Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Game Called: An Economic Parable in Nine Innings

The 2009 incarnation of the Portland Beavers ended their season yesterday afternoon.Thankfully.

This year's version of the AAA ballclub wasn't the worst - the old ragtime era Beavers still hold that record - but it was in the running. The current rubber dummy wearing a Beaver suit is a wholly owned subsidiary of the San Diego Padres, one of Major League Baseball's 2009 Queens of Suck, and among the worst franchises in the game. Their best player is Tony Gwynn, who hit an assload of singles and not much else. Gwynn, therefore, is the perfect embodiment of the San Diego Padres; anti-Zen baseball in which a hell of a lot of activity means absolutely nothing.

And this is who OWNS the Portland Beavers.

Now bear with me here, because I'm going to go a long way around to make a point.

First of all, the Portland Beavers' 2009 season encapsulates, in almost perfect awfulness, the state of professional baseball in the Stygian depths below the big leagues.

The Bevos lost 84 games this year. During this process they went through three managers and 69 - count 'em, sixty-nine, soixante-neuf - players. A grand total of about 370,000 people came to watch this debacle, this mutual fellatio of baseball ineptitude, almost 5,300 per home game. Despite this the owner of the Beavers, Merrit Paulson, is quoted as saying:
"I wouldn't say that losses have impacted us from a business standpoint, but that said, we were way below .500 in 2007, we're way below .500 now and 2006 wasn't a particularly good year either," he said. "You'd like to be able to compete."
Think about that for a moment.

This team finished dead last. They have now finished either last, or close to last, since winning the Pacific Coast League in 2004. Their 4-year record or 320 losses is second-worst in the PCL. And yet...and yet...the team owner says that he wouldn't say "that losses have impacted us from a business standpoint."

In other words...lose? Who gives a shit? We're making money!!

And why is this?

Because, simply stated, the Portland Beavers are slaves. They exist not as an independent entity free to succeed or fail on their own merits. They are compost, a creche' for ballplayers, the reeking humus from which San Diego Padres are grown. The ownership in San Diego has zero - absolutely no - interest in the piddly little PCL "pennant race" and neither do any of the other real PCL team owners, the big league clubs. They will continue to inject money into the corpse of baseball in Portland, Las Vegas and Modesto so long as the walking dead thing grows players for them.What is happening in Portland - and Little Rock, and in Boise, and in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Ossinning, New York and the other 18,415 cities, comunidades, towns, villages, urbanas and the one municipality (Anchorage, in case you're wondering) that don't enjoy one of the 28 teams that DO have the luxury of actually winning anything meaningful in the sport of baseball is a joke; a nasty, mean-spirited joke perpetrated by the Lords of Baseball and those in power who have accommodated their rapacious greed.

The Portland team exists only for its role in servicing the San Diego team; it is the whore, highly paid, lavishly compensated but whore nonetheless, of the Padres organization.

Is this right? Is this just? Should the peoples of Portland, and Boise, and Louisville, and all the other Portlands, Boises and Louisvilles, get a puppet show, a sham and an empty box, so that the people of San Diego can enjoy the Show?

For one thing, the slave minors, as presently organized, offer every player in them an orderly opportunity to make it to the Show. If you stay healthy and produce, you get moved up and, eventually, get a shot at the big club. The NFL, on the other hand, is all-or-nothing. If you get cut you might catch on in Canada, or picked up by another team. But the difference between getting a spot and getting cut may be a tenth of a second or a quarter pound of weight. When the owners fielded teams of scabs in 1987 it was pretty obvious that some of those players were within a reasonable distance of being a major leaguer. After three or four games, with the advantage of the weights, the 'roids, the coaching and the practice it was pretty clear that the end was in sight, with the "real" NFL players getting slower and smaller and their replacements getting stronger and faster. The NFLPA folded its hand and has never really been an effective advocate for the players since.

So freeing the minors wouldn't really be good for the superstars, and it wouldn't be good for the owners, the Lords of Baseball, or the sports networks, and it would be hard for the citizens of the 28 American cities that now have a big league team. Who would it be good for?

Well, the public, first of all, in all the non-MLB cities, who would have a chance to root for their own proud team, to compete as best they can at whatever level they can rise to. The model here might be the European football leagues, where every place has a local team and every local team has a chance to win their own silverware. The baseball fans in every locality, who will have a local team and local heroes, to inspire them and raise interest in the sport. Baseball players, who will have a chance to compete for more than just a promotion to the next level of an increasingly narrowing pyramid. The local newspapers and television, who will have genuine pennant races and local sports news stories to report.

Is this a perfect world? No. There will be lots of broken hearts and broken dreams, lots of chicanery and get-rich-quick schemes and goofy, idiotic promotional ideas. Baseball will become a lot less sleek, a lot less rich but at the same time a lot more lively, a lot more democratic, more part of more people's lives, and a lot more entertaining.

It might just become the National Pastime again.

Our 2009 national paradigm seems to be "bigger, richer, slicker". This seems to please the large, rich, slick components of our nation just fine. But I'm not so sure that its really in the best interest of our nation as a whole. I think that small, modest and versatile might be a better model for the 21st Century.

What do you think?

(Full version at GFT)


  1. In Edmonton, the local ball club (Edmonton Capitals) is owned by the same person who owns the hockey club. I have heard good things about this relationship.

    They are in the Golden Baseball League.
    The GBL seems to be working out ok for them.

  2. Ael: I don't have nearly as much problem with owners stretching across two sports other than the usual problems I have with monopolistic behavior of any sort.

    But the vertical monopoly that MLB has with the minors seems to me bed for baseball and bad for the baseball fans, if very profitable for the MLB owners and players. I don't think that the benefits of that small group outweighs the good of the general public, all the other teams and cities, and the sport in general.

    I would argue that, among other reasons, one major factor in the decline of baseball as "The National Game" is the death of meaningful competition below the MLB level. I, personally, could care less about the Beavers. They don't care if they win or lose - why should I?

    And if you're not playing a sport to win, why play at all?

  3. I understand the concern about playing to win.

    Edmonton used to have a AAA team affiliated with a ML team. Nobody cared about winning. It was kinda sad.

    Last month, the sports reporters were talking about the Capitals making the playoffs as if it was an achievement. It makes a difference that the GBL is independent. I like it that way.

  4. I like the independent minors, too. And to extend this back to my economic parable; when you give absolute power to large corporations and then let them make decisions based purely on their own bottom line, why should you be surprised that they make decisions that work directly against the interests of local customers, employees and the general welfare?

    They are corporations: a very good study was done of the idea of corporate "ethics" which determined that, as an entity, 99% of all corporations would be sociopaths. It's not their job to be altruistic or concerned for anything except this quarter's balance sheet.

    For thirty-some years we've let pass the Reaganite ideas that "government is bad", "unions cost jobs", "greed is good" and "bigger is better". I suggest we look at what the Lords of Baseball have done to themselves, their sport, and the public and ask ourselves if its time to toss a lot of this Reagan stuff in the scrap heap.

    Well, except that the MLBPA might not be a poster child for responsible unionization...

  5. You can't go home again, Pilgrim. You're yearning for a simpler, gentler era, 50 or more years ago. "Field of Dreams," anyone?

    I frankly don't see your beef, Chief. I live in an area where the best we get is "A" ball. That's right, Single A, as in the Savannah Sand Gnats. No, their games don't count in the grand scheme of things, but they do for the players, who play their asses off—trying to work their way up the ladder to the Show.

    You bet the minors are all about feeding the majors. And that's one thing that makes the players go all-out: salaries suck, even in the high minors, so every minor league player has all of the incentive in the world to do his best. If you really paid those guys very well and took good care of them, you'd have career minor leaguers. Baseball doesn't want career minor leaguers because it clogs the pipes and increases the risk that guys with true talent won't be noticed and won't move up. Watch a major league game some time. Even the worst of the players is gifted. There is a huge gulf between the majors and the minors.

    In some respects, minor league ball is analogous to college football and basketball. Not the profit center those sports are, but also peopled by kids working their asses off trying to get the brass ring. Just as in baseball, few get it. In the college sports, however, if a kid's smart, he can get that degree so that he has something if he can't make the NFL/NBA. Reality is that the minor leaguer who doesn't make the majors is not going to be well educated (unless he came out of college) and may have a difficult life. Minor league baseball is, as you say, a suck-ass system for everyone except the MLB lords. And the players who make it. And the managers and coaches who make it. Everybody else is just grist for the mill.

    Accept the system as it is. It ain't going to change. Enjoy the cheap seats and cheap beer, something home town fans for those 28 MLB teams don't enjoy. It's baseball, man. What's finer on a beautiful summer day? And because the players want to show their best, it's competitive, whether the games ultimately mean anything or not. Shit, they really don't mean anything at the major league level either. In the long run, we're all dead; in the long run baseball is just a pleasant diversion. I don't think we in minor league markets are being hosed one bit. We get the diversion, and at a whole lot less money.

    You sure you're not just bummed because the owner of the Beavers prefers soccer and is doing away with the stadium?

  6. Publius: Actually, I'm not really a baseball fan at all anymore: watching the cheapjack Twins and Padres jerk their AAA clubs around has cost the affection I had for the game. And I can't stand watching the sport on TV.

    Like I said: it's not going to change. But that's part of what makes that sad is that we COULD bring the game back to something more like it was 100 years ago just with a couple simple strokes of the pen. Monopolies are illegal in every other business - why not baseball?

    Cheap seats? ($10 is cheap?) Cheap beer? ($5 is cheap?) Whatever AAA ball is - cheap it ain't. IF I pay to see someone play a sport, they damn well better be trying to win. I don't pay to watch sewing circles or spelling bees. The winning - meaningful winning - is part of the diversion. It's not much entertainment to watch a couple of bums throw a fight. Where's the difference here?

  7. Looking at the above comment I wanted to expand on it a little.

    I WAS a huge baseball fan growing up, first in Chicago in the 60's and early 70's, then in Philadelphia in the late 70's and early 80's. I carried that affection with me out here in the early 90's, and watched AAA ball slowly kill it. Lemme explain.

    One of the great things about baseball for me - since I don't play it and never have - is watching the players, the plays, the game and the season. Baseball is great for that; it moves slowly enough that you have time to look, think and analyze who and what is going on. You can focus on who's playing and how well, both within a game and over a series of games; who's on a tear, who's cold, who's just squirrely, who has started to figure out how to hit the change, who is losing his wheels...and, above that, which teams do we do well against? Who just kills us? We split the last series with these guys, but that was when Joe was on the DL and Smitty had a shitty outing and they're both back and looking good...

    Both the teams I followed - the Cubs in the 60s-70s and the Phillies in the 70s-80s - had a set group of players that you could learn to know, both as individuals and as they played together. You got to know the visiting teams, too, since you probably had to learn stuff about maybe 100-200 players total in a season.

    That was enough to be challenging but not too much, not overwhelming. It was fun, and I enjoyed it.

    But moving to Portland I got a taste of minor league ball. It was like trying to figure out naked pig wrestling. You lost track of who was playing, and mostly that was because you had different people playing all the time. Between the revolving door in Portland AND the visiting teams you'd have had to keep track of something like 400 players. I can't do that - almost nobody can.

    And the games had no pattern, no consistency. YOu had no idea what to look for because it was a new lineup, new plays and new players every time. Not to mention that the wins and losses were meaningless...when the team that "won" in August was almost an entirely different team than the one that "won" in May..?

    So now I'm a soccer fan. Our minor league soccer team is in nearly the same type of league as our minor league baseball team - the second-from-the-top pro league. But the soccer team fields nearly the same 11 men every game. Their opponents do, too. You can follow the game action because you've seen the players enough to know how they look when they're sharp and when they're not, how they play together and when they're not clicking. And the games MEAN something - tho I'd love it if we had a promotion/relegation setup like they do across the pond (and we'd be going up this year, goddamn it!)

    The baseball team? Like I said above; a sad, sick - expensive! - little joke.

    If the fix was expensive, difficult and tricky I'd be more inclined to shrug and "oh well". But it's not. We know HOW to do it; we just don't WANT to fight the industry.

    Kinda like "health care reform" and the for-profit health biz, eh?

    What a bunch of losers we've become. We're SO fucked.