It’s been a tough offseason to be a baseball fan.
We could barely enjoy the city of Washington, D.C. winning its first World Series since the days of black-and-white television before reports started leaking out about Major League Baseball considering a drastic change to how farm systems will operate in the future in part by cutting off over a third of its affiliated teams, an idea first pushed forth by now unemployed (and universally loathed) Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.
In between all that, the Chicago Cubs ownership actively fought the face of their franchise in arbitration court to suppress his earning potential (over one day of service time!) while making next-to-no moves in the offseason, resulting in a loud cascade of boos at their annual “Cubs Convention.” (Which honestly, sounds like hell.)
They were, of course, one upped by the Boston Red Sox, who traded a beloved fan-favorite generational talent in exchange for two minor-leaguers because it was something “they needed to do.” (And totally unrelated to having to potentially pay the luxury tax in 2021!)
Oh, and the Rays ownership has renewed their efforts to make their insane vision of reverse snowbirding to Montreal every season a reality this week, thanks in part to commissioner Rob Manfred saying the fever dream is “100 percent” the best way to… keep the Rays in Tampa Bay…? (It’s best not to dwell on this too long.)
The Wilpons, notorious owning family of the Mets, weren’t all that truthful with their sales terms to Steve Cohen, but got Manfred to side with them and reportedly send a not-so-veiled threat after Cohen attempted to renegotiate the terms.
Interwoven into all of this was the former darlings of analytics in baseball, the Houston Astros, totally cheating for two straight years and getting away with it essentially scot-free. It feels like, at worst, the only real damage done was to the reputation of the franchise, who as I write this, are actively playing defense and literally refusing to take responsibility for being caught red-handed.
In an effort to drown out the loud chorus of questions and complaints and obviously negative public relations, reports leaked out this week that MLB was considering making radical changes to its playoff format, expanding it to seven teams per league and allowing the top overall seed to choose their first opponent.
(MLB eventually released their actual rules changes this week, most notably, a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, an adjustment to injury designations and a reduction in time to challenge a play via replay.)
It’s a page right out of the 2019 playbook, when MLB annouced the addition of “robot umps” and enforceable pitching clocks to the Atlantic League amidst a bruhaha regarding a lack of free agent movement over the last three seasons.
This is all a long way of saying: what the hell, baseball?
Baseball, unlike most American sports, is a truly American invention. The appeal to it is that it’s familiar and very nearly unblemished in the way of changes to the game. Modernization will always be inevitable, especially where looking at how we evaluate players is involved. But at the end of the day, it’s simple: ball-to-mitt, ball-to-stick, ball-to-mitt, ball-to-ground, or ball-out-of-the-park.
Baseball’s accessibility is the very thing which keeps it alive. It has a broad appeal over generations, and has a framework that’s ready made for emotional attachment from a young age. Unlike football or basketball, baseball’s lack of evolution is what gives baseball its uniqueness.
Baseball, at the expense of fans and the game, have spent over a decade trying to find ways to fix the sport and make it more attractive to younger generations. From playoff expansion to the introduction of clocks and robot umpires to the conversion of minor league teams to development academies, baseball has missed the forest for the trees.
It’s not a sport that’s broken; it’s a sport that must adapt to a changing media landscape.
But that’s only part of the problem.
Baseball has also lost almost all of its good will with remaining fans (and certainly lost a lot of fans along the way) by being penny-pinchers. In a sport with no salary cap, where teams are free to spend as much as they like to field a team, and a relatively huge safety net in the way of television contracts, owners have instead decided to treat the luxury cap as a de facto cap, and have sacrificed competitive fire and emotional ties time and time again for the sake of saving a few dollars at a time, under the guise of long-term health.
Fans aren’t stupid. They’re not here to hear billionaires whine about not being able to afford players while building stadiums with taxpayer monies despite having hundreds of millions in their own pockets at any given moment. The can see owners cleary manipulating service time of players and suppressing the amount of money they can earn as long as possible; it’s tactics like this which results in those same owners later complaining that players are asking for too much money in the first place.
Owners expect fans to just accept that this is just How It Is To Do Business, but the reality is: it’s not. Of course, there are some exceptions to the rules, as smaller markets generally have to balance their ambitions with their budgets. But when a mega franchise like Boston or New York is shedding alarming amounts of salary in order to operate the same way, that should be a concern for the health of the game.
There’s no easy way to fix all of the ills with baseball. A player strike in 2021 could certainly go a long way in addressing those grievances, as would a renegotiation of those profitable television contracts which have enabled such bad behaviors. Baseball could certainly go a long way in refreshing its marketing as well; I wouldn’t recognize Mike Trout if he sat on my lap and wore an Angels cap right this second like my cat.
But regardless of what the fix is, it’s a situation baseball got itself into in the first place by prioritizing the wrong things for so long that it broke the spirit of the sport, and that’s directly in the hands of Rob Manfred. Say what you will about Bud Selig, but there was no denying Selig had a close understanding of baseball’s place in the sporting culture having previously been an owner, and he did his best to grow the sport organically in his tenure.
The same can’t quite be said for Manfred, a lawyer by trade whose main focus is labor and employment law. His emphasis on introducing technology naturally riled up traditionalists, while his efforts to quicken the pace of play haven’t really seemed to catch on so far. His first real crisis, the Astros cheating scandal, resulted in a lot of bluster fans saw right through.
Even granting he’s relatively early into his tenure and still needs to gain familiarity with the intimacies of being a commissioner, Manfred has tried too hard to bend baseball to a direction it probably doesn’t need to go in an ill-advised attempt to save it.
Baseball will need to have a reckoning in the near future, with the connections between players, owners and fans at nearly all-time lows.
My hope is, as a fan who wants to come back to the sport very badly, the sport realizes the problem isn’t that it needs to keep up with the Joneses of the NFL and NBA, but rather, that it should highlight all of the things that make baseball so unique.
That hope would mean a more equitable and compassionate way of treating players in both free agency and in the farm system, a willingness to invest in team operations on the part of owners (as opposed to being a dragon hoarding gold,) and the league readjusting how they approach media rights (from their restrictive cable packages to their arcane rules about GIFs and videos on social media) as well as their marketing efforts.
Is this too much to ask for? Probably! But it’s better than sitting around and accepting the product that’s in front of us is as good as it’s going to get.
So I ask again: baseball, what the hell? Get yourself together!