In March, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred went on TV and said he wanted baseball to be part of America’s “return to normalcy” when the coronavirus pandemic subsides. A few weeks later, MLB super-agent Scott Boras said almost exactly the same thing in the New York Times.
“In some of America’s darkest moments, the country has turned to Major League Baseball to bring hope and normalcy back to everyday life,” Boras wrote, doing a pretty decent impression of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams.
If you need evidence that these are extraordinary times—well there you have it. Manfred and Boras are arguably the two most powerful men in the sport. They are the Yin and Yang of the Baseball Industrial Complex. Manfred serves the sport’s ownership class, and Boras makes a living out of extracting giant free-agent contracts from those very owners.
But Manfred and Boras also have a lot in common: they both benefit when the business of baseball is thriving. And they are both tapping into a tradition as long and storied as the sport itself: baseball’s boosters disingenuously declaring it to be a special and indeed necessary force in American life, and also one where they should be able to make a little cash in the process.
In the coming days we are going to hear a lot of very loud voices declaring that the MLB Players Association must acquiesce to a deal slashing their negotiated contracts beyond previous prorated amounts—and potentially risking their lives and their families’ lives—so we can consume baseball immediately. To do otherwise would be to risk damaging the sport permanently. “It’s time to save baseball before it’s too late,” wrote Bob Nightengale in USA Today.
The subtext, of course, is that by saving baseball, we are saving a piece of America. This is a good reminder that the national pastime isn’t really baseball: It’s baseball reminding you that baseball is the national pastime. The product MLB is selling is nostalgia, and its targets aren’t the players, but the audience. For more than a century, the lords of the sport have used nostalgia to extract concessions from everybody but themselves: fans, players, and all levels of government. They have done it by declaring the sport vital, and subsequently warning that it is on the verge of extinction. They are messing with our baseball-loving hearts!
This pattern goes all the way back. The sport’s popular creation myth—that it was invented by war hero Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY—was a marketing ploy by sporting goods manufacturer A.G. Spalding who wrote, years before his Mills Commission anointed Doubleday the inventor of baseball, that “Our good Old American game of baseball must have an American Dad.” At the time, Spalding was worried that the sport would lose popularity to up-and-coming sports like cycling. (For more on this, please read John Thorne’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden).
Baseball owes a great deal of its growth as a business to special treatment by the United States government—specifically an antitrust exemption that was cemented by the Supreme Court in 1922 and still stands today. In 1970, when outfielder Curt Flood sued to end this exemption, the Supreme Court upheld it not because of its legal soundness (the antitrust exemption does not extend to other sports and is pretty obviously unsound) but literally because of “baseball’s unique characteristics and needs.”
In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote poetically about baseball legends like Old Hoss Radbourn and Big Ed Delahantey in old-timey prose. He cited Casey at the Bat. That’s all well and good. But does it actually make sense? Justice William O. Douglas did not think so. In his dissent he wrote that “Only a romantic view of a rather dismal business account over the last 50 years” would justify maintaining the antitrust exemption.
Douglas was right. And when held up to the light, we know that the romantic view of baseball propagated by the present-day Albert Spaldings is as manufactured as the hot dogs we eat at tax-payer funded ballparks.
As Max Scherzer recently noted, MLB owners have a long history of crying poor to the public and the players while also refusing to open their books. This phenomenon—and a recent lowball offer by team owners—has led the very tenuous alliance between Manfred and Boras to fray. In an email to his clients, Boras wrote that “players should not agree to further cuts to bail out the owners.”
We should all listen to Boras, because (this time) he’s right. It’s important that before we bend over backward to offer baseball owners the thousands of COVID-19 tests and other public resources it will take to re-start some version of the sport, and before we take their side in the sport’s nascent labor war, we remember some facts about baseball’s recent history:
In the last decade, baseball games have gotten more expensive. Ticket prices have increased—and alongside them, so have brokerage and handling fees.
Ballgames have become harder to watch on TV as owners have cashed checks and partnered with cable providers, making local games nearly inaccessible unless you are willing to cough up the cost of a cable bundle that also includes a bunch of crap you don’t want. Meanwhile, MLB.tv, the league’s wonderful streaming service, is still plagued by draconian and nonsensical local blackouts. (For example, fans in Anchorage, Alaska, are restricted from streaming Seattle Mariners games more than 2,000 miles away.)
Front offices have begun to operate more and more like consulting firms, hoping to extract the most resources at the lowest possible cost: this has led to some fascinating developments in how the game is played, like the recent rise of home runs and strikeouts (though how much you enjoy that is debatable). It has also led to amoral (at best) behavior like front-office sponsored sign-stealing schemes—and to the general phenomenon of everybody treating players, who are human beings last time I checked, as mere collections of statistics.
Even before the pandemic, MLB was floating a proposal that would extinguish 42 minor league teams—literally tearing up the sport from its roots. (The minors are bad business; and who needs ‘em when you can genetically engineer pitchers throwing 100 mph in laboratories anyway?)
Since the pandemic, the league has apparently doubled down on its commitment to not develop players. This year, MLB dramatically reduced the size of the amateur draft—crippling the potential futures for an entire class of future stars. Now teams have begun to announce that after the draft, entire scouting departments will be furloughed.
MLB owners are hacking away at the sport’s own institutions, then blaming everybody else for the wreckage. Meanwhile, they are still selling us nostalgia—the same old national pastime, the same old empty patriotic gestures as if the business of baseball was, in fact, accessible, humane, and democratic. Like the plan to open the season on the Fourth of July? It’s cynical, folks.
“Baseball is today big business that is packaged with beer, with broadcasting, and with other industries,” wrote Justice Douglas in his 1970 dissent. “The beneficiaries of the Federal Baseball Club decision are not the Babe Ruths, Ty Cobbs, and Lou Gehrigs.
The owners, whose records many say reveal a proclivity for predatory practices, do not come to us with equities. The equities are with the victims of the reserve clause.”
The other victim of the antitrust exemption and of a century of special treatment is the sport itself. Baseball is not a resource to be tapped, rather an institution that needs to be nurtured and fed. The commissioner and the owners in place have not demonstrated any interest in doing that work. Instead, they have demonstrated a commitment to mistreating scouts, part-time staff, and lower-level players, while asking once again, for a financial break for themselves. Let’s listen to William Douglas. Let’s not be swayed by phony patriotism and nostalgia. Let’s try and build a version of baseball that looks forward and not backwards.
Eric Nusbaum is the author of the book Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between.
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