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TANKERS, WANKERS AND BANKERS: BASEBALL STILL IN A DEATH SPIRAL
The same competitive disparity is choking MLB post-lockout, with the Mets and Dodgers blowing past a new tax threshold while the Reds and Athletics lead intentional losers on their walk of shame
Baseball inspires its share of snappy ballpark songs, none better than John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,’’ and I have a new one for the times. Call it: “Tankers, Wankers and Bankers,’’ a sing-along for anyone who actually thought a 99-day lockout would reboot an irredeemable industry.
Might Eddie Vedder, an aggrieved Cubs fan, be available to belt it out?
Not two weeks after owners and players broke bread only because they were about to break the sport, it’s as obvious as a juiced home-run ball that nothing has changed. Specifically, we’re witnessing the same, old separation of competitive commitment at the dysfunctional junction of an approaching season. The Wankers are prepared to blow past an increased Competitive Balance Tax to buy their way down the World Series superhighway. The Tankers are slashing payrolls and dumping quality talent to pad profits, inevitably to be joined in slow-lane lockstep by several more consumer frauds at the expense of fans. The Bankers, happy to live in the murky middle, pretend that winning is their major priority when it’s a secondary offshoot to the bottom line.
What did Max Scherzer, he of the $43.3-million average salary that is higher than the current 2022 payrolls of four major-league teams, say during the labor impasse about competitive balance? “This is about the integrity of the game from our eyes. We feel as players that too many teams go into a season without any intent to win,’’ he said. “We’ve seen both small-market and large-market clubs embrace tanking, and that cannot be the optimal strategy for the owners.”
As usual, at least three-fifths of the 30 franchises should be mocked as delusional for even suggesting a cheerful season ahead. That’s the pathetic reality even if clubs are incentivized by a new 12-team postseason and a sneaky factoid: Over the last 20 years, six World Series winners were wild-card entrants. To be real, the National League pennant winner probably will be the Dodgers or Mets, both hellbent on crashing the CBT thanks to power-drunk owners in megamarkets who thrill their fans with exorbitant spending but otherwise become villains. The American League winner should emerge from a more responsible group of contenders: Blue Jays, Astros, White Sox and Red Sox. Otherwise, Opening Day is Closing Time in the vast majority of locales, some of which are being ripped off with minor-league ball at big-league prices.
The most flagrant examples of tanking intentions, at least so far, have come from Cincinnati and Oakland. The words barely had rolled off the lips of commissioner Rob Manfred on March 10 — “I apologize to our fans …’’ — when the fire-sale deals began. The Reds, contenders the last two seasons, shipped away Jesse Winker, Sonny Gray and Eugenio Suarez before you could finish a cheese coney.
“This wasn’t just a payroll move. It also allows us to free up some money to work in the free-agent market,’’ said general manager Nick Krall, leaving out the part about attractive free-agents having zero interest in Cincinnati.
“I feel there’s kind of a bond you get with the fans, with the city,” said pitcher Amir Garrett, also discarded. “It’s just something we got accustomed to. When you get comfortable in an environment, it’s hard to leave.”
So much for the future in a once-vibrant baseball town, where the street by the ballpark is named for disgraced hometown gambler Pete Rose, where broadcaster Thom Brennaman ruined his career with an anti-gay slur and they’re going on five decades since the Big Red Machine.
In Oakland, the Athletics are starting over once again, but Billy Beane’s “Moneyball’’ sauce has passed its expiration date and can’t even be found on Netflix. After decades of brain-deadening stadium politics, the team is one City Council rejection from fleeing the Mausoleum and following the Raiders to Las Vegas. So say goodbye to four cornerstones, all with contenders now: manager Bob Melvin to the Padres, first baseman Matt Olson to the Braves, third baseman Matt Chapman to the Blue Jays and ace pitcher Chris Bassitt to the Mets. The A’s haven’t spent one cent on a free agent.
“You see what was happening around here,'' Chapman said. "It's sad to leave, but I’m happy to go somewhere where it's going to be an incredible opportunity.’’
Meet the old system, same as the old system. There are more tankers eager to cash revenue-sharing checks — we see you Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, where the newly named Guardians are guarding only the payroll at this point — than serious championship aspirants. It’s not that owners aren’t spending; they’ve invested a record $3.26 billion on 130 free agents. But some of the splurges make no sense, such as why the Rockies would sign Kris Bryant for $182 million when they had no interest in keeping Trevor Story or Nolan Arenado. Then there’s the suspect approach of the large-market Cubs. They’ve thrown guarantees at Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman, but they’re still ceding Chicago to the White Sox when owner Tom Ricketts claims he can’t afford more than an average payroll — and angers fans by entering a furious bidding process for English Premier League club Chelsea, which is expected to sell for more than 3.5 billion pounds, highest price ever paid for a sports team.
“(Ricketts) understands the importance of investing for success,’’ a spokesman told the British media, this in an offseason when four former Cubs stars — World Series heroes Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber — have signed for a collective $433 million in deals. Is Ricketts deprioritizing the Cubs after underachieving with only one title and turning Wrigley Field into a business park? That makes him a Banker in the U.S., but he’ll be considered a Wanker, in overseas vulgar slang, if he plays similar payroll games at Stamford Bridge. Not that Ricketts has a chance in hell of winning the sweepstakes, sabotaged by a leaked 2019 e-mail in which family patriarch Joe Ricketts wrote, “Muslims are naturally our enemy.’’ These people have enough problems running the Cubs. Get out of London, man.
This is why other big-market owners shouldn’t be blasted for spending sprees that infuriate the rank and file. If the industry is a tire fire, the richest clubs may as well act the part and exploit their financial advantages. In New York, Steve Cohen has achieved a civic impossibility, reducing the Yankees to second-class status by sinking his hedge-fund billions into the Mets. He’ll be the first owner to forklift a team payroll above the fourth CBT tier of $290 million, which will stick him with a tax bill exceeding $20 million. Cohen has that much laying around on his bedroom dresser. The splurges, including Scherzer’s record annual wage and $341 million for Francisco Lindor, have spawned a nickname for the levy: The Cohen Tax.
“I’m still new to baseball. I know there’s a name for it,’’ said the richest owner in Major League Baseball. “They call it the ‘Cohen Tax’ or whatever. … It’s better than a bridge being named after you or something like that. Listen, $290 million is a lot of money to spend overall and I’m OK with it. I don’t feel like it’s so confining that I can’t live with it.”
Close behind Cohen in the filthy-wealthy quotient are Mark Walter and his partners at Guggenheim Baseball, owners of the Dodgers. When responsible business practices led to repeated autumn failures in the last decade, they finally took advantage of the bulging Los Angeles market and went all-in on free-agent superstars. The $365 million extension of Mookie Betts led to a World Series title. So why wouldn’t they jump on the Banker-like mistake of the team that succeeded them as champs? The Atlanta Braves were such a mad success last season, they reported a $100 million profit. That should have been enough to retain the beloved Deep South icon, Freddie Freeman, with an extension covering the remainder of his career. The Braves chose cold business, trading for Olson and allowing the Dodgers to swoop in with $162 million over six years.
With Freeman inserted into an all-time potent lineup, the Dodgers are positioned to avenge their playoff loss to Atlanta and return to the Series. If the Braves are proven wrong, it could be remembered as a historic blunder. “To be honest, I was blindsided,” said Freeman, thrilled to return to his native southern California. “I think every emotion came across. I was hurt. It's really hard to put into words still.”
So he wasn’t too moved by the tears of Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos when he discussed the Olson-over-Freeman call? "I saw 'em," said Freeman, suspiciously. "Yup. That's all I'll say."
Money drives all sports decisions, of course, but in baseball, it’s such an overwhelming factor that the sport has been destroyed by the haves-and-have-nots disparity. Manfred refuses to acknowledge the lingering poison in the air. “I think, almost without exception, that clubs try to do the right thing,’’ he said. “Different people may have different views as to how you should be trying to win and on what time frame.’’
That’s baseball for you in the 21st century. Keep ignoring the crises, playing the ballgames and reaping the revenues. Never mind that MLB has fallen preposterously behind the NFL in relevance and revenues — and how it has been lapped by college football, the NBA, March Madness and maybe the golf majors and NASCAR in total interest. Americans are weary of the labor wars and Manfred’s inertia on the biggest existential problem: games that drag more than three hours and dawdle for minutes at a time without any action. If nothing else, fans deserved a 20-second pitch clock for their 99-day wait. Nope, the best MLB could do was install a universal designated hitter, which only will make the games longer.
Widespread dissent has led to the inevitable intervention of politicians. Namely, Bernie Sanders is leading the charge to strip MLB of a 100-year-old antitrust exemption. If he succeeds, a rival league would have an open door to a coup. Paging: young, moneyed disruptors.
“The time is now when these billionaires should start paying attention to the needs of the fans and the people of this country, rather than just their bottom line,’’ said Sanders, discussing the “Save American Baseball Act” on HBO’s “Real Sports” program. “I think what you will see is support not just from Democrats, but from Republicans. This is a bipartisan effort. You know, we're in the middle of a pandemic. Corporations are making huge profits. CEOs get huge compensation packages, and it's the same exact thing with baseball. These billionaires making all kinds of money, and yet they could care less about ordinary people.”
And how would MLB change if the owners lost their antitrust exemption? “It would mean competition would arise. It would mean other people would have the opportunity to start different Major League Baseball leagues,’’ Sanders said. “The Major Leagues would not be able to do simply what they wanted to do. I think though there is a growing anger amongst the American people at baseball. I think the temperature is rising here in Congress to do something about it.’’
Unfortunately, his mission might be upended by apathy. Who really cares about any of it anymore? Baseball can’t hold the public hostage for an entire winter, emerge with the same issues and expect people to understand. You thought the electronic sign-stealing scandal was over? The Yankees might be joining the Astros in shame, now that a federal judge has ordered the unsealing of a letter containing the findings of an investigation into 2017 subterfuge.
You thought service-time manipulation was in the past? The Pirates already have said 6-foot-7 shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz will start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. When there is no good reason to watch this team at PNC Park, still a breathtaking place being wasted, the front office prefers that Cruz play other positions in the minors than become an immediate conversation piece in Pittsburgh.
“There’s still development to be had there,” manager Derek Shelton said. “Oneil is going to have an impact on our club this year at some point. When that is, I don’t think any of us know."
You assumed COVID-19 is an afterthought? Unvaccinated players, for now, won’t be allowed to play in Canada.
The players remain disgusted by the state of the sport and the fat cats who run it, pointing at a commissioner who works for the owners. “To put it bluntly, he doesn’t do anything for us,” Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “I know how that’s going to read, so commissioner Manfred, don’t take it personal. That’s just how it looks from a players’ standpoint.”
The competitive disparity calls for relegation, a Premier League device that denotes teams in class for not carrying their weight. Problem is, in MLB, the elite tier might include only five or six teams. The NFL, which splits its massive TV revenues 32 ways, hones a system that allows a superstar quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, to play his entire career in a small market, Green Bay, and guarantee him $150 million for three years into his 40s. It also enables a franchise in another small market to rise up and reach the Super Bowl.
The Bengals happen to be from Cincinnati, where the baseball machine of yore is now the Big Dead Corpse. Not even Pete Rose would bet on the Reds these days. Nor should any of us bet on baseball’s ugly future.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.