Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Brief History of A Fraud

1. Major League Baseball owners profit considerably off of a monopoly. Over time this monopoly is exacerbated by a coalescence of government and media interventions; the cash cow is protected because it lets enough wealthy entities grab its teats.

2. Major League Baseball further develops its monopoly with the invention and growth of the minor league affiliate system, which entrenches the position of Major League Baseball (i.e., NL + AL) as the top of a hierarchical order of baseball.

3. Major League Baseball players, noticing that the monopoly leaves them with no professional option other than the indefinite servitude of an MLB contract, challenge the reserve clause.

4. Because of MLB's monopoly, free agency for all would likely exacerbate wage depression by flooding the market, as Finley hoped for. They instead fight for a more limited type of free agency and develop a system based on service time - essentially carrying over the previous system but allowing for the most successful class of players to earn bargaining rights.

5. The union spends decades basing its strategy for increasing the players' share of the pie on getting a greater amount of money for its stars; the portion of revenues paid to the lower classes of players continue to shrink. Pay for minor leaguers stuck in the affiliate system is not many people's idea of a living wage, and almost no one in baseball even seems to think that this is a problem.

6. Technological advances make a variety performance enhancement methods more effective, more readily available, and in some cases safer. Many come with long-term negative effects that often are undisclosed, and at least some players take treatments without informed consent, often from suppliers with little or no medical/scientific background.

7. A large, though debated, proportion of baseball players, presumably at all levels, use performance enhancing methods in order to gain an advantage on their fellows. The economic incentive to do so is immense at every level: a player drafted in the first round makes much more than a player drafted in the second round; a player in the high minors makes more than a player in the low minors; a player on the 40-man roster is paid more than other AA and AAA players; a player on the 25-man roster is paid much more than any minor-league player; a player with 3+ years of service time and talent beyond the margins is paid much more than a player with 0-2.5 years of service time; players with 6+ years of service time, provided they're within striking distance of average, are without exception multi-millionaires.

8. Some unclear changes in the game around 1993-1994 shift MLB to a more home run and strikeout oriented game. Performance enhancers that increase musculature, such as anabolic steroids, likely experience a surge in consumption among baseball players because they ostensibly can be better leveraged into high salaries than other performance enhancers. MLB teams appear to overvalue sluggers during the ensuing period and undervalue defensive contributors to some extent, though it is not clear that this was especially more pronounced than during other epochs.

9. The non-MLB entities in the baseball industry leverage the offensive explosion of the 90's into more profit, be it in media, merchandising, equipment, etc. Despite considerable ill-will among fans and bystanders alike stemming from labor strife that coincided with the offensive surge, the co-conspirators in the MLB monopoly work hard to turn a series of hunts for MLB records into renewed interest in the game, benefiting MLB, MLB players, and the rest of the industry alike. Furthermore, the baseball industrial complex works hard to spin the successes of new ballparks like Jacobs Field and Camden Yards into a wave of new stadiums receiving absurd levels of public funding.

10. MLB and the MLBPA agree overwhelmingly on labor peace, because it is clear that in the aggregate the present arrangement will yield the players a ****-ton of money. Not just in salaries from the MLB teams, of course, but also in compensation from other parts of the baseball industry.

11. The evidence that players employ performance enhancement methods in violation of federal law begins to amass, causing consternation for the entire baseball industry. Most afflicted and conflicted is baseball's fourth estate, who are charged with maintaining interest in the game among present and future generations but who also have journalistic ethics to consider. Of little help is the media landscape that privileges self-righteous opinion and sensationalist accounts as ways to hold audiences. More evidence begins to trickle out through the media, though there is an obvious phenomenon whereby many are keeping their mouths shut.

12. The Federal Government involves itself with all the resolve of a loose coalition of government officials seeking to justify their own positions or departmental fundings. Predictably, the government is more interested in going after individual perpetrators than going after the baseball industrial complex it has routinely aided and abetted, though some token references to MLB's anti-trust exemption are made here and there.

13. As evidence mounts of widespread use of dangerous and/or illegal performance enhancement methods, the baseball industry largely diverts its attention to allegations made against three of its biggest stars, capitalizing on pre-existing disdain for Clemens and Bonds and the overwhelmingly negative view of McGwire's testimony.

14. MLB, the media, and the federal government come together to release the Mitchell Report, hyping it as its generation's Valley of the Dolls. The joint venture appears to be a commercial success despite mediocre reviews from critics.

15. Capitalizing on pre-existing disdain for the game's biggest current star, the media co-conspires with several industry sources to violate federal law by reporting a result from an avowedly anonymous drug test - a result that contradicts the star's previous point blank denial. The media arm of the industry has a field day, once again attempting to advance a generalized pro-baseball spin coupled with anti-player vitriol.

16. The big star responds by apologizing for the indiscretion he has belatedly been caught in; his story is catered to protecting his own legal and financial interests, casting aspersion on only a brief part of his career and circumventing discussion of any of the technical details that could, theoretically, land him in legal trouble. He casts blame on the media (too much pressure), fellow players (too much culture), and the Texas heat, three things all parties involved have no trouble occasionally converting into scapegoats.

* * *

The reserve clause per se is long dead, but MLB is still in the aggregate treating baseball players with contempt and disrespect. The affirmative action program for the game's best players has not advanced the economic interests of lower classes of players; instead, a class of wealthy baseball players seems more or less content to keep collecting checks from the industry (during and after their playing careers), typically staying loyal to the industry and maintaining a willingness to sell out fellow players.

Minor league players work for a pittance, which no one in the industry bats an eye over because that sector doesn't bring in much at the gates. The contribution of the players in the minor leagues to the overall baseball industry is almost entirely overlooked for one simple reason: they are all deemed replaceable. It is quite clearly the case the players are able to become MLB players by facing superior competition in the minor leagues and that as such the minor leagues play an integral role in enabling MLB's star system. They also pump profits throughout the secondary and tertiary baseball industries (increasingly owned by MLB itself, as in MLBAM). The only reward offered to minor league players, however, is to make it at the top and to become part of the most privileged class of players.

Players even thinking about a baseball career are quite frequently put off by the economic realities of the situation. Players unable to garner financing from the very small pool of available lucrative signing bonuses and college scholarship have little incentive to continue in the game, even as these decisions are made at ages where the evidence of a player's future abilities is quite scant. Furthermore, there is a major edge for players coming from socioeconomically-privileged backgrounds, as technological solutions for building a better baseball player are increasingly available to consumers, and consumers with more room in their pockets are increasingly emboldened to see their children's baseball talents as potentially worthy financial investments. And in the international baseball economy, the system encourages less-well-off communities to invest heavily in trickle-down from individual players who can get large signing bonuses and, eventually, contracts; given the long odds of such investments, many community investments in baseball careers go unrewarded and many are not pursued in the first place.

Whether the status quo should be considered a systemic failure on the part of the players' labor organization or a systemic success of the multipolar baseball industry is certainly debatable, but the results are clear. Baseball can ultimately deem any of its players dispensable, from the rookie leagues to Bonds. It can render its players' rights dispensable, from urinalysis to endemic media leaks to control of players' off-field activities; despite the game's tendency toward panopticism, though, the strategic trickle of information about the players ensures that consumers are unaware of so much information that the information they do receive is bound to be misleading or deceiving with considerable frequency. The only right that seems to be consistently guarded by the Player's Association is the right to collect on a guaranteed contract. In fact, the protection of this right is so thorough that it ties into the backstory on Rodriguez's excuses for taking PED's: MLBPA vetoed his attempts to lessen his guaranteed salary when he sought to escape the Texas skillet and the pressure and heat that went with it; subsequently, his only option was to jump right into the fire, accepting a trade to the Yankees where MLB's financial obligations to Rodriguez would be fully honored but where the media, manager, teammates, and financially powerful fan base were, in the aggregate, quite content to take away everything Rodriguez possessed that couldn't be bought.

In the end, it seems the only reason that you would want to be a baseball player is the belief that you may eventually make millions, a belief tempered by the sheer bulk of ethical dilemmas and unencumbered attacks that most baseball stars will have to weather.

Who benefits from MLB's star system? The people already making a lot of money, plain and simple. Ultimately, the star system is about projecting the image that MLB always, and without exception, has the best players and therefore is the highest level of play. This functioning is tautological: MLB's business model is to prevent the best players from having any choice but to play in MLB other than quitting the sport. And players with sufficient physical attributes to develop into MLB players do quit the sport, and in droves. MLB is a system for eliminating the competition, not a system for delivering the best baseball possible to fans/consumers.

I don't think the immense profits of the baseball industry are generated because there is a great deal of value in the way that MLB is conducting itself; there is value in the game, and MLB just knows how to convert it to capital without adding any social benefit in the process.

The fans and the players are both always dispensable and frequently dispensed with in the status quo. The love of the game itself keeps the entire ship afloat between continued fan interest and the exploitative salaries of the bulk of the game's willing players (and even the bulk of the teams' staffs and the media establishment, many of whom simply want to work in baseball).

Do you want to fix baseball? Stop reducing it to its stars; stop trying to copy the Hollywood model, which has now been copied in a variety of US industries and been exported globally. Start trying to build a model that protects and honors its players and its fans. Start by assuming everyone in the game is entitled to fair pay. Give the players incentives to co-operate with their teammates at all levels instead of incentives to compete with them. Give players incentive to pursue a career in baseball even if it might not work out. Develop the entire pool of talent instead of creating a self-sustaining system where whoever is at the top is by definition the best (and where, by definition, the players at the top carry the burden of legitimating baseball even as its legitimacy is most threatened .

In short, cut out the industry profiteers. Give fans a stake in determining salaries that goes beyond merchandising and marketing. Give players at all levels a chance to make the game better by playing their hardest. The value in the game is generated by the dedication of the players and fans alike, something that the present arrangement further jeopardizes at every hour of every day. The role of MLB is to demand an obscene cut for their managerial skills, which themselves are calculated in self-interest and not general interest.

The MLBPA, like most unions in the US, is a sad caricature of collective labor organization. Until the players call for a truly radical change, the baseball industry will continue to perpetuate A Fraud like this one, recurringly and systemically. And until the fans develop a substantial and widespread interest in supporting such a radical change, the players will be largely powerless to move forward. To "save" baseball, we do not need fewer needles but rather a revolutionary ethic among the fan base that can build the coalition between the only two parts of the game that are worth a damn, the fans and the players.


At 7:40 AM, Blogger studes said...

Excellent post, Tom.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

Nice post.

For a nice explanation of what happened in 1993-1994, Eric Walker of "The Sinister Firstbaseman" fame wrote the following on his website:

He also has some words to say about steroids and PEDs:

I found both very illuminating.


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