Sunday, November 07, 2010

Happy Free Agent Day!

Ugh. Free agent day is like festivus for the rich of us, a time when the havenots lose the players they nurtured and raised to the haves. Like poor folks, the havenots sometimes win the lottery, but like all else in life, the chances are slim.

The Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club won its division in 1970, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, and 1979 but even all that winning wasn't enough to prevent the loss of its players when the greed of free agency went into effect after the 1976 season. Baseball hasn't been the same since.

As November 2, 2010 showed us that most people aren't capable of grasping the idea that change doesn't happen overnight, teams continued to remain competitive for years after free agency. But the eighties were a period of fundamental change to the way business runs, a period where the Golden Rule was replaced by Anything for My Precious, and we know all too well that baseball is a business. Selfishness became a badge of honor and Wall Street wonderboys bragged about screwing people out of their money. Being a terrible person was cool.

For baseball, 1981 marked the beginning of a new era, and a strike ripped off what remained of the Big Red Machine. The Reds were screwed out of the playoffs again in 1994 by another strike. By the end of the nineties, salaries were out of control, and a few teams dominated baseball.

Brainwashed folks scream "Market!" every time you try to make a social argument about athletes being millionaires while teachers get a pittance. These folks are no different than those who defend Columbus Day because they were taught that "Columbus discovered America" in elementary school. Today, conventional "wisdom" dictates that capitalism is a veritable Disneyland, a place where dreams are made, the One True Religion. If you criticize it and question the status quo, you are called names like "communist" or "dirty hippy." People defend the Yankees outrageously unfair advantage because it's "The Market" and make a stretch to say there is parity when even a broken clock is right twice a day. A salary cap would be "socialist" and therefore "evil." Some try to use a "player value" argument, saying a salary cap is "unfair" to the players (indeed, this is the players argument.)

What's "unfair" is that one team can spend $200 million a year on their team while most others spend less than half that." What's "unfair" is that some incompetent owners can continue to operate their perennial losing franchises because they are making money so they don't care (Baltimore and Pittsburgh come to mind.) What's "unfair" is that first class jerks can make $15-20 million a year while a teacher - a vital part of a strong, healthy democratic society - makes $40-50,000, less than median income in the US.

Free agency, while meant to protect players from the owners, has become a symbol of all that is wrong with our society. It represents greed, corporatism, and misplaced values. It twists the knife in the backs of struggling industrial towns. It fuels animosity and exacerbates the mentality of tribalism among fans of various teams.

Major League Baseball may wonder why it had the lowest rated World Series in history, and it may even be plotting ways to ensure the dominant market teams get in (making Wild Card more difficult is one example.) What MLB doesn't realize is that Americans don't like baseball anymore. Putting the ADD Nation argument aside, the business of baseball has completely swallowed the children's game once woven into the fabric of our being. Those of us who still love the game are clinging to worn and unraveling threads. Don't look now, but those threads are connected to a starred and striped cloth.

Yeah, I hate losing players to free agency and can already feel the heartbreak of losing Votto and Bruce and all the players we've seen grow.

(For a brief history on free agency, see this.)


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Deron R. Pope said...

I'm not a Reds fan, but I feel for ya. I hope they can keep Votto and Bruce. Baseball's competitive balance problem is getting worse.