full circle, returning to baseball's roots by becoming the managing partner (along with his brother Bob) of the Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox in the "twin cities" area--Marysville and Yuba City, CA (combined population, ~73,000). It seems a million miles from where he was in MLB, and yet, he seems as comfortable here as he was sitting on the Executive Council.
The Gold Sox are not MLB. They are, to use the phrase, in a league of their own. Peter's brother Bob helped set the concept in motion, launching the Horizon Summer Series, an invitation-only summer league for amateur college-age players for which there's almost no travel (almost all of the Gold Sox's games are at home). The team only plays on the best-drawing days of the week, Thursday through Sunday. As audacious as it sounds, the concept has worked well so far. As Bob later told me, "My hypothesis was that fans appreciated a good night out at a good ballgame that would have the minor-league feel to it, but really didn't care much what class it was. From my experience in Everett with the Aquasox, many minor-league game attendees don't know the final score if you ask them on the way out. But they still had a good time." Bob goes on, "If that's true, do you need all the things behind the curtain that the fans don't see, such as road games, player salaries, bad drawing days of the week and leagues?" That sensibility has touched more than one in MLB. At one point, Don Zimmer said he'd like to be third-base coach of the Gold Sox, but added, "Only if you can move the home dugout to the third-base side so I don't have so far to go." Even George Steinbrenner quipped, "You're having all the fun with the Gold Sox while I deal with all the big-league headaches."
Back to the drive and talking to Peter Bavasi, we drift into the discussion on how the Gold Sox help rekindle a more basic spirit of baseball, while MLB sits at a point where marketing the massive corporate entity it has become can be at odds with baseball's roots. MLB has been packaged and homogenized to the point where the distance between those on the field and those in the stands seems unbridgeable, and the owners and stewards of the game seem removed further still. As Bavasi clicks off the miles, we talk of his respect for those that he worked with while being at the highest levels of MLB--his feelings on how well Selig is doing, and where baseball is at as an industry. He's retired from MLB, but still follows daily matters, and is in contact with those still active. "As a business, baseball at almost every level is doing well," Bavasi says. "Attendance is generally high, media interest is mostly terrific, and those clubs that are run smartly will make money. ... At the highest level, baseball has become a very big business, with a worldwide reach. Major League Baseball is no longer your grandfather's game. It's big and it's getting bigger."
Bavasi sees how baseball and community weave together, and how MLB is at odds with itself when it tries to package that historic relationship while conducting itself as a multi-billion-dollar industry. "While they try, it's become very difficult for MLB to practice 'think global, act local,'" he says. "Club marketers try hard to stay close to their communities, but the effort often doesn't work well. The business of baseball has become too large, the wealthy players have become too distant. The working family has been priced out of the big-league ballparks."
(click)… We're disconnected again, and I'm guessing that Bavasi and I will have to take this up again at another time.
I go back to the computer screen, and the less-comforting symptoms of the industry's changes. MLB's executive vice-president of business, Tim Brosnan, seems to be getting out in front of the pending deal to make Extra Innings exclusively available on DirecTV. "We offer the following assurances to our fans: any deal for the Major League Baseball's Extra Innings subscription package, when concluded, will in no way affect a single fan's ability to watch games of his home club in his home market," Brosnan states. I frown at the obtuse nature of the comment. Isn't this missing the point? Extra Innings is designed for those that wish to connect with their favorite teams when they are out-of-market--the displaced Red Sox fan in Manhattan, or the Cardinals fan in California. I check my inbox. Word comes that Selig is talking on ESPN's Mike and Mike show about the proposed deal. "There's no doubt in my mind that you will be quite surprised at how few people are affected," Selig mentions. Selig's disconnect seems even sharper than the dropped coverage of my call with Bavasi.
Now, to be fair, MLB is not the Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox. For that matter, it's not W.P. Kinsella's vision that became Field of Dreams. Still, we hold on to the dream that baseball, at its core, is that place--that pure, homey, local connection that we hold on to. I'm sure that those that run the game today--the owners, the commissioner, those in the business of baseball--love it dearly. I have heard their passionately-held views and memories of the game far too often to think otherwise. How MLB, as a business, can hold onto that commonly-held love for the game while trying to also be a multi-billion-dollar industry remains a tightrope that requires never losing sight of its origins as a game, but I suspect the new Extra Innings package isn't going to help.