February 3, 2009
You Could Look It Up
Rumors of Distant Thunder
In the last few weeks we've all heard a great deal about the plethora of free agents still waiting to be signed at this late time of year, and how one could construct the core of a strong team with orphaned ballplayers: Bobby Abreu in right field, Adam Dunn in left, Manny Ramirez as the DH, an all-Orlando double-play combination of Hudson and Cabrera. We've also had the reason for the existence of these orphans explained again and again: the economy is on life support. Teams do not want to be on the hook for eight-figure salaries in these uncertain times, so they're waiting for the free agents to blink and accept seven-figure salaries, contracts with shorter durations, or both. All of the pressure, these reports seem to suggest, is on the players.
And yet, as the clock ticks down to pitchers and catchers, we should see some of that pressure begin to shift to the buyers. As the economy slows and the players remain on the market, the question is: Do their salary demands fall faster than the teams' ability to afford them? In theory, the benefit should be on the teams' side at this stage; while attendance remains the principal driver of revenue for many teams and will likely decline this season, there are other revenue streams, such as media contracts, that are locked in, and thus not subject to the loop-de-loop of our declining fortunes. As such, even teams that normally do not bid on free agents will be forced to answer a difficult question from their fans: "How did you allow a historic, hopefully not-to-be-repeated opportunity to add a top-quality hitter to your roster at a bargain price slip by?"
Ironically, teams that plead poverty and fail to take advantage of this opportunity are more likely to suffer by reinforcing in the public the very reasons for their declining attendance in the first place. In an era in which a family of four is gouged for hundreds of dollars when it attends a ballgame, why should it stretch its declining discretionary dollars to take in a team which promises not to be entertaining?
This lesson is hammered home by a birds'-eye view of attendance figures in the decade before and during the Great Depression:
Team 1921-1930 1931-1940 % Change Yankees 10,407,836 8,909,698 -14.4% Browns 3,799,586 1,271,579 -66.5% Senators 5,102,573 3,907,187 -23.4% White Sox 5,811,009 4,364,150 -24.9% Red Sox 3,310,498 5,093,365 +46.2% Athletics 6,276,235 3,797,557 -39.5% Tigers 7,748,733 7,803,028 + 1.0%
The only teams to see their fortunes improve at the turnstiles during the Great Depression were the Tigers (to a modest extent) and the Red Sox. The Tigers were enjoying one of the best decades in franchise history, winning three pennants and a championship, and being powered by a gate attraction in annual triple-crown threat Hank Greenberg. The Sox are the best parallel for clubs of today, as beginning in 1932 they completely changed their method of doing business. This change coincided with the purchase of the club by Tom Yawkey from an undercapitalized investment group headed by J.A. Robert Quinn. Yawkey would subsequently hinder the Red Sox in many significant ways over his more than 40 years of ownership, but in the early going he did spend, with the result that the club, while not immediately competitive, did feature entertaining, well-known players such as Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, and, as of 1939, Ted Williams. Conversely, the A's, which were largely divested of stars in response to the economic slowdown, suffered the biggest dip of any team except the Browns. It should also be noted that despite the change in Boston's fortunes, their attendance in the 1931-1940 period was unimpressive by the standards of the previous decade-there is only so much a team can do to drive attendance when the fan-base lacks for basic necessities like actual bread, let alone the dough to spend at the ballpark.
Unlike the teams of today, the clubs of the 1930s were protected by the absence of mass media. Say you were a Red Sox fan in the winter of 1929. Your team had just gone 58-96, placing it last in the American League, 48 games behind the pennant-winning A's. Your BoSox weren't good in any phase of the game, but if you had to pick a problem area to work on, you'd have to focus on the offense, which scored 3.9 runs per game in a league that averaged 5.0. The Yankees have Gehrig and Ruth, the A's Foxx and Simmons. The Sox have... Phil Todt and Russ Scarritt? Who are these guys, and how do we get something better?
Unless you were reading The Sporting News very closely in those days, you might not know that there was available talent in the minor leagues. Though Branch Rickey's farm-system concept was only beginning to gain any currency in the industry outside of St. Louis, veteran hitters were available in exchange for a cash donation to a minor league club-said cash donation in no way resembling the $100,000 the Sox received for Babe Ruth ten years earlier. Many of the players later celebrated as titans of the minor leagues' golden age were active and potent at this time. Outfielder Ike Boone, who had played two seasons for the Red Sox earlier in the decade (and hit quite well) batted .407 with 55 home runs (in 198 games) for the San Diego Missions of the Pacific Coast League in 1929. Buzz Arlett, another PCL great, hit .370 with 70 doubles and 39 home runs (200 games). The Phillies would give him a try in 1931, and he'd hit .313/.387/.538 (a very respectable .303 EqA). Ox Eckhardt, kind of an Ichiro Suzuki type (but perhaps with two broken legs), had just hit .354 for the PCL Seattle Rainiers (with a league-leading 17 triples despite his lack of speed). Eckhardt would go on to win five minor league batting titles without getting an extended trial in The Show. The San Francisco Seals, still a few years from acquiring their first DiMaggio brother, were featuring Smead Jolley, league batting-title winner in 1927 and 1928, who that season slumped to .387. The White Sox would purchase him that winter and watch him bat .313/.346/.492 in 1930, a break-even performance for a corner outfielder during that offensively explosive era.
We've only discussed the PCL here; the American Association and International League had their own veteran stars there for the taking. All of these players were compromised in one way or the other-they were poor baserunners and in some cases notoriously bad fielders. Jolley, who did eventually get to the Red Sox via trade, once tumbled off of the 10-foot embankment ("Duffy's Cliff") that used to run up to the left field fence at Fenway, complaining to his mocking teammates, "You smart guys taught me how to go up the hill, but nobody taught me how to come down." It was a typical day for Smead, but at least he could out-hit Red Sox of the period like Ollie Marquardt and Urbane Pickering, and the fans had a reason to come out, to see Jolley hit, and, if possible, fall down. No doubt Phil Todt was a pro's pro, but he was also a .258/.305/.395 hitter at first base at a time when the league hit .300. Maybe the average fan wasn't thinking about how this compared to positional or league averages, but he could figure out that Todt was subpar, and he could stay home.
Anything negative we could say about Jolley or Boone or Arlett can also be said about Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez. The former is a strikeout machine and is no asset outside of the batter's box. The latter is one of the best hitters in the game, but only when he feels like it-and he doesn't always feel like it. Whatever his limitations, Dunn trumps a Mike Jacobs at first base or any corner outfielder or designated hitter the Twins might deploy, for example. He beats using a Nyjer Morgan or Austin Kearns or Cody Ross or Nelson Cruz. As the season goes on, as the economy continues to struggle, and as these players continue to make outs, the dedicated fan will ask, "Why are we watching these guys when we could have been watching those guys?" The casual fan will simply stay home.
Mid- and small-market teams that normally cry poverty won't be able to use that excuse, because the big-market clubs have largely done what they set out to do, and are now home in front of the fireplace, for once leaving quality players on the board for the little guys. They won't be able to depend on the ignorance of their fans, as the Red Sox and other weak teams of the '30s did, saying, "We couldn't come up with anything better" just because the majors stopped at the Mississippi and the alternatives were hiding in exotic San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. As 2009 turns to 2010, they won't be able to hide behind anything at all, except perhaps for a sign saying, "Bleacher seats, 50 percent off!"