Baseball in the Olympics

Yesterday Jayson Stark at ESPN posted an Insider article about Major League Baseball’s chance of rejoining the Olympics.  The seed for the article is the fact that more Americans watched the Canada-United States gold medal hockey game than watched the World Series (apparently).  He asks if baseball could replicate that kind of attention with Olympic participation.  He decides that baseball will not and should not, and his reasoning, backed up with quotes from Bud Selig, falls into these points:

  • You can’t suspend the baseball season the way the NHL suspended its season for the Olympics.  The summer games happen in August or September, which is too critical of a time for baseball.
  • You can’t suspend the baseball season because fitting in 162 games while keeping the playoffs from going into November would then be impossible.
  • You cannot shorten the baseball season because of the hit that would deal to baseball’s finances.
  • America understands and enjoys the Summer Games more, and baseball would not stand out in the Summer Games the way hockey stands out in the Winter Games.

Fair points, all.  He goes on to advocate for the WBC to be concluded during the All-Star break, which is a fun idea.  I’ve written about the WBC here before, but a couple of thoughts about an approach to letting professional players participate in the Olympics (should baseball be readmitted, of course).

The crux of the idea: let major league players leave their teams in order to play in the Olympics.

The cons:

  • Teams would lose their best players for a critical stretch of the season.
  • The impact on teams would be uneven (some might lose 5 best players, others might lose none).
  • Teams lose revenue, theoretically, from loss of star players.
  • Tension created between a country wanting a specific player, that player’s desire, and an owner not wanting the player to leave the team.
  • Team tension between a player wanting to leave for the Olympics, and teammates who view it as a selfish decision.
  • Taxing a pitcher mid-season, increasing chance of injury or fatigue for the playoffs.

(Notice how I started each ‘con’ with the letter T?  That’s the mark of a good, coherent thesis.)

Here are some thoughts for doing this anyway:

  • First, the Olympics are every four years, so this would not be a frequent problem.
  • Baseball currently has an image problem.  The Olympic spirit of selfless patriotism could inject baseball with story lines and personalities the game could use to counter its money-and-steroids image.
  • I think we underestimate both fans and teammates’ respect for a player being selected to, and playing for, their national team.  Evidence of this can be found in the Penguins-Sabers game yesterday, when the Pittsburgh crowd gave Ryan Miller a bigger standing ovation than it gave Sidney Crosby.
  • Nobody wants to tax an athlete into injury, but at some point you have to just let them play.  These are world-class athletes, and there is a chance of injury whether they play in Pittsburgh or Perth.  Pitcher coddling can be taken too far.
  • A fundamental part of sports is its ability to generate inspiring stories of courage and respect amidst competition.  For every fan who respects Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game, there is a fan who respects Sandy Koufax for not pitching on Yom Kippur.  Allowing MLB players to leave their teams to play in the Olympics has the potential to generate defining moments in the history of the sport.
  • Example: Imagine if the Phillies and the Mets are tied for first place on August 1st.  Johan Santana, David Wright, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley all leave for 2 weeks to play in the Olympics, with an unspoken nod to each other that they will have unfinished business when they return.  That story would linger beyond whatever transpired that summer, and be a moment both those players and baseball can point to with pride.

Sadly, I don’t think it will happen, and the WBC is probably hurting baseball’s chance of even being reinstated into the Olympics.  But it is nice to daydream about great acts of national pride in which millionaires forsake money to play their favorite sport in the most heralded athletic competition in the history of homo sapiens.

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.

Just Kidding Kyle, Your Life Isn’t Ruined

So yesterday, Kyle Kendrink found out that he was traded to a Japanese baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants.

The video shows him sitting stunned in his chair in Charlie Manuel’s office. His cheeks are flushed and he has a look of, why would they do this to me? in his eyes as he signs the contract. Poor kid. Just a rookie. And thus more susceptible to pranks. Continue reading

Special Valentine’s Day Article: Misremembering the Women in Our Lies

Can you imagine the conversation between Roger Clemens’ and his wife before the testimony on Capitol Hill? It was certainly a surprise, to me at least, that Clemens’ would find it plausible that the public would believe his account of the steroid use in his family. Maybe if he denied it one thing, but I know I am having a hard time trusting a man like Clemens, who find it’s permissable to indict his wife in his stead. “Oh Andy Petitte must have mixed us up,” I can hear him reasoning. “She also has a few Cy Youngs awards and a couple of World Series Rings.” Continue reading

“And it’s a long, chai ball…”

This summer, you most likely didn’t expect to be wearing a Bet Shemesh Blue Sox hat while you bought tickets for a game between the Tel Aviv Lightning and Netanya Tigers. You most likely weren’t expecting to see a backdrop of Jerusalem as you saw a double play (turned by Japanese, Americans, and Ukrainians who dropped out of their semi-pro leagues). Yeah, Haifa doesn’t seem like a baseball town. But, though peace is elusive, baseball is not. Continue reading