January 30, 2007

So long Brooklyn Dodgers; it’s been good to know you!

We are watching the Brooklyn Dodgers fade from active memory.

My grandmother tells me that as a child in the 1920s, Civil War veterans came to her school for assemblies and they marched, slowly, in Veterans Day parades. I recall seeing veterans of World War I marching in similar parades in the 1980s. This past December, survivors of the attack of on Pearl Harbor gathered in Hawaii for their 65th reunion. It is 2007 and we are informed by and contextualize the present with the past. But every year the past recedes on itself and we know that soon the generation of the Depression and the War will pass. So too in baseball.

For my generation, born in the 1970s, who passed through elementary school in the Pete Rose 1980s, we were oriented by the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. My grandfather, like so many of ours, served in World War II. I was taught to understand my grandmother’s pantry, stocked with cans of food, to be a legacy of the Depression. My grandfather told me of going to Negro League games in Philadelphia and in Atlantic City. My mother’s favorite players were Richie Ashburn and Willie Mays. Baseball in the 1950s was the dominance of the New York Yankees and the social progress, eventual triumph, and heart-breaking departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

We compare current ball players to their predecessors but to those who we knew or saw ourselves. We compare Roger Clemens and Barry Zito to Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, and Don Drysdale. It has been been many years since we referenced Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard let alone Grover Cleveland Alexander or Dizzy Dean who pitched in the 1920s and 1930s. Christy Mathewson may have been better than Clemens and Gibson but Mathewson does not live as even Bob Feller continues to today – Matty is now a plaque in Cooperstown, entry in the Giants’ media guide, statistic in the hands of Bill James.

This is quickly becoming the fate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In different eras, different clubs have captured our imaginations and Brooklyn has been a beacon of reference for baseball fans for sixty years now. But times are changing and fewer and fewer Americans know the club from Brooklyn. I was reminded of this fate on January 4 in Paris, at Charles de Gaulle airport. I was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap – the classic all Dodgers-blue cap with the white B that the Dodgers wore from the late 1930s through their final season in Flatbush in 1957. This is the hat worn by the 1955 World Champions of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges.

Another American traveler, also on his way to the same flight to Philadelphia, turned to me and said, “Go Red Sox!” I nodded because he was looking at me and it is easier to nod than to question how he chose me and the Red Sox and put us all together. “Are you from Boston?” he asks. “No” I reply. “But you’re wearing a Sox hat” he says. I receive this often enough now when wearing this cap that I understand his logic.

The Boston Red Sox B is almost identical to the Brooklyn B and we are in a merchandising era where we are divorcing the trademark from the color. We no longer define a Red Sox cap by the Red Sox colors, navy, scarlet, and white. Spike Lee was the first to popularize official caps in alternate colors when he wore a red fitted Yankees cap to Knicks games in the early 1990s. We now see ‘official’ caps in all colors including pink and camouflage.

We have liberalized our identification of the logo, the B in this case, with the colors, and assimilated into the mainstream a trend that started with Lee and was embraced by Hip Hop America. At the same time, the Red Sox have achieved tremendous success under the current ownership of John Henry by marketing itself as a national franchise, through their onfiield success, beyond New England and the reach of cable station NESN, the New England Sports Network. (My sister, who now lives in Burlington, Vermont, and maintains dual Phillies-Red Sox loyalties, reminds me that it is pronounced “ness’en”).

This coincides with the recession of the awareness of the Brooklyn Dodgers in American culture.

World War II was a catalyst of the nation’s struggle with race and civil rights in the 1950s and into the 1960s. American servicemen of color were welcomed as conquering and liberating heroes in Europe in 1945. They were young men of color treated as heroes let alone equals. Europe in 1945 and 1946 celebrated the American servicemen white and black alike. These men of color returned to a segregated America where it had become unreasonable deny these veterans the rights at home for which they had fought abroad.

WWII was over for two years when Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. The Dodgers were a fantastic club with future Hall of Fame players Reese, Snider, Roy Campenella, and Robinson. More so, they reflected the increasingly changing – slowly – but increasing face of integrated America. On a certain level, the Dodgers 1955 World Series championship represented the possibility for the success of the nation’s integration project. Remember, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in May 1954! America saw the possibility for success in Brooklyn.

The Dodgers left New York City for Los Angeles after the ’57 season. Disney World had opened in Orange County in July 1955, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, which talked of the great journey West, in 1951 and it was published in 1957, and McDonald’s, a legacy of the car-centric society of the West Coast dates its start to April 1955. America was moving west and the Dodgers’ (and New York Giants’) move to California reflected the nation’s shift from east to west and from cities to suburbia. Recall that Brooklyn’s full nickname was originally “Trolley Dodgers” because the team’s fans used to dodge the trolleys around the ballpark on their way to games. The name is anachronistic in LA where the city’s trolley tracks were paved over in the 1920s and where Dodger Stadium rises amid a sea of parking lots.

So strong was the pull of the Dodgers and Giants – Robinson was the first player of color and Willie Mays was the first superstar of color – in New York City and the loss at their departure was so great that within five years, the National League had a team back in the city who adopted the two teams’ colors – blue and orange.

How much time has passed? Dodger Stadium is now the second oldest ballpark in the National League and the Mets turned 45-years old this past season. They have reached middle-age and there are fewer and fewer fans – and Americans – who watched the Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

The era of the Brooklyn Dodgers is leaving us. My generation’s grandchildren will ask us about concrete Astroturf multipurpose stadiums, the players’ strikes of 1981 and 1994, and of the time when pitchers threw more than 100-pitches in a game. We forget and we create monuments to jog our memory. MLB retired Robinson’s uniform #42 across baseball in 1997. The Mets wear blue and orange and will someday come to their senses and drop the black. The team will incorporate design elements from Ebbets in their new ballpark in 2009. The LA Dodgers marked the 50th anniversary of the 1955 club by wearing the ‘B’ hats but this is only a memory where B now stands for Boston.

January 09, 2007

The 9th Circuit Reminds Us How Ugly Steroids May Still Be

On December 27, 2006, the United States 9th Circuit Court ruled that the Federal Government may access the identities of those Major League Baseball players who tested positive for steroids in the spring of 2003 under a confidential MLB screening. This magic list was seized by Federal agents in an April 2004 raid as part of the ongoing BALCO case. The list has remained under lock-and-key as the government argues in court with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association over access. Federal agents want to question the players who tested positive to gather more info for their larger case. The MLBPA is appealing the decision of the 9th Circuit which will keep the identities concealed for the time being. However, as it almost always happens, the names will be released in time which will trigger a fresh round of Major League-caliber steroid dramatics.

Did Barry Bonds test positive in 2003? Did Garry Sheffield test positive? This will be more compelling than Mark McGwire’s self-incriminating testimony before the U.S. House Government Reform Committee in March 2005. It will be juicier than Rafael Palmeiro testing positive in August 2005 and then blaming teammate Miguel Tejeda. We thought the soap opera was thick when Palmeiro tested positive even after swearing before Congress that he was clean. Then he went and turned on a teammate. We are watching a huge messy car-crash in slow motion, exacerbated by MLB’s proven track record of missteps in this ongoing sharp edged steroid-crisis.

It was all pretty simple in the spring of 2003. Everyone outside of MLB was clamoring for steroid testing only the players did not want it and the owners did not want it. So the sides made a deal. The owners would contract with an independent testing agency who would test 100-players. All names would be kept secret. If more than 5% tested positive, then testing would begin across Baseball in 2004. Then, the players would be on notice, have one year to clean their systems, and the names of those who tested positive would be forever deleted. Only the Feds made it to the list of names before the names made it to the shredder.

The players are angry and they are scared. Players who agreed to be tested only under condition that such testing was confidential may soon be revealed to have been using. The players are angry because the condition by which they agreed may be violated. The players are scared because players who have tested positive have been exiled including Palmeiro, Jason Grimsley, and McGwire.

Baseball's steroids soap-opera has developed in stages, even with the Congressional hearings and the lament of innocence-lost that followed, and on which this column commented on December 12, 2006 in “George Mitchell Strikes-out on MLB Steroids“. Time passed and Palmeiro fell five months later and Grimsley in June 2006. Let us suppose that that these revelations, player stammerings, public shock, government murmurings, and media finger-waggings all happened at-once. Imagine we learned all the dirt in one clean press-release. This is what is going to happen with this list. We will be at work or at school or listening to the radio – even National Public Radio will cover this story, not just the all-sports AM stations – and we will all know who kissed who and when.

The current presidential administration did a lot of double-speak in their original claim of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We now know the administration to have been lying. But man, the Bush-Cheney White House can give lessons on staying on message and speaking with a unified voice. They are models of effective communication.

The players better be paying attention to the model of crisis management at 1600 Pennsylvania because when the news breaks, we are going to hear a multiplicity of player responses. We will have the players who denied but actually were using. We will have the players who we never asked but were in fact using (“Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabadoo used steroids?! But he had a 6.32 ERA for the 1998 Devil Rays!”) Everyone will have a statement and opinion from players’ union attorneys, shocked former teammates, supportive current teammates, team spokespersons, the Commissioner’s office, even the Phillie Phanatic will have an opinion. (Well, maybe not the Commissioner’s office.) ESPN will not have enough microphones to record it all and Commissioner Selig will wish he had retired after the magic 1998 season when the going was great rather than his planned 2009.

Union head Donald Fehr is fighting the ruling of the 9th Circuit very hard. Legally, Fehr is petitioning the 9th Circuit to rehear the case or for the U.S. Supreme Court to accept it on appeal. The players who took this test did so only on condition that it was confidential and would be confidential until the test-results were destroyed. They almost were destroyed.

U.S. agents raided and took possession of the results on April 8, 2004 the day before they were scheduled to be destroyed. On the one hand, this is unfair to the players, legal issues of evidence and privacy aside. We are punishing the players for honoring an agreement.

On the other hand, these players were using a controlled substance and we assume – which is the interest of U.S. government prosecutors – obtaining it not by legal prescription channels. Who is the Commissioner’s office to guarantee the players legal privacy?

My grandfather, Albert Levin, of blessed memory, taught me never to gamble more than I could afford to lose. This advice has saved me plenty in Las Vegas on multiple occasions. We gamble with the law all the time in our society. We park our cars illegally and most of the time we do not receive the $15 or $35 ticket. As 19-year olds, we drink alcohol because such a low percentage of underage-drinkers face legal charges. We gamble with the law when we buy or sell tickets above the legal limit; in Pennsylvania, a ticket may only be resold for as much as 25% above the face-value. We can argue that any disregard for the law is unethical but pragmatically, we all live within gray areas of conduct on which society does not fall. We may yet fall as a nation for other reasons but these reasons will not be illegal parking, alcohol consumption by those under 21-years old, recreational drug use, ticket scalping, or steroid use.

Still, using steroids is illegal and as much as the players will want to remind us that it was not banned by Major League Baseball until the 2005 and that the test was to be confidential, the players broke the law. There is no going around this.

The players gambled with steroids for many years and did very well. A lot of players made a lot of money through their use. Now a number of players will pay the price because they will have the dumb-luck of being caught. The soap opera is still unfolding and there is a lot of ugliness still to be seen.

January 02, 2007

We Have No Idea How Much Barry Zito is Worth the Giants!

Barry Zito signed a seven-year contract with the San Francisco Giants on December 29 that will pay him $126 million. Last week, this column discussed the shift in Major League Baseball as the players have claimed an increasing share of MLB’s revenues which the owners had long controlled. This is all well and good but as David Goldstein reminded me, this column left unexplored the market value of a Major League baseball player.

The Giants will pay Zito a salary of $18 million per-year through the 2013 season. Zito and his family do well in this deal when the US Census Bureau estimated the median annual household income to be $43,389 in 2004. Zito’s salary is also at the top of MLB salaries. Only seven players made more than $18 million in 2006. But the question remains as to Zito’s value to the Giants. It may be that the Giants overpaid for Zito and it may be that the Giants underpaid for him. On what basis do we evaluate the monetary value of a player to an organization? How much money does Zito earn the Giants? To ask it another way, how much do the Giants earn per-year in exchange for their $18 million investment?

Major League Baseball values players on something of a relative scale. We have Alex Rodriguez at the top. Rodriguez was paid $21.7 million in 2006 by the Yankees. Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, and Todd Helton were between $20 and $16 million. Randy Johnson made $15.7 and Pedro Martinez $14.9 and we go down through the list of players. Zito entered the open market this off-season with his 2002 Cy Young award, three All-Star game selections, 156 strikeouts per-year, and 3.55 career ERA. He asked for a salary larger than those of Johnson and Martinez.

Let us see, Johnson and Martinez are at the end of their careers and had decent but not outstanding 2006 seasons. Zito is 28 years old and in January 2007, a superior pitcher. If Johnson is worth $15.7, than certainly, our logic reasons, Zito is worth more. The Texas Rangers offered Zito $13.3 million per-year over six years. The Giants offered more plus Zito could stay in the Bay Area where he has played his entire career. The market set Zito’s price. Zito is happy, Zito’s agent is happy, and you can bet new Giants manager Bruce Bochy is thrilled to have Zito to lead his pitching staff.

But baseball is both sport and business. We expect our teams to value winning and championships above the profit making bottom-line. In England, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ owner Malcolm Glazer bought controlling interest in the English Football Association’s Manchester United Football Club in May 2005. United fans were outraged in fear that the new American owner would place profit-making above winning. Some fans even broke-away and started a new club, FC United of Manchester which now plays in the North West Counties Football League Division One, level 9 of English soccer.

Sure we all like winning. A former co-worker expressed surprise once when I discussed the Phillies' salary budget. He is a Mets fan and the Mets were spending huge sums on Martinez in December 2004 and Carlos Delgado in November 2005. He argued that it is not our money as fans that teams are spending. Who cares how much teams pay? Our only interest is that they acquire players who will win.

But financial stability and health is a prerequisite of a team continuing operations. A team cannot stay in business unless it generates sufficient revenue to pay its bills. A condition of teams playing, let alone winning, is that their income equals or exceeds their expenses. If they do not meet this condition, there is no team to play the games.

Does Zito’s $18 million per-year make business sense? The street vendor who sells bottles of soda provides me with a service. He or she is there to help me quench my thirst. Let us say that this vendor pays the soda distributor $0.50 per bottle of soda and sells it to me for $1. I am happy to pay the dollar and the vendor makes $0.50 profit with which the vendor pays for the vendor’s cart, electricity, taxes, and eventually provides for themselves and their family. If the vendor cannot sell the soda for more than the soda costs the vendor, than the vendor cannot stay in business and we lose the convenience of being able to purchase a drink along the street.

My father and I both invest in the stock market. If I suggest selling a stock, my dad always asks me if I think it will continue to go up. His question is whether he can sell the stock for more than he paid – who cares what its intrinsic value may be. Great question and this is a primary principle of business. What do the Giants receive from Zito in exchange for their $18 million? How much do the Giants earn?

The Yankees paid Rodriguez a salary of $21,680,727 to play third-base this past year. The Yankees had the highest attendance in baseball with an average of 51,858 fans per game at Yankee Stadium according to ESPN.com. The Yankees have one of the largest television deals in professional sports in the world. Were the Yankees to drop Rodriguez, by how much would attendance, advertising revenue, and television money decline? Would the Yankees lose more than $21.68 million? Will Barry Zito generate revenue through ticket sales, advertising sales, and merchandise sales that exceeds $18 million per year?

Let us suppose the Giants win the World Series. How much is this worth? Maybe the Giants should have also signed Alfonso Soriano who was available to the highest bidder and bid for and signed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka for whom the Boston Red Sox outbid all other teams. But the Cubs overpaid for Soriano and the Red Sox for Matsuzaka, you say! Maybe – but on what grounds did they overpay?

Connie Mack understood that he could make more money from his teams if he came close to winning but did not win. Mack managed and owned the Philadelphia Athletics from 1901 through 1950. He won nine pennants and five world championships. He is remembered as much for winning championships as he is for deconstructing them. He lead the 1914 A’s to 99 wins and the American League pennant. After the season, Mack broke up this great team in outrage when his star players signed lucrative contracts with the new Federal League. The 1915 squad lost 109 games and fell to last place. His 1916 team is considered among the worst of all time as they lost 117 games. He broke up his 1929-1931 dynasty due to financial difficulties in the Great Depression. Is baseball a sport or a business?

BaseballLibrary.com quotes Mack as observing, "It is more profitable for me to have a team that is in contention for most of the season but finishes about fourth. A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, and you don't have to give the players raises when they don't win." Jeff Suppan proved this true last week. Suppan won the MVP award for the National League Championship Series this past October and commanded a four-year contract with the Brewers that will pay him $10.5 million per-year. He would have signed a nice contract without his post-season achievements but the MVP award certainly boosted his market value.

The relationship between gate attractions and revenues manifest itself recently in the National Basketball Association in Allen Iverson’s departure from the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers were 5 and 12 on December 8 when they removed Iverson from the active roster with the intention of trading him. The club finished the 2005-2006 season with a losing record and out of the NBA playoffs – an impressive feat where 16 out of the 30 teams make the post-season. How valuable was Iverson to the team? In regards to winning, the Sixers could have missed the playoffs without Iverson and his $18.3 million salary!

But man, was Iverson good for business! NBA.com reported in December 2005 that Iverson’s was the second most-popular NBA jersey sold at retail, and on his back, the Sixers were the fourth most popular team in jersey sales. The fans certainly were not buying Chris Webber and Willie Green jerseys! When the Sixers played at home at the Wachovia Center after deactivating and then trading Iverson, television cameras showed stretches of empty red seats. The Sixers might have been a mediocre team with AI, but he was fun to watch in person, sold tickets, and sold a lot of merchandise.

Not one Major League Baseball team operates as a public company. This means that all financial records of every organization are closed to the public. We do not know how much revenue each team earns. We sometimes hear owners and general managers claim that they lose money. This may be true and it may not be. We just do not know with financial statements closed to us. This also means that we do not have the information to evaluate the financial value of a player to an organization. Barry Zito is a great pitcher and it will be fun to watch him pitch this year. Giants fans are excited to have him for good reason. But did the Giants underpay or overpay for Zito’s services? We really do not know.