The Politics of Being a Baseball Fan

Sound the alarms folks, here comes yet another take by another internet oaf centereded around the “Worst Offseason of All Time”, the 2017-2018 offseason.  Please don’t run away just yet though! This isn’t going to be an article about how front offices are colluding, or how teams are getting smarter, or how players are greedy and want too much money. What I want to try to do here is attempt to show how an individual’s politics help shape the way they perceive the game of baseball and how it affects the way they root for the team or players they love. With this in mind, I want to stress this: I am not attempting to project my personal politics on any of you, the readers. I am simply going to use my political ideology as an explanation as to why I feel the way I do about this wonderful sport, and why I think my personal views have a bit of conflict of interest in the way the game is played today.

A few weeks ago, my favorite hometown team, the Minnesota Twins, signed reliever Addison Reed to a two year, 17 million dollar deal, which came as a bit of surprise. Rumor was that Reed was seeking a 3-4 year deal for the extra security, but ended up taking a spot in the Twin Cities to be closer to his wife’s hometown. I was thrilled when I learned this. My team, the Twins, got a great deal on a quality reliever. We basically paid market value for a reliever who has a good track record, except we didn’t have to worry about him regressing near the back of a long deal. In fact, we got Reed for less than the Phillies gave Tommy Hunter, and Reed is a more proven and arguably better reliever than him! Awesome! Okay…..but hold on a minute. Let’s back this up for a second and analyze this from a different viewpoint, a political viewpoint. For me, this deal and my reaction to it has a lot of conflicting views relative to my political beliefs. I consider myself a leftist, which, for the purpose of this article, means I am very pro worker’s rights and pro re-distribution of wealth downwards. Again, my views do not reflect yours, the players, or anyone’s, nor do I think any individual needs to or should have the same views as me. Just another reminder! Thanks.

The Twins are owned by the Pohlads, a triad of large adult sons who inherited their fortune from their now deceased father, Carl. Carl Pohlad made his living through banking and investing and bought the Twins in 1984 for $36 million. His three sons now own the team together, which is valued at roughly one billion dollars. Altogether, the Pohlad sons are worth $3.8 billion. I want to make something very clear here: all politics aside, you, or anyone else on this planet, does not need 3.8 billion dollars. Hell, you don’t even need one billion dollars. The main question I have to ask myself is this: why do I get excited when I find out that my team, owned by a group of people worth nearly four billion dollars, gets a good deal on a player because they gave him .4% of their net worth ($17 million divided by $3.8 billion) instead of something like .6% of their net worth ($24 million, or eight million per year at three years divided by 3.8 billion dollars). Addison Reed and players like him are the reason I go to Target Field and watch Twins games in the first place. If the Twins don’t sign Addison Reed, their bullpen becomes actively worse, the team performs badly, and they become less entertaining to watch as a group. Watching your team win games is fun, in fact, that’s the reason we’re sports fans in the first place! The purely tribal aspect of identifying with a group, watching them perform well, and being able to bond with other people as a result is what makes sports great. The only reason teams win games is because of the players they have. They are the entertainers, the figures we bond with, and the reason we go to the stadium in the first place. Again, why am I happy that the billionaire owners saved a couple million bucks?

One of the consequences of the rise of sabermetrics is now, we as a community and fans, have the ability to microscopically analyze and value players.

Moneyball was born from the idea that low budget teams could get good players and pay them less because of their skill set, like their ability to get on base, or OBP, a stat which a lot of teams didn’t have a good grasp on how to value at the time. These organizations were applauded and their techniques were copied, and as a result, every team in the MLB now embraces sabermetrics and sucking every ounce of capital value they can out of every deal they make. As this offseason has shown, teams are now becoming weary of handing out big contracts to older free agents. Whether or not collusion is happening is an entirely different story, and beyond the scope of this article. But right now, when the Twins sign someone Addison Reed to a surprising contract, or the Astros give up much less in value that what Gerrit Cole is perceived to be worth, or the Cubs refuse to give Jake Arrieta, the 2016 Cy Young award winner, a six-year contact, we have the opportunity to log on and shower praise upon these organizations for their tactical approach to the game, and their ability to embrace analytics. Then, when players like Albert Pujols sign gigantic deals and start to decline two-thirds of the way through these massive contracts, we log on yet again to explain why the Pujols deal is a cancer on the Angels and how terrible of a decision Jerry Dipoto made by signing him.

I’ll use my hometown Twins as another example here. In 2010, Joe Mauer signed an eight-year, $184-million dollar extension. In my opinion, it was a great story. Mauer, fresh of his MVP campaign of 2009, signed an extension which, at the time was a lot of money. He decided to stay and play catcher for his hometown team, not to mention the only team he has known his whole life. Since then, Mauer has suffered a variety of injuries, most prominently a concussion, and has changed his position to first base. Fans were not happy. Mauer was put on blast for being too injury prone, local sports writers like Jim “Hot Take” Souhan wrote pieces calling Mauer “coddled“. Mauer’s production suffered, and he quickly became much less valuable than he once was. The contract looked horrible. A lot of people were asking why the Twins should be giving so much money to a player who doesn’t play and whose value continues to decline. Again, let’s take a step back from this for a second. For some ungodly reason, just in sports, it is OK to put someone on blast for being hurt a lot.  Mauer had a line of work where balls came flying at the general direction of his head at 100 mph. Injuries happen, and when you catch, traumatic brain injuries like concussions will happen, and when you suffer a traumatic brain injury, there will be consequences. Because of the concussion, Mauer suffered blurred vision and was unable to track pitches for nearly two years after it had happened. If you can’t see the ball, you can’t hit it, and you can’t do your job. If you were (or are) a construction worker, and you got hit in the head with a falling cinder block, and you were wearing all your protective gear but still suffered a serious concussion, your employer, fellow employees, friends, and family would never call you soft, or say things like “well he gets hurt, so he deserves to get paid less now”. The fact that this exception exists for athletes purely because they make more money than other workers is crazy to me. They’re still human beings, and they still need to live healthy lives. Mauer has remained a villain for some Twins fans to this day, simply for signing a contract where he was rewarded for doing well. He and Albert Pujols are claimed as examples as to why long-term, expensive deals are bad.

Let’s keep these expensive deals in mind. Baseball is a very different sport because of the fact that there are no salary caps, either for teams total payroll, or for players and their individual contracts. Sure, there is a luxury tax that is imposed on teams that spend over a certain amount of money, but that hardly constitutes any sort of hard cap on spending. Because of this, baseball has a unique attribute where players can get paid as much as they possibly can, yet the market still sets a value for each win a player brings in. As of right now, one win is usually worth around eight million, because, well, that’s what was decided. When teams sign players for under market value, they are applauded, and they are ridiculed when they do the opposite. But why? Why aren’t we happy when our entertainment (the players) make the most money they can? On top of this, prospects and minor league players make below poverty wages, and are often forced to take other jobs during the offseason to provide for their families. Like I’ve said before, they’re the reason we come to the ballpark. They make the game fun to watch. Now you might be thinking, “Yeah but Will, what about payroll? These teams don’t have infinite resources and they’ll have to pay the luxury tax and get penalized for spending money!” My response to this? Who the hell cares. What’s stopping the Twins from offering Yu Darvish a 5-year, $200 million dollar deal? Obviously, this is a bit outlandish, but the idea that long, expensive contracts are out of teams’ price ranges simply isn’t true. Doing some math again, a $200-million dollar deal would be 5% of the Pohlads’ net worth. Darvish would be getting paid for providing entertainment to the masses, and the Pohlads would see an increase in attendance and participation at Target Field for bringing in exciting talent.  Even for a team like Brewers or Rays, this deal is feasible based soley on the income of the owners.

Another question you might be asking is why I think the Pohlads owe me entertainment, a random person who just happens to like baseball. Why should they have to use their own money to entertain me?  Here’s the thing: they do owe me, because I helped paid for Target Field. In fact, so did the entirety of Hennepin County in the state of Minnesota. Hennepin County taxpayers paid for 65% of Target Field, which turns out to be 350 million dollars. The Minnesota Twins organization paid for $150 million. Again, I had money taken out of my pocket for a private organization to build a stadium where they then get to attempt to give the shaft to their employees by paying them as little as possible to “find value.” This same scenario comes up across the league, with an egregious example being the latest sale of the Miami Marlins by their former owner, Jeffery Loria. Marlins fans paid for 80% of Marlins Park (which was financed through Wall Street loans, which now the county is stuck with) and got absolutely nothing in return; in fact, Loria sold the team and pocketed money taken from the citizens of Miami-Dade County. When I go to the stadium that I helped pay for, I want to see an entertaining team, and I want to see my fellow workers rewarded for their talent and efforts.

The fact that owners have been able to screw over players for so long while hoarding their money is simply unacceptable. It’s time for the MLBPA to take a step back and consider the possibility of a strike. The current free agent system hurts players by not allowing them to market their talents during the peak of their careers, thus leading to teams being wary of handing out longer contracts to older players. “Small-market teams” actively treat players like currency, soaking up the years of their prime by paying them nothing, then forcefully removing them by trading to another team for promising youth, therefore starting the cycle again. The luxury tax imposed on teams discourages paying players what they’re actually worth. The way the current CBA is constructed hurts players in a way like no other league, where now, players make just a little over 40% of all revenue. It’s a month until spring training, and they 2016 Cy Young award winner does not have a team yet. That is astounding. I’m not saying it’s time to start giving out $100-million dollar a year contracts to say, I don’t know, Cliff Pennington, but it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate why we love baseball.

We should be celebrating the success of our fellow workers, not dragging them down for being hurt or signing big contracts. Sabermetrics may be a very neat tool for analysis, but we shouldn’t use it to try to degrade the value of the people that make this sport great. We can still use sabermetrics and advanced data to help players get better by improving a batter’s swing mechanics, optimizing defensive shifts, or creating the best pitch sequencing for a pitcher to follow, while still keeping in mind that players are the reason we love baseball.



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Scientist by trade. Annual hopeful/idiotic Twins fan. Writing as a new hobby.

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Richie
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Richie

Can I sue for fraud? This isn’t about the politics of being a baseball fan, but the politics of Will Franta the baseball fan. Which you most certainly do project on me in your final paragraph, when you tell me that which I should be doing and that which I should not be doing.

TKDC
Member
Member

Grow up, dude. He said he was going to use his politics to explain how he felt about baseball. You shouldn’t have read past that line if you are so easily triggered.

kenai kings
Member
kenai kings

you should.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
Member
Member
GoNYGoNYGoGo

Comrade,

The reason fans don’t want players to get paid too much is that then ticket prices rise. Also, it means when traded, the players coming back are not as good as they would have been had the player getting traded had a smaller contract.

TKDC
Member
Member

But fans are wrong. Ticket prices rise because of supply and demand.

Player salaries rise as teams determine the marginal value of adding free agents to their bottom lines. The winning is what (should) allow for increased prices as demand increases and supply of course stays relatively constant. So paying players more is not the cause of ticket prices going up, not directly anyway. It is really an effect due to what happens when you win more.

Jim
Member
Member
Jim

Glad you mentioned the pay of those in the minor leagues. We should improve salary from the ground up.

phealy48
Member
phealy48

Thanks for providing a different perspective. I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece, it has certainly been an interesting read.

Ninbendo
Member
Ninbendo

You do realize the owners aren’t sitting on a $3.8bn pile of money a la Scrooge McDuck? That’s the estimated value of an asset, not cash they can rain down on individual decisions. I agree that players are undervalued, but they are only undervalued by the out of whack amount of money flowing into the sport.

TKDC
Member
Member

When you say that you and other taxpayers paid for the stadium and thus they owe you, and what they owe you is paying players millions of dollars, my only thought is how stupid it is to publicly finance stadiums. When I told my wife Bryce Harper was going to sign for $500 million dollars and that he’s worth that, her response was “why are we paying for Nats Park while these guys get paid this much?” I agree. I’d rather not support the billionaire owners OR the millionaire players with my tax dollars.

I do wonder if sabermetrics is somewhat indirectly pushing the market down. Teams used to try to win consistently. Now, there is much more information available not only about a team’s actual chances, but also about what sort of increased profits are likely to be derived from increased payroll. It seems like maybe the new conventional wisdom is that if you’re unlikely to be really good then you shouldn’t try at all and that’s the “smart” play. But the sport overall suffers.

Kenny
Member
Member
Kenny

The thing that the average reader of Fangraphs needs to get from this rant is just this: including economic/contract analysis as part of Sabermetrics intrinsically encourages you to identify with management. But you have a choice. You have the option of say, opposing intentional walks because you understand statistics, without giving a damn about, say whether a team “can afford” a given contract. Of course they can; they won’t pay up because they don’t give a damn about you. My fellow Pirates fans can and should hate the ownership guiltlessly right now instead of feeling that somehow the problems of poor Robert Nutting need to be understood.

William Wallace
Member
Member
William Wallace

Yes, you have a choice. Sabermetrics is a great way to learn how to assign financial value to all kinds of assets, which is a valuable skill, regardless of what kinds of assets you own for yourself or manage for someone else. And that is a good thing, and it should help you understand the choices other owners have to make (including team owners and players, who are owners of their skills and other assets). Speaking ill of anyone on the Internet is easy, but it is rarely helpful. You have a choice whether to assume the worst about people or whether to read people’s intentions charitably unless their actions and words prove they intend evil. Your choice to assign evil motives does not leave you “guiltless” if you choose to hate a team owner. More so if you choose to publish your hatred (and your ignorance of financial terminology) for all to see.

Fircoal
Member
Fircoal

While it would be nice to see the players get a larger % of the pie the fact is the owners have control and they aren’t going to do that if they can help it. Furthermore, because we all want to see our favorite teams succeed it makes sense that we want to see our team sign bargains because that means more money to invest into other good players. If it really did just sit around I doubt anyone would care, but since it means more money invested in the team it’s usually a good thing.

That said for me I think my politics still line up. Personally, I don’t care about what the top players are making. Sure those extra dollars are nice but I figure even when they get decreased rates the rates are still good enough to make them well compensated. However, the minor leaguers and the rookies are the ones who truly get shafted. And honestly, if my favorite team (the Oakland A’s) were to give minor leaguers a fair and living contract, I wouldn’t care if it meant less money for to spend on the field. I would be very proud of my favorite organization and consider it a very worthy cost even if it doesn’t equal wins.

The less one has the more important it is for them to get money. That’s how my politics go and that’s how I see the game. So while I personally don’t mind if Arrieta gets a rich 6 contract. I wouldn’t want my favorite team to give it unless he was going to be worth it. But for the minor leaguers, just give them the cash. They need it.

Meir-w
Member
Meir-w

Very thought provoking piece.
I think it just comes down to the fact that we root for our team, basically. MLB wasn’t created to solve unemployment for a few thousand people, it was created to entertain us so that the owners can make money. I’m happy for the players and their riches, but have a hard time getting caught up in wether JD will get eighty million or 120.
The owners are businessmen, the players are loaded, let’s see some good baseball.