December 26, 2006

The Players Strike Back and Gil Meche Wins Big

Gil Meche signed a five-year contract with the Kansas City Royals on December 7. Meche, a right-handed starting pitcher, will be paid approximately $11 million a year according to Dick Kaegel on The Royals were delighted to announce this acquisition and give Kansas City fans hope after years of poor play. The rest of us? We are scratching our heads at how a pitcher who has never pitched more than 187 innings in a season, has a career-ERA of 4.65, and only twice in six seasons, has exceeded 100 strikeouts, can command a contract that not only pays him $11 million a year, but also locks in job security for the next five – a long duration in the career of a Major League pitcher.

This is not to pick on Gil Meche and the Royals. The Cubs signed Ted Lilly, 30 years old, who was 15-13 with a 4.31 ERA to a four-year, $40 million deal. Alfonso Soriano’s agent negotiated an eight-year contract with the Cubs. Soriano is a very good player, but eight years? It reminds us of Dave Winfield signing a ten-year deal with George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees after the 1980 season. (It was a long-time coming when the Yankees traded Winfield to the Angels in May 1990.) Meche and the Royals represent this off-season’s signings and are the current manifestation of a larger trend which has been growing for the past thirty-five years. One after another, the players are asking for and taking a larger chunk of baseball revenues.

On July 12, 2006, the last day of the three-day All-Star break, Major League Baseball announced its new seven year television agreement with Fox and Turner worth an estimated $3 billion. Major League Baseball is composed of the 30-owners of the 30 teams in the National and American Leagues. This television money flows into Major League Baseball offices in New York City and out to the bank accounts of the clubs. When I watch a Major League baseball game, am I watching to see Bud Selig sit at his desk and write memos, Phillies CFO Jerry Clothier sign payroll checks, or Angels owner Arte Moreno guide the organization? No offense to Messrs. Selig, Clothier, and Moreno, but I want to see the Phillies play and I want to see great players like Albert Pujols, Ichiro, Roger Clemens, and Chris Carpenter.

Fox and Turner are willing to pay $3 billion over seven-years because they want to make money. They expect companies to pay them more than $3 billion over this period to advertise on their networks during ball games. The companies want to make money and they expect that we fans will purchase their products when we see them advertised during games. What of us the fans? For the most part, we are ok with this trade. Companies advertise to us, and we purchase their products and we purchase cable television in exchange for the opportunity to watch our favorite players and teams. So, we indirectly pay Major League Baseball to watch our favorite teams and players. The players then have to negotiate with the owners for a share of this pay-off. This is their salaries.

Until the mid-1970s, players were bound to a single-club with the Reserve Clause. There was no free-agency. A player had a little power to negotiate a new contract but ultimately he could play or not-play. If a player would not negotiate a new contract, a team could reduce his salary up to 20% and impose a new contract. In this sense, the owners controlled the amount of revenues that the players earned. The owners called the shots.

Think about it from the player’s point of view: You sign a contract at the end of which you have little power to negotiate with other employers. Once you sign with one employer, you cannot subsequently decide at contract’s end to move to another city or employer. Want to be closer to home? Sorry. Want to earn more now so that you can retire early? Sorry.

The owners had control of MLB's revenue for generations. Why should the players not have some of this control now? We are watching a shift in the power of the purse from the owners to the players. It gained momentum in the late-1960s, was spurred by Jim Bouton with Ball Four where he wrote openly about salaries and deals, Curt Flood in his case Flood v. Kuhn (407 U.S. 258) in which he challenged the Reserve Clause in the U.S. Supreme Court, and then blossomed in free-agency in 1975. This trend is about the players dictating their own fate, what each wants, and that each is going to ask out-loud for money in which they are partners in earning.

Who did the great playing in the 1920s, and 1930s, and 1940s? Who did the revenue earning for the owners? The players! The media asked Babe Ruth in 1931 how he could demand $80,000 a year in salary when President Herbert Hoover was making (only) $75,000 in salary. What did Babe say? “I had a better year than he did.” Ruth said it because he meant it and I would expect also because he was a little bitter. Ruth had almost single-handedly restored the game’s popularity after the 1919 World Series White Sox gambling scandal. He was wildly popular and yet he could not command the share of receipts that he likely deserved.

The players blossomed with free agency and some like Pete Rose and Nolan Ryan claimed millions because they had just come though most of their career without free agency. They had been the most recent generation of passive-earners so they went out and showed what they could do, and in part, as reparations to support themselves in their future. Ryan jumped the California Angels after the 1979 season to sign the first ever $1 million per-year contract with the Astros. Rose left his hometown Reds in 1979 when he became a free agent and signed a four-year, $3.2 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, temporarily making him the highest-paid athlete in team sports.

We saw players negotiate for themselves and show other players what could be done. It was Winfield buying 10-years of job security earning millions. It was Ricky Henderson – already a superstar in Oakland who bought himself the Yankees for his resume. It was Rose orchestrating a trade back to the Reds – negotiating out the then current manager Vern Rapp right in front of his own eyes – and landing safely. Pete had left Cincinnati in 1979 because he was now calling the management’s bluff – no longer would Pete allow management to dictate the terms of his employment. So Pete says he is going to show that he and the players can take the money and run. He did it and led the way for other players and then he returned to the organization, again, on his own terms.

We are not sure that Meche is going to turn around the Royals. Outside of Chicago’s North Side, few expect the Cubs to be the best team in baseball in 2007. No, we are witnessing something much bigger which is the shift in earning power and self-determination from owner to employee. Who among us would turn down the opportunity to earn $11 million per year?

December 12, 2006

George Mitchell Strikes-out on MLB Steroids

George Mitchell has been retained by Commissioner Bud Selig to investigate past steroid-use in Major League Baseball. Selig hired Mitchell in March of this year following the publication of Game of Shadows about Barry Bonds and the proliferation of steroids in the game. On Friday, December 1, Mitchell updated the public on the progress of his investigation, or rather, lack of progress. Ronald Blum reported Mitchell’s statement for the Associate Press, “…Much more work will be necessary. Cooperation has been good from many of those from whom we have sought testimony and documents, but has been less than good from some others. This will not affect the result of the investigation, but it has increased the length of time it will take me to complete the investigation." It has been more than eight months and he still needs more time.

Previously, Mitchell was the Governor of Maine, United States senator from the same state, and U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland where he helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Belfast Peace Agreement. It is quite a resume and certainly he has done some investigation work before. In the Senate, Mitchell had the power of Congressional subpoena and as Special Envoy, the power of U.S. foreign policy sticks-and-carrots.

But Major League Baseball is not the U.S. government and here Mitchell has encountered a new entity, the Major League Baseball players, who he can neither subpoena nor subject to State Department rewards and pressures. It was the players who were using, the players who he is asking, and the players over whom Mitchell has zero power. It makes one wonder just how effective Mitchell might be in this round of peace making.

Mitchell essentially stated on December 1 that the players are not cooperating with his investigation. Mitchell, and his current boss, Commissioner Selig, want the players to talk about past and current steroid use (yes, players are still using which we know as players continue to fail MLB’s drug test) while the players have circled the wagons in a stance of speak-no-evil. Mitchell presented his words so as to suggest disappointment with the players and imply that they somehow should be speaking about who used and when. Mitchell almost suggests that they were the ones acting inappropriately by using drugs and taking advantage of the fans’ and Commissioner’s trust, and therefore it is now time for the players to be purified in the confessional of his investigative committee.

If only baseball’s redemption from the shadow of steroids was so simple! That Mitchell would expect player cooperation is especially strange and unusual in light of the Commissioner’s ongoing silence over the Commissioner’s own long-time silence and inaction, and consequently de facto permission, in allowing the use of steroids in baseball.

Did the Commissioner’s office have a role in the use of steroids in MLB? Yes, the Commissioner’s office did have a very important role in the widespread use of steroids, and the subsequent fallout we have all experienced since the Congressional hearings in March 2005. In talking about the players, Mitchell and Selig paint a picture of past-use in a world that was somehow beyond the knowledge and legislative reach of MLB at 245 Park Avenue. However, it is hard to take Selig seriously as a leader and administrator without asking about his own complicity – and that of MLB Commissioners going back to Bowie Kuhn who took office in 1969 – in the proliferation of performance enhancing drugs in the game.

The House Government Reform Committee held hearings on steroid use in baseball in March 2005. Mark McGwire implicated himself. Raphael Palmeiro swore he had not used which hastened his exit from the Orioles and baseball when he subsequently tested positive later that season. Jose Canseco accused everyone of using. The word was out that the players really had been juicing.

After the hearing, Sports Illustrated printed the lament of a baseball fan on its March 25, 2005 cover, “What am I going to do with this scrapbook full of memories and the stories I used to tell? Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?“ Now that we know?! WHAT?! Was Sports Illustrated serious in this romanticized lament? SI should have been given a 15-yard penalty for failing to read its own back-issues.

The cover suggested that we the fans, journalists, and Major League officials had not known. Really?! Did we really have no idea? Did we truly believe that it was the shorter ballpark fences or the balls themselves that were juiced? Did we and Sports Illustrated’s own writers not read earlier front-cover stories on this issue? And notlittle mentions at the end of articles about the East German Olympic swimming team or Bulgarian weight lifters.

There was the January 5, 1987 Sports Illustrated issue chronicling Oklahoma Sooners football player Brian Bosworth’s drug failure and drug use in the NCAA. There was the July 8, 1991 cover featuring retired NFL player Lyle Alzado chronicling his steroid use. There was the April 14, 1997 issue on the cover of which Sports Illustrated warned, “Don’t be fooled: Athletes of all kinds are still using drugs to improve performance – and they’re getting away with it.” This was a full year before McGwire and Sammy Sosa smashed homeruns and surpassed Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record. In March 2005, Sports Illustrated, Selig, and many fans all wanted to blame the players. We did not take one-minute to consider that we ourselves have known all along and that we have been as much complicit in not asking questions and not using our rationalizing brains to draw the most obvious of conclusions.

The players certainly used steroids. We debate the extant to which this was unfair or deceitful. We debate the nature of the message it sends. We debate how we understand baseball statistics and achievements in the shadow of their use. But they used them – and given the nature of the current steroids tests which can only screen for known drugs – some are still using steroids. However, responsibility for the proliferation of their use does not rest on the players alone. The Commissioner of baseball makes the rules – and yes, the Commissioner does so in necessary partnership with the players’ union, the Players Association. But the Commissioner has the duty and obligation to act in the best interests of the game and the Commissioner has the power to shape the rules of the game.

Ostensibly, Selig is eager to examine the past, what we knew and when we knew. If so, then let Selig come clean with the baseball public. Let Selig share with us what was going through his mind as Sosa and McGwire were pumping baseballs out of stadiums in 1998, aside from how great it was that America was finally paying attention to the sport again. Selig has a wonderful opportunity to lead by example. In his December 1 statement, Mitchell lamented that cooperation from former ballplayers “has been less than good from some...” Until Selig steps-up and signals the culpability of his own office, it is difficult to fault the players for following his leadership with silence of their own.

December 05, 2006

Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter On Graciousness and the MVP Award

Last Wednesday, St Louis Cardinals first-baseman appeared at a news conference hosted by the Dominican sports ministry in Santo Domingo. Asked about his second-place finish in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting behind the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, Pujols said in Spanish, (which was translated by the Associated Press and reported by the AP’s Dionisio Soldevila), "I see it this way: Someone who doesn't take his team to the playoffs doesn't deserve to win the MVP." Let’s translate from English into English: Ryan Howard does not deserve the MVP award; I deserve the MVP award. This is a baseball cringe moment, whether we agree or disagree with the content, and in spite of Pujol’s public apology on Monday.

Ah, the baseball cringe moment. Pujols violated the great unwritten code of baseball honor and honors which dictate that second-place finishers do not criticize the award’s winner. If Pujols did have a case, we would leave it to the St Louis baseball writers or national writers like Jayson Stark at ESPN or Peter Gammons at The Boston Globe to admonish their colleagues in the Baseball Writers Association of American for erroneously selecting Howard over Pujols. But what is frustrating is that Pujols’ does more harm to himself in saying what he said than any harm he might have received in not finishing first.

Pujols is among the top players in the league. He may be the best. He entered the National League in 2001 and at age 26, already has 250 career homeruns and has hit at least 34 homeruns in each of his six seasons. He has one first-place MVP finish and three second-place finishes. (Think second-place is so inferior? He is now in the company of Stan Musial and Ted Williams as three-time second-place finishers). Has any player been better since 2001? Howard has had only two outstanding seasons - two seasons! Don Mattingly, Fred Lynn, and Dwight Gooden all looked to be Cooperstown-bound after their second season. We look for excellence over time and Pujols is meeting this criteria. This column is a fan of Howard’s but until he continues his stellar play for another few years, Pujols remains the superior player. Pujols’ stock is, or was, at the very top of Major League Baseball! Starting a new team? I would take Pujols’ track-record over Howard’s promise (and we do love Howard).

In addition, the MVP award is a funny award by which to measure greatness. All retired three-time MVP winners are in the Hall of Fame. But even the greatest players have not exactly racked up multiple wins of the award. Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, and Roberto Clemente each won it only once. Derek Jeter, who was the American League’s runner-up for the 2006 MVP, has won zero MVP awards despite a .317 career average, being well on his way to 3000 career hits, and being arguably the MVP of the Yankees’ post-1995 dynastic run of excellence. For sheer constituency and outstanding play in the past 10 years, no one matches Jeter. Pujols’ greatness is not diminished for having only one MVP award.

It is precisely in the ambiguous stature of the MVP award and Pujols’ extraordinary place in the elite of the game that render his comments so out of place. Sure, we debate the nature of the MVP award. Andre Dawson won the National League award in 1987 after a monster offensive year and we debate the appropriateness of Dawson’s win because he played for a last-place team. The Cubs could have finished in last-place without Dawson so just how valuable was he? We debate whether pitchers should be eligible for the award – after all, players playing the eight other positions sure are not eligible for the Cy Young Award. This is all well and good but this is not the case as Pujols’ Cardinals made the play-offs and he is not a pitcher. Given Pujols’ stature in the game and given the strange nature of the MVP award, Pujols’ claim that an injustice was done is troubling in his speaking about it at all.

Jeter himself was a model of graciousness in finishing second this year in the AL MVP award. The day after the BBWAA announced that Howard was the National League MVP, the Association named the Minnesota Twins’ Justin Morneau the American League MVP. Morneau was voted 320 points to the Yankees’ Jeter’s 306. In its November 22 on-line edition, the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune reported Jeter’s post-MVP announcement statement, "I want to congratulate Justin Morneau on this well-deserved honor. He is a special player, and I suspect this won't be the last time you will hear his name mentioned when awards are being passed out." That’s class. You know who looks good? Everyone! Morneau receives the honor of recognition for his great season. Jeter shows himself to be class-act. The Twins look good because their player won the award. The Yankees look good because their player was a gentleman. Major League Baseball looks good because its employees were respectful and respected.

Ripken and Tony Gwynn will be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame next month. This is their first year of eligibility and yes, Gwynn was one of the best pure hitters of the past 25-years and yes, Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games-played streak and redefined the position of shortstop. But more so – everyone likes them! There is genuine pleasure in baseball around their entry into the Hall. We are looking forward to their inductions in July because it will be a celebration of not just two great careers but two players who we are happy to see succeed and be recognized for their success.

The Boston Red Sox are trying to trade Manny Ramirez who Phillies’ general-manager Pat Gillick has labeled “a headache”. How often do GMs publicly label players like this? Barry Bonds found no offers other than from the Giants who have waited for the market to reduce his price before they resign him. In the NBA, Stephan Marbury is tanking what was left of his career and marketability as he mopes around the New York Knicks.

Sammy Sosa played his last season for the Cubs in 2004. He had built up significant negativity in the clubhouse and on the final day of the season he infamously left the stadium during the game. His teammates took a baseball bat to his stereo in the clubhouse and the Cubs were glad to be rid of him after the season. When the Orioles chose not to resign him for 2006, only one team, the Washington Nationals offered him a minor league contract. 588 career homeruns and not one team was eager to invite him to their major league spring-training camp. The Associated Press reported on November 4 that Sosa was hoping to return to the Majors for the 2007 season. On Sunday, Sosa was interviewed on ESPN Sports Center Conversation and told viewers that "without a doubt" he'll be picked up by another major league team, "they need my bat." Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, don’t it?

Pujols said all the right things in apologizing for his statement and in apologizing to Howard. Pujols has every reason in the world to learn to emulate Jeter, the other 2006 MVP-second place finisher. It’s good for him, good for others, good for baseball, and good for business.