Free agency does a lot to clarify what matters to players. Some will opt for the highest average annual contract or biggest guarantee; others will take slightly less so they might preserve another bite at free agency down the road, before time completely diminishes their stars. Some are able to command both, because of savvy negotiating or some team’s desperate craving for a generational talent. Each outcome is revealing. Mega contracts make for surprisingly boring tales in this regard. The would-be lottery winner in all of us can imagine the satisfaction a nice, round number like $200 million might have as it rolls off the tongue. Many a player will take all the chips ownership will push into the pile and cash out, considering themselves satiated. It’s when those max contracts hit the tape only to be pushed aside by deals with virtues like flexibility or longevity or the promise of a World Series appearance, that we get to say something more interesting about what matters. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the top of the pyramid drawn in bespoke terms, assuming the shape of the complicated mix of ingredients and tiebreakers that make up happiness. As Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh discussed on Episode 774 of Effectively Wild, those ingredients can be personal and perhaps a bit eccentric.
After the basic condition of self-perceived worth is satisfied, and contract dollars line up with rudimentary expectations, what else matters to the player? What is required to consider oneself happy, or satisfied? Jason Heyward is a Chicago Cub. Despite a reported $200 million offer from the St. Louis Cardinals, Heyward ultimately opted for the slightly lower overall value to enjoy two opt-out clauses and make a run at the playoffs with a stacked Cubs team. At his introductory press conference Tuesday, Heyward said, “I don't want to take the highest dollar amount when my gut is telling me to go somewhere else, or choose a location based on having fun, making sure my family is safe, and knowing that I would get the most enjoyment out of it for the rest of my career. And that from teammates, from city, to fan base and the opportunity of hopefully one day being able to say I’m a World Series Champion.” He could have been a 200 Million Dollar Man, but his hierarchy of needs was arranged differently.
Motivations require more careful excavation in the case of ownership. Rare is the owner who will claim to care about anything other than franchise “success,” a word that can cover all manner of sins. But we are not without indicators, and Zack Greinke’s unexpected signing with the Diamondbacks provided a peek. In the wake of the signing, Jayson Stark tweeted he was, “Hearing lots of consternation from other clubs about the Greinke deal. Sources say the Dbacks got almost $80M in revenue sharing last 3 yrs.”
This thought process is a bit tortured and more than a bit strange: Presented with their piece of the revenue sharing pie, something about the Diamondbacks’ decision to put that money onto the field, into the hands of a player, seems to have offended the sensibilities of some clubs. Now, we could of course speculate which clubs might have the most severe consternation (cough Dodgers cough), just as we might speculate that said consternation was the result of embarrassment at being outbid, or bewilderment at the idea of a suddenly Greinke-less rotation. And we could also note, as many did following the tweet, that the alternative (pocketing their revenue sharing distribution) would likely also draw the ire of profitable teams. I'm sure many teams would rather avoid revenue sharing all together. But since that’s not an option, I wonder if, confronted by a team that won 79 games last year, they would rather that team not compete. Perhaps what offends the haves is not when the have-nots suddenly have, but when they slink toward relevance. I wonder if they think, “Let us be rich and fat with success, and all at the same time. Now you stay over there.”
And so I wonder if we underestimate how diverse the odd, in-between spots on the ownership continuum are. Bracketed by the extreme free-market profit seeker on one end and Mike Illitch on the other, the space between allows us to flesh out an ownership taxonomy, with each genus subject to and defined by its own hierarchy of needs. Your favorite team will fall somewhere along this continuum. Not to stretch the biology references too far, or mix my metaphors too badly, but each team will have its circumstances and caveats, the details of which will help to place it on the continuum, perhaps marking it as a separate species. But to give a sense of it, we look to five primary species.
The Profit Seeker
To be clear, the basic resting pulse of baseball is to make profit. We, as normal people, can perhaps imagine the feeling of $200 million; wrapping our heads around the funny money of ownership is harder. Revenue isn’t the most sentimental measure of success, but it is certainly in the repertoire. But there are those interested in making more money, and then there is the Profit Seeker. Think Jeffrey Loria, seemingly unconcerned with either the whisperings about the state of the on-field product or Miami’s solvency. Think the Wilpons, endeavoring to extract every last ounce of value from the Mets because, well, Ponzi schemes are expensive. To a lesser extent, think of the Angels pricing lower income fans out of the ballpark while they make oodles on luxury seats, then marvel at justifying the move in the language of “per-caps.” Sometimes the Profit Seeker arrives at his gains by putting a bad product on the field but broadcasting that product as part of a lucrative television deal. Sometimes, it reaps the largess of revenue sharing. Sometimes, it enjoys the generosity of taxpayers. The only consistent thread is the need atop the hierarchy: revenue in service of profit.
The Apathetic (but embarrassable)
The Mariners have historically been an excellent example of this; distant in both literal and figurative terms, Nintendo seemed content for years to pocket profits considered small compared to the New Yorks and LAs and Bostons, and keep payroll low. Its need was profit without hassle or involvement. The introduction of a lucrative television deal changed the calculus. When ownership decided to spend money only to see no postseason appearances in return, it woke from apathy, at least long enough to fire failed architects. The Apathetic can tolerate being mediocre and cheap as long as the checks are regular, but even the mediocre and cheap prefer not to be embarrassed.
The Rich and the Good
Very few owners of professional sports franchises get into the business solely to get rich; they’re already rich. They might get in it to get richer, but they’re sometimes doing more than that. For some, they’re also there to do something public: to build legacies and participate in our memories in a way few other business ventures allow. They’re there to be part of the club. To be an Owner. They’ll spend money because they have it, so long as it makes them good. This is the Rich and the Good owner, concerned with being one of those baseball names we remember, perhaps even the beginning of a dynasty.
The ideal would be to make as much money as possible, and not have to participate in revenue sharing at all. Absent the option to leave the uncompetitive alone in the woods for the free market to devour them, the next best thing for the Rich and the Good is most of the money and the vast majority of the glory. The Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals come most immediately to mind.
Illitch and his Tigers are in an odd spot, made all the odder as he tries to navigate his relationship with his seemingly greatest need: his own legacy. It is obvious he’s very concerned with the quality of play right now, throwing more contracts on the pile and questing as lustily as he does for a World Series. Relatedly, he’s concerned about his long-term legacy. We often remember a club having a long period of relevance punctuated by a World Series and forget the long droughts and dark times. What makes his case so interesting is that he appears far less concerned with the legacy in the middle distance. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Tigers won’t be very good, and that fallow period could stretch on for a bit. But at 86 years old, that part of the legacy might be less important to Illitich.
This category is the most amorphous, the most subject to change, and perhaps the most intriguing. It has the aspiration for legacy of the Rich and the Good, the hard-nosed financial sensibilities and voracious appetites of the Profit Seeker, the disregard of the middle distance of a Mike Illitch. Short-term gratification isn’t a need, and neither is certainty. When it works, you’re the Cubs and the Astros. When it doesn’t, and your club falls into the perpetual rebuild, your fans wonder if anything was ever good, and if anyone would notice if they rooted for someone else.
Simply classifying a team is surely not enough to predict what they might do in a situation. Like Maslow’s own hierarchy, needs are often in conflict; what we see as fans is the resolution of that conflict. And this list isn’t exhaustive; the points in between are worthy of examination. But it might help us understand those who direct the game a bit better, adding texture to their machinations, and nuance to the never-ending quest for funny money.
Thank you for reading
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