May 29, 2007

The Economics of Uniform Number Changes and Trades

May 22, 2007

MLB Interleague Attendance is Less Than Meets the Eye

This past weekend saw the first series of Interleague games in Major League Baseball.

Reflecting the separate origins of the National League in 1876 and the rival American League in 1901, the teams in the two leagues have historically played regular season games exclusively against League opponents. Beginning in 1997, Major League Baseball began scheduling regular season games between teams from the two teams. Doing so would create regularly scheduled contests between metropolitan rivals like the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, and the New York Yankees and New York Mets, and bring baseball’s All-Stars to cities and crowds that would normally have not been able to see them play in person.

Indeed, this past Sunday night, ESPN featured the Yankees playing at Shea Stadium against the Mets for its Sunday Night Baseball game of the week. Locally, Philadelphia fans could see Vernon Wells playing the outfield at Citizens Bank Park this weekend against the Phillies.

Major League Baseball loves Interleague play and wants us to know how great it is. headlined its story on May 21 on the weekend with the statement, “Interleague's first weekend a big hit: Rivalry matchups lead to huge ticket sales across country”.

The article, by Tom Singer, pooh-poohed Los Angeles Dodgers’ second-baseman Jeff Kent who called Interleague games “comical”. Singer reported Kent as saying, “I grew up in this game not playing Interleague games. Then all of a sudden, they force-feed it to you.” Singer commented by writing that MLB does so because, “…the fans keep lining up at the buffet table in record numbers ...”

Singer tells us in his piece about the record numbers, the percentage increases, and just how big this Interleague phenemom is, even comparing it to college basketball’s rivalry week. If only Interleague play really was as big as Singer’s literary use of hyperbole.

Major League Baseball, the umbrella entity operating out of Park Avenue, is a huge supporter of Interleague play. Which is curious given how much its onfield personnel does not like it, and a recent study that has shown that Interleague play is not generating as great an increase in attendance as it may appear.

Jeff Kent was not alone in voicing his displeasure in the arrangement. Sam Carchidi, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Saturday, May 19, after the Phillies had beaten the Toronto Blue Jays Friday night in the series opener, wrote, “If manager Charlie Manuel had any input, he would like to do the same thing to the interleague schedule that Tony Soprano did to his nephew. Kill it. Interleague play brings too many inequities to the schedule - and takes away from the World Series, Manuel said. Eliminating it ‘would make the season more fair,’ he said.”

What is unfair about the schedule? Teams play different schedules now. The Phillies compete in the same division as the Mets. The division winner has a playoff spot. Therefore, both clubs ought to play the same teams an equal number of times through the 162-game season. This would for a fair contest. When we have two runners run the 100-yard dash, they compete on the same track, in the same weather conditions, under the same rules. But the Mets will have played the Yankees six times by the end of the season while the Phillies will have played them no more than three times, and some years, not once. Not equitable.

MLB would overlook this schedule inequity for the sake of increased attendance and viewership. Baseball may be a game but Major League Baseball is a business. What is the curious is the way in which Major League Baseball champions a boom in attendance at Interleague games when it the increase may not be as significant as headlines suggest. Gary Gillette and Pete Palmer suggest as much in their article “Interleague Attendance Boost Mostly a Mirage” in Number 35 of The Baseball Research Journal published by SABR.

Interleague games have boosted attendance by 13.2% from 1997 to 2006. Gillette’s and Palmer’s article indicate that this increase may not be best explained by the games matching two teams from the different leagues against each other but when the games are scheduled. They found that “more than 61% of interleague games have been played on the weekend, compared to only 46% of intraleague games.” In addition, Interleague games are played in May and June, months that draw better than April and September which can be cold on the East Coast. Major League Baseball draws better on the weekends and in the late spring and summer across the board. This is true whether the National League Phillies play the American League Boston Red Sox or the National Cincinnati Reds.

Gillette and Palmer also highlight that Major League Baseball has changed the way it counts attendance the past few years. Look at the bottom of a baseball box-score and we see the attendance for the game. Now, most box scores even have the park’s capacity in parentheses so we can see how the game’s attendance compares to what it could have been. Until a few years ago, the attendance figure was the number of fans who had passed through the turnstiles for that game and which we can presume sat in the stands.

The attendance number is now the number of tickets sold for the game regardless of the number of patrons who pass through the gates. One might go to the ballpark on a chilly night, see only 10,000 other fans, and had the club sold 25,000 for the game, will still see the 25,000 number in the next day’s box-score.

Also counted in these tickets-sold attendance numbers are the number of tickets that a team gives away for charity. Gillette and Palmer remind us of MLB’s Commissioner’s Initiative for Kids program in 2004 and 2005 in which Ameriquest paid $1 per ticket and donated 1,000,000 tickets each season to charities. Generous? Yes. Do we support? Yes. When these 1,000,000 tickets are counted as part of attendance numbers, not knowing if they were used or not, it is unfair to make claims about attendance by which MLB would extrapolate to claim an increasing popularity of and demand for its product.

It is great fun to watch the Yankees and Mets play games-that-count in mid-season. In the Philadelphia area, Phillies fans make the short drive down to Baltimore to watch the club play at Camden Yards. There are virtues to Interleague play and there are short-comings.

Whatever the positives and negatives may be, a greater negative is the misreading of attendance numbers to identify a positive that may not be a result of an Interleague contest and more a result that it is more fun to attend a baseball game on the weekend in May and June than a mid-week game in September.

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May 15, 2007

Tuesday in the Park in May; of Baseball in Vermont

Rain fell and stopped, and fell again throughout the day here in Burlington, Vermont. Dark clouds hung over the mountains east of the city, towards Stowe, in the morning. The rain began as I sat with my sister, Ilana, in a coffee shop on Church Street, the pedestrian arcade, and primary artery of downtown Burlington.

We read through the morning papers, Burlington’s Free Press, the Times, and the sports-section in USA Today. I am on vacation and she took two days off from work while I am in town. This year she joined my fantasy baseball league, the Smilin’ Joe Fission All-Stars, and we worked through the box-scores and team-notes, looking at potential pick-ups and deconstructing the merits of our respective teams. The Free Press listed the University of Vermont (UVM) as having a home ballgame this evening at 6 PM against the University of Connecticut.

The rain had lightened and faded into a gray overcast sky by 5 PM and even a little sunshine was peaking through. Ilana picked me up at quarter to six and we drove over to Centennial Field for the game.

According to the UVM athletics website, the field has been used for organized baseball since 1906 and the current ballpark was constructed in 1922. This ages it with Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Fenway Park in Boston, and Wrigley Field in Chicago. The park was built for a piece of writing like this: the grandstand seats are wood with chipping green paint; the bleachers beyond the corner bases are unadorned concrete; the field is asymmetrical with the left-field fence defined by the rear of the old football field’s bleachers and pressbox. The game clock in centerfield is digital now, and the bats for this collegiate game were pinging metal – and watching the game here is likely remarkably similar to what it has been for decades.

When we pulled in to the parking lot at five past six, the left-field scoreboard showed the game to be in the fifth inning with the score tied at four. Maybe the teams had not read the same paper that we had this morning, or the Free Press had not spoken with the clubs. We walked through the gate on the parking-lot third-base side and came into the grandstand behind home-plate.

We had eaten a late lunch this afternoon, stopping at Burlington’s City Market, the Co-op. Ilana said she would pick-up a hot dog at the game. But this was not a game given to contemporary sports event retail practices. There were no concessions stands. The souvenir shop was three UVM guys sitting in the third-row directly behind home plate, with white UVM baseball t-shirts draped over the seats of the fourth row. Sales for the game were one shirt (according to one of the guys), which at a rate of one shirt per 40 fans, works out to 1,000 t-shirts were the attendance a robust major league 40,000. I would take that conversion-rate given the current mark-ups on souvenir t-shirts in this country.

Ilana and I worked our way around, behind the screen, to the rows behind the first-base side home dugout. Here, we were still under the cover of the grandstand’s roof, and we were just to the right of the screen. We had both a dry as well as an unobstructed view of the action. We sat down in front of a scattered group of a dozen girls, all around 20 to 22 years old. Were this the major leagues, we would have been sitting in the designated players’ wives and girlfriends section. They had brought blankets, snacks, wore Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle sweatshirts, and cheered for the Vermont players by their first names.

Vermont plays in the American East Conference and entered the game five games under .500 with a record of 20 and 25. UConn had entered the game with a 27 and 24 record.

UVM took an 8 to 4 lead into the eighth inning. With the stands nearly empty, the PA system blessedly used at a minimum (ACDC is a favorite band between innings), and both teams sitting on folding chairs in front of the dugouts, each bench’s chatter, celebrations, and dismays were audible to all of us. UConn came back in the top of the eighth to take a 9 to 8 lead. The happy chatter moved from the first-base UVM side around to the third-base UConn side.

Then it grew interesting. Perhaps it was the wet field and that a very light rain was now falling.

Vermont opened the bottom of the eighth with two of the first three batters reaching base on singles. Down by a run, UVM had runners of first and second with one out. UConn pitcher David Erickson made a quick pickoff move to first-base. One might say that it was an “errant throw”. One might also say that the first-baseman was not paying close attention. The ball sailed through the spot where his glove would have been had he seen the pitcher’s move and returned to the bag. The UVM runner on second-base scored; the runner on first went to third; the game was tied at 9 in the bottom of the eighth with one out and the go-ahead run 90 feet away.

Erickson retired the next UVM batter, which brought up Kyle Henry. The UVM website is generous tonight in its game account: “Kyle Henry (Brattleboro, Vt.) singled through the right side to give UVM a 9-8 lead.” A more detailed telling would recount how Henry put the ball on the group on the right-side, how the UConn second-baseman charged it on the infield dirt, slipped in the wet conditions, and as he watched from his butt, the ball scooted by him and into right-field. I had been feeling bad for the UConn first-baseman and was glad that he how had the second-baseman’s company.

UVM took their 10 to 8 lead into the ninth. They called in their closer, Jeremiah Bayer. Bayer looked every bit the poised closer as he warmed up on the bullpen mound in the eighth inning. He is tall and lean, and walks very slowly and deliberately, with a sense of self-purpose that we have come to expect from the contemporary baseball closer. He appears focused and dedicated, knowing that he is a cut above the rest, both in skill and in poise of character. His warm-up pitches snapped on target in his bullpen catcher’s mitt.

On the game mound, away from the bullpen, Bayer’s accuracy and confidence dissipated into balls that bounced in the dirt or sailed high and away. He fell behind to the UConn batters and then they hit his strikes on clean pinging line-drives into the outfield. He walked slowly, almost shuffling his feet, five runs later, off the mound at the end of the top of the ninth with UVM now down 12 to 10.

This is how it ended around 7:30. There was still a bit of evening light in the western sky. I exhaled into the cool air and watched my breath in front of my nostrils. This was May baseball in Vermont. Like the end of a hockey game, both teams lined up and shook hands, walking past each other at homeplate. UConn held a team meeting in left field as their bus idled in the parking lot. UVM did sprints and stretched. In a couple minutes, the rain would begin to fall hard as Ilana and I returned to downtown to watch the Boston Red Sox – Detroit Tigers game from Fenway and grab some dinner.

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May 08, 2007

What Ty Cobb's Homerun Record Tells Us About Barry Bonds

Ty Cobb was a great homerun hitter.

We know Cobb in the context of his career batting and base-running records, three of which have been surpassed in our generation. For more than two generations, Cobb held the career-records for stolen-bases, base-hits, and runs. In August 1977, the St Louis Cardinals’ Lou Brock broke the stolen-base record; in September 1985, the Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose eclipsed the career base-hit mark; Ricky Henderson, playing for the San Diego Padres, set the mark for runs scored in September 2001.

Cobb was also one of the top homerun hitters of his generation. has a nice feature on its player pages in which it lists the season finishes of a player in multiple statistics categories. The Cobb link is at

Cobb led the American League in homeruns in 1909, finished second in the League in 1907, 1910, and 1911, and finished in the top-ten in every other season between 1908 and 1918 as well as in 1921. Roy E. Brownell II, writing in his article “Was Ty Cobb a Power Hitter?” in the most recent SABR The Baseball Research Journal, highlights that Cobb’s 11-career top-ten season homerun totals compare with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Frank Thomas who has nine top-ten league finishes, Gil Hodges who had ten, and Hall of Fame slugger Al Kaline who had 8.

Cobb made his American League debut in August 1905 with the Tigers. This was the dead-ball era which is said to have ended with the 1920 season when both the spitball was outlawed and the official ball was wound tighter so that it carried harder and further when hit. Cobb would play through the 1928 season but the majority of his career, and certainly his prime years, and the years in which he led the Tigers to the American League pennant, were during the dead-ball era which was also the pre-Babe Ruth era. Ruth would not make his major league debut until 1914 by which time Cobb was a well established star.

Hank Aaron, playing for the Atlanta Braves in 1974, broke Babe Ruth’s career record for homeruns which had stood at 714. Aaron went onto hit 755 for his career. As I write this article, the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds has 745 career homeruns and could realistically hit career number 756 prior to the mid-July All-Star Game.

Who held the career record for homeruns prior to Ruth? As long-time Phillies broadcaster Richie Ashburn would say responding to a question posed by booth-partner Harry Kalas, “How about that Roger Connor?!” Yes, Roger Connor was the Major League Baseball career homeruns record holder from 1895 until 1920. The Baseball Hall of Fame lists Connor’s primary team as the New York Gothams, the National League team that we know as the “Giants”. Connor finished his career with 138 career homeruns which Ruth exceeded during the 1921 season.

138 career homeruns does not seem to us like very many. Even in 2007, an era that may or may-not be post-steroids, we would not be surprised to see a player hit 138 over the course of three straight seasons. But this was a lot in the years prior to 1920 and 1921 when the ball was squishier (yes, that is a technical term), spitballs and doctored balls were legal, and outfield fences were, on average, further from home-plate than they are today.

Homeruns are about gravitas and finitude. One has hit the ball over the fence such that one is able to jog around the bases at one’s leisure. The damage is done and there is no play for the fielders to make. It is a very definite hit.

And yet homeruns are relative. There are thirty seasons from 1966 when Frank Robinson led both leagues with 49 homeruns, and 1995 when Albert Belle hit 50, which was two years prior to Mark McGwire hitting 58 and subsequent explosion by McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Bonds. Of the 30 season leaders, 22 hit between 40 and 49 homeruns, five hit between 30 and 39, and three hit more than 50. Basically, for thirty years, the best homerun hitters each season hit around 45 homeruns.

Of course, this changed. McGwire hit 70 in 1998, 65 in 1999, and Bonds hit 73 in 2001. This gave us a new metric for season homerun success.

What do Ty Cobb and Roger Connor have to do with Barry Bonds? Everything. ABC News and ESPN conducted a telephone poll of 799 adult baseball fans between March 29 and April 22, 2007. This poll found that 52 percent of fans hope that Bonds will not break the career homerun record, while 37 percent of fans do want him to surpass Aaron's mark.

That Bonds has hit more homeruns than Ruth, and will soon have hit more than Aaron, does not therefore define Bonds to be the greatest homerun hitter of all time. It does not mean that he is the career homerun king. (It does not mean that he is not, either). What Bonds is doing, and has done, is prove himself to be one of the greatest homerun hitters of this generation of baseball players. He is one of the best hitters of the 1990s and 2000s. The same is true of Rafael Palmeiro and McGwire and Sosa. These players are the best homerun hitters of the past fifteen years.

Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson has zero major league homeruns; he played his entire career in the Negro Leagues and passed-away prior to 1947 when the National League and American League desegregated. We count Gibson among the greatest homerun hitters of all-time.

I write this because I am not sure that if Hank Aaron or Josh Gibson or Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or Roger Connor were playing in 2007, or especially 1998, that they would not have been contenders for the single-season homerun mark or career homerun record. Ted Williams might have challenged Ruth for the record had Williams not flown fighter planes in World War II and in the Korean War. Mickey Mantle might have challenged Ruth had he not had chronic knee injuries.

As finite as the integers of baseball records are, they are relative numbers. We measure the success of ballplayers against contemporaries and whether we do so knowingly or not, using the adage of economists everywhere, “all things being equal”.

Ty Cobb was a great homerun hitter in his age. Barry Bonds is a great homerun hitter in our age. Bonds will, in all likelihood, pass Aaron’s 755. Let us not narrow our gaze to the number alone.

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