Auctioning Off Historic Baseballs

Whenever a fan catches an important home run, there is the push and pull between giving it back to the player, giving it to the Hall of Fame, keeping it, or selling it.  When a ball has sentimental value to the player but not necessarily the Hall of Fame, it’s always a little obnoxious to me when the fan decides he’s going to sell the ball.

Yesterday, someone sold Alex Rodriguez’s 500th home run ball for $103,579.  I have no sympathy for Alex Rodriguez in any facet of his professional life, but it does remind me of an important point.  Why doesn’t the player just buy the ball at the auction? 

Maybe this does happen and they just keep it hush-hush, the way international companies pay ransoms for their kidnapped employees.  Still, I can’t imagine there is a more interested and financially capable bidder for Alex Rodriguez’s 500th home run ball than Alex Rodriguez.

Seattle’s Rotation May Actually Decline in 2010

The Mariners are getting lots of props online for their winter moves.  I agree that this off season has made me as optimistic about the franchise as I’ve been in years.  I encountered an interesting statistic today, however, which dampens my expectations for significant improvement from 2009 to 2010.

Let’s play the popular guess-which-pitcher-this-is game.  Below are two pitchers from 2009:

Pitcher 1: 14-13, 231 innings, 245 hits, 43 walks, 181 K, 3.22 era, 1.25 WHIP
Pitcher 2: 13-9, 216 innings, 176 hits, 67 walks, 169 K, 2.71 era, 1.13 WHIP

Which pitcher would you rather have pitched for your team in 2009?  Given that wins and losses are not a great metric for pitcher performance, I’d guess most people would go with Pitcher 2.  Fewer innings, but significantly better ERA and WHIP.

Cliff Corcoran over at Sports Illustrated points out that Seattle traded for Cliff Lee essentially to replace Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard in the rotation.  On paper it’s a good swap.  But Pitcher 1 is Cliff Lee in 2009, and Pitcher 2 is Bedard and Washburn’s combined performance for Seattle in 2009.  No one expects Washburn to pitch in 2010 like he did for Seattle in 2009, and nobody expects much of anything from Erik Bedard (except, perhaps, for his mother).  But as good as Lee has been the last two years, it seems unlikely to ask him to replicate those Pitcher 2 numbers.  Combine that with the unreasonable expectation that Felix could do much better than he did last year, and it seems entirely possible that Seattle’s pitching production from its #1 and #2 starters will decline in 2010.

Trends in Major League Salaries (Tim Lincecum Edition)

3rd year player, or best pitcher in the NL?

Tuesday Tim Lincecum filed an arbitration claim of $13 million dollars.  The Giants countered with $8 million.  He made $650,000 last year, so he’s due for a big raise no matter what.  But if Lincecum wins, what appears to be a big victory for the players may actually be a death knell for dozens of mediocre veteran players looking for work.

Growing up a baseball fan in the 1990s, my impression of salaries was that players were paid for being veterans.  Rookies made very little, veterans made more, and great veteran players made the most.  Baseball rewarded time in the big leagues primarily, and performance secondly.  That made sense to me, as that’s how I understood the real world worked.  Work for the same company for many years, and your salary will go up. 

In this last decade, I’ve seen the rise of a parallel argument for high player salaries.  The new argument is that production is production, regardless of experience level.  This is the basis for Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, and Tim Lincecum’s large arbitration salary claims.  No one doubted they were, at the time, among the best players in the game.  Their agents, and by extension the Players Union, argued that they should be paid as such.
 
In the last 5 years, teams have realized that arbitration is becoming as costly as free agency.  Thus, shrewd teams like Cleveland (Grady Sizemore) and Tampa Bay (Evan Longoria) have signed young stars to long-term deals which buy out arbitration and a year or two of free agency.  The player gets the security of guaranteed money, and gives up some money they could receive via the arbitration route.  Those contracts are also mutual affirmations of interest in the relationship between team and player, symbolic actions which resonate with fan bases but which may actually have limited value to the participants (Joe Mauer’s impending free agency being the ultimate test of that).
 
But players like Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Papelbon, who do not sign deals but rather keep hitting the arbitration trough, are undermining the notion that experience drives salary increases.  What’s more, they are undermining the entire notion of arbitration.  What is the point of “team control” if arbitration salaries are subject to the same market values as free agent contracts?  Why are the Giants in danger of making Tim Lincecum one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game if they “control” him for four more years?  It’s like the Giants are being forced to make a big free agent signing.
 
This trend is pushing teams to devalue experience and, by extension, losing player loyalty.  The Red Sox have become extremely unsentimental, as evidenced by their exports of Pedro and Manny, and their attempts to rid themselves of Jason Varitek.  Teams are increasingly tapping a rookie over a veteran player if both men contribute the same win shares to the team.  Why pay more for the same results?
 
I believe the Players Union is running a significant risk here.  Pushing the arbitration system to such extremes is a transparent grab for a bigger slice of the billions in revenue inundating baseball.  But making arbitration so expensive will only encourage teams to abandon mediocre veteran players in favor of cheap rookies.  This trend appeared in the great number of unsigned free agents last off season.  It isn’t collusion – in fact, it is the reaping of a crop the players have sewn.
 
We may not be too far from a point where major league teams are comprised of a few all stars making $10-$30 million a year, and a lot of rookies and veterans willing to play on the cheap.  Free agents will be evaluated by their wins added, and the market rate for a win will determine the deals they are offered.  “Paying your dues” in the league before seeing big money will be 2+ years of service time instead of 6, as your free agency will really start with your first arbitration hearing.  Promising young players will sign their first big contract after 2-4 years of service time, and hope that they are still all-stars when that contract runs out.
 
And the Players Union, which clamours that the market should dictate players salaries, will get exactly what they ask for.  Baseball, like the NFL, will be a game where you need to grab your money fast.  Not because a linebacker can land on your knee and end your career, but because there will always be a rookie with no service time waiting in the minors to take your roster spot.

Why Do The Eloquent Guys Never Do Drugs?

A wordsmith he ain't

Mark McGwire’s interview with Bob Ley on ESPN is a poor performance.  Ley is by no means aggressive or hostile, but he puts out some fundamental questions which McGwire should answer if he wants this media blitz to settle the steroid issue once and for all.

One of the more basic questions (pharaphrasing here): “If steroids don’t help performance, why have you been apologizing for using them?  And why apologize to the Maris family?”

McGwire doesn’t answer either question well.  And I really want to be forgiving (see my previous post).

Baseball needs more Grandersons

It’s funny how we have such low standards for athletes’ speaking abilities in general.  If they say anything in a post-game interview beyond, “Well Joe I just went out there and played hard and this is a big win for us,” color us impressed.  But when an athlete is on a tight spot like this, we suddenly expect them to be rhetorical masters and are disappointed by anything less.

Curtis Granderson would know how to satisfy us in a steroids interview.  But then again, Curtis Granderson wouldn’t take steroids (I’m pretty sure).  Maybe that’s the problem.  The eloquent ones don’t do drugs.

Amen, Joe

In yet another example of why he is one of the best baseball writers working today, Joe Posnanski reacts to the reaction to Mark McGwire’s day of apologies.

Seriously – since 2005 McGwire has been pummeled whenever people found it convenient or cathartic to do so.  That means he was ripped a lot.  He never defended himself.  Now he comes out and offers his apology, one of the more thorough and believable mea culpas in the sorry steroid saga, and columnists flip out on him again.

If there’s something that makes me more mad than a player using steroids, it’s a writer assuming the righteous mantle of victimized baseball fans worldwide and throwing spears.

My Imaginary McGwire Steroid Press Conference

He had a good swing, which steroids don't give you

Mark McGwire issued a statement to the Associated Press today in which he addresses his link to steroids.  He admits using them.  This ESPN article contains the full text of his statement.  At the end of his statement he says that he will be willing to take questions about his steroid use.

I like McGwire.  I think he is a kind-hearted man, in part because of his notable record in charity work.  I also think he is genuinely not an attention hound, whether the flashbulbs be coming from the stands or congressional hearing reporters.  And, after all, we’re talking about steroids in baseball, not financial theft, rape, or misleading nations into war (high-profile Americans have done all three since 1998 and gotten better treatment than McGwire has received).

Here is a transcript of the Q&A session I would like McGwire to have with reporters.  The real thing would take 3 hours, but this is my condensed fantasy version.

McGwire: I am holding this press conference to answer any questions the media may have about my steroid use.  I am now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, and despite what Tony LaRussa says, I won’t be playing the game again.  I think an honest, good faith conversation may go a long way to restoring fans’ confidence in the last 20 years of baseball.

There are only two rules.  I will not say where I got the steroids from.  It took me five years to admit my usage, and I will not drag others out of the closet.  Second, once spring training starts, I will not discuss this with anyone.  The regular season belongs to the Cardinals.

Reporter:  When did you take steroids?

McGwire: I took them [lists seasons in which he took them, or off-seasons in which he took them]

Reporter:  What steroids did you take?

McGwire:  I took [lists the steroids he knows, and says there are some he no longer remembers the name of]

Reporter:  Why did you take steroids?  Did you feel you were cheating?

McGwire:  I dabbled in steroids during the 1988 off season, as they were a supplement I had heard would help my workouts.  I did not seriously consider them until I started getting hurt, repeatedly, in 1993.

Did I feel I was cheating?  Yes, sort of.  I knew they were illegal, but I wasn’t doing heroin or coke, which I felt were and are a more grave category of illegal drug.  My usage, in my mind, was personal and revolved around baseball.  Baseball did not prohibit them, nor was there any mechanism for baseball discovering my usage or disciplining me for it.  Major League Baseball was not interested, as a body, in discovering that players were using steroids.  Many players I knew were also taking steroids, and I was batting against them and my team was battling their teams for the playoffs.

I was hurt, and I was told that steroids and HGH would help me heal and prevent further injuries.  I desperately wanted to play ball, to contribute to my team, and to be healthy.  I was afraid that my career would sputter out, and I acted out of that fear.  Other teams’ hitters were juicing.  I didn’t want to do less than I was capable of to help my team win.  It’s a decision I now regret, but I want you to understand that decision.

If I did not take them, my injuries continued, my team lost, and my career ended, no one would admire or even know about my actions.  Or so I thought.  I would be a failed big slugger.  I did not feel up to the challenge of being the righteous avatar for pure baseball.  I did not feel it was my responsibility, nor one I could bear.  What was important was to play the game I loved, in the environment in which I found it.  Baseball at the time was an environment in which I could use steroids without serious consequence except to my health and conscience.

Reporter:  Did you talk to your team mates or coaches about steroids?  Were there players who told you that you were cheating them, or cheating the game?

McGwire: There were occasional comments, yeah.  But people mostly kept their usage, or lack thereof, to themselves.  Everyone had team mates who used, or who probably used, so there were no collective teams who could throw stones.  And remember, steroids were leading to health, and health was leading to better performance, and better performance was leading to more money.

I can’t say for sure which home runs, or even singles, I hit because I was jucing.  But I was paid more money because I was hitting more home runs.  Which meant that the guys hitting fewer home runs also made more money.  Same with the pitchers.  I hope I did not end any pitcher’s career by hitting him hard, but you can say the same about juicing pitchers ending hitters’ careers.  An all-star getting a big contract raises everybody’s salaries.  It was true in the 1970s, the 1990s, and today.

Reporter:  So you don’t deserve the millions of dollars you were paid.

McGwire:  Teachers in Philadelphia make $40,000 a year.  “Deserve” isn’t a word that makes a lot of sense when talking about professional athletes’ salaries.  My salaries were a result of the vast amounts of money baseball owners were making from our play.  That play was tainted by steroids.  If you are flirting with the idea of fans and “clean” players deserving to be paid back, you need to talk to owners as well.

Reporter:  You are active in charity work, and whether you ask for it or not, baseball players are role models to children around the country.  How did you rectify your steroid use with your position as a role model?

McGwire:  That was a very difficult part of my life.  I guess I feel that mistakes can be, if not undone, then atoned for by hard work and good deeds.  If I did not take steroids, and my career ended, I would not have been in a position to do much charity work or be a role model.

I have tried to help the lives of children through my charity work, and I believe some of their lives are better despite my steroid usage.  What’s more, although it may seem like cold logic, my steroid usage paid me the money with which I funded that work.  I think one’s moral judgement on that fact is pretty subjective.

What would I say to children aspiring to be athletes?  Do not take performance enhancing drugs of any kind.  You short change yourself and your accomplishments.  I am sorry I took them, and if I could do things over I would avoid them completely.  They have caused me immeasurable grief.  But I do hope I can be an example, not of decision making, but of how to, eventually, own up to your mistakes.

Reporter:  Do you think people who used steroids should be in the Hall of Fame?

McGwire: That isn’t for me to decide.  I will not name names and I don’t want to be seen as a finger pointer.  But what should be made clear is that everyone, from owners to managers to players to union officials, was complicit in the steroids era.  Everyone but umpires and fans participated in some way, either by using steroids or encouraging their use or turning a blind eye.  Steroid users were not isolated bandits terrorizing the good people of Baseball Town.

Does the Hall of Fame represent the best baseball players who ever played?  Or some more idealized image of how we think of the game?  That, I think, is the fundamental question.  I know some of the best players to ever play used steroids, and I believe they would be Hall of Famers if they had not used them.  I think baseball, as a whole, needs to decide if the Hall is for baseball as it is, or baseball as we want it to be.

Reporter:  What are your thoughts on players who test positive but say they did not knowingly take steroids?

McGwire:  That is certainly possible.  You have to understand that, particularly with Latin American players, there is a lot of misinformation and exploitation out there.  Imagine you are living in a poor Dominican Republic town, 18 years old.  Baseball skills are your only feasible route to a life not dominated by poverty.  You’ve heard about steroids, but you are far from sound medical advice, you don’t know how bad they can be for you.  Some recruiter or coach says that he can make you into a major league player if you train with him and give him some of your earnings.  Would you take medicine he tells you to take?

That is obviously a hypothetical, but those sorts of situations and pressures exist.  The media has said that ignorance is an easy excuse, or that it is no excuse.  That’s probably right.  But I’ve met or heard of unscrupulous handlers who would not blink about talking a young, naive kid into taking HGH if it meant a pro contract from which the guy will get his take.

Reporter:  It sounds like you are saying that steroids, in the 1990s, were a personal failing and that you should not be held accountable to fans or the league more generally.

McGwire:  I avoided discussing steroids in Congress because I was not personally or mentally ready to do so.  Because of that decision, and because of the decision I am making by speaking to you all, I think I have received my fair share of punishment.  Taking steroids was more than a personal failing, it was an undermining of the trust between fan and athlete which pays all of our salaries and provides magic for millions.  I am very sorry for the role I played in tarnishing that magic.  But I am not a person who believes that guilty people are beyond contribution or meaningful contrition.

What I want to offer is an honest, frank look at why a successful baseball player could take steroids, and at the circumstances in the game which allowed such a problem to flourish.  I want to help curtail the speculation and accusation that detracts from the game.  I believe that players, like myself, who took steroids have an apology to make to baseball fans, but that they are not proof that baseball is no longer the best sport in the world.

Reporter:  The home run race between you and Sammy Sosa was credited with saving baseball after the 1994 strike.  Surely you heard that hype during and after that season.  Did you feel like you had defrauded America into believing in a game that was actually fundamentally rotten?

McGwire: Ouch.   And not really.  I love baseball, and I’m sorry for the role I’ve played in tarnishing its reputation.  But to love something and be terribly upset with it is better than to not care about it at all.  If I helped reinvest people in baseball, if fans found a love for the game they did not previously possess because of my home runs, I’m glad to have helped that.  Of course, I betrayed their trust by juicing, but I want to help repair that trust.  Baseball is bigger, grander, and older than any one player, or even a generation of players.  The steroids era will be a black mark on the game, but we can hand it off to a new generation of clean, classy, exciting players.  That is, I feel, what I have to offer now.  The ability to help answer nagging questions about the past, and the ability, in part as the Cardinals hitting coach, to guide the next generation of players into fans’ hearts.

Global World Series is a Great Idea

ESPN posted this brief article about the idea of a Global World Series.  Actually, what they mean is a series between the winner of the World Series and their Japanese counterparts.

The Players Union would have to agree to this, and no doubt there will be concerns over extending the already-too-long baseball season, travel time, and potential injuries.  I’m not a big fan of fixing what isn’t broken (see: Interleague Play), but I think this is a great idea.

Japanese players can play their style or ours

Baseball has lost its preeminent place in the American sporting scene to football.  Yet it’s the bees knees in Japan.  That country loves baseball, and if the last two World Baseball Classics are proof of anything, they’re really good at it.  Major League Baseball should embrace Japan as a partner in the lovely hobby of baseball love.

Here’s how to go about this.  First, tidy up the MLB season and particularly the playoffs so that the World Series ends in October.  The Japanese league championship is also held in October, so timing works.  Pacific Ocean travel is exhausting and time-consuming, so the 7-game series should alternate years between a Japanese and an American venue.  Because this is an international exhibition, and weather is a problem in November, the American series should not be played in the home stadium of the World Series winner, but rather a rotating venue with little chance of rain or snow-outs.  Baseball can cherry pick its venues (Seattle, Los Angeles) at first to ensure good attendance until the concept gains momentum.

Speaking only for myself, I’d love to watch this series.  I want to know who the best players are in Japan, and I want to see them compete against Americans.  The World Baseball Classic does not reliably set that up often enough.  This might also help stem the tide of Japanese players coming to the US.  As much as I love Ichiro!, America’s money and (allegedly) higher caliber of play is threatening to reduce the Japanese leagues into a farm system.  Letting Japanese players with “the zeal of a challenger” get their fix in this series might be enough to prevent them from bailing on their homeland league.

There are some problems with the idea.  First, it will undermine the WBC’s current monopoly on international baseball competition.  Second, finding an American city interested in a 7-game series between a Japanese team and not their hometown team may be problematic.  But as the 2008 World Series showed, nothing takes the wind out of a series’ sails like horrible weather.  I think it’s worth taking the hit in attendance in order to ensure playable conditions.  Furthermore, I expect the money in this for the MLB is in television rights, not seat prices.  So price it cheaply until it gets big.

Here’s my personal data point: I hate the Yankees, and was very unhappy that they won the 2009 World Series.  Yet if Philly had a domed stadium, I would buy a $50 ticket to watch the Yankees play in Philly against the Japanese champions.  File that away, MLB marketing drones.

I would be surprised if this happens, because I think the Players Union will not like it.  A team that just won the World Series will not want to fly to Japan for two weeks immediately afterward.  But as a fan I’d love to watch that matchup, it contains the potential for great baseball and international bragging rights, and would be an important step in baseball’s embrace of the international baseball community.