MLB Mailbag #1
Talking about my fandom, the Spanish Flu, Phillies who bake, climate change, and public ownership of sports teams.
Phil: What memory / moment cemented your fandom, be it baseball in general or the Phillies in particular?
I was born in 1988, which was right in the middle of one of the many low points of Phillies baseball. Thankfully, I wasn’t truly aware of just how bad they were, and then they were suddenly in the World Series in 1993. I remember being allowed to stay up well past my bedtime to watch their NLCS games against the Braves and their World Series games against the Blue Jays. It was ultimately the being allowed to stay up late, not the gameplay, that made me associate good vibes with MLB, I think.
In general, though, my dad was a baseball fanatic, so pretty much everything we did involved baseball. We traveled to card shows, waited outside visiting team hotels and prowled the Philadelphia airport for autographs, hung around Veterans Stadium early for signatures, etc. I never really got into the autograph/memorabilia angle, but I was immersed in so much baseball it became part of my personality pretty quickly.
Portland Pickles: Who is your least favorite player in MLB?
The Portland Pickles are an independent baseball team. You should check them out and if you are ever in the area, go to one of their games. Especially now, with the minor leagues being downsized and centralized, smaller baseball teams could really use our help. Unlike MLB teams, minor league and indy league teams aren’t run by gazillionaires.
Onto the question: My least favorite player is anyone who polices other players’ behavior. Madison Bumgarner is way up there, as was Brian McCann. I dislike most of the Astros for the general lack of remorse they showed over cheating their way to a championship in 2017. There’s a lengthy list of domestic abusers – Aroldis Chapman, Roberto Osuna, José Reyes, etc. – worthy of everlasting scorn.
The Pickles didn’t ask, but my favorite players are the opposite: players who showcase their personalities and have fun on the field, and aren’t problematic off of the field. Fernando Tatis Jr., Joey Votto, Juan Soto, Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper, Marcus Stroman, Tim Anderson, and Javier Báez are among my favorite players to follow across the league.
Nick Stellini: Which of the phillies would win in a baking competition?
(Nick was briefly my colleague at NBC before we were all eventually laid off. He has a fantastic newsletter, covering sports as well as politics.)
I feel like the answer has to be Didi Gregorius, no? Along with being a phenomenal baseball player, he is talented in so many other ways off the field. This article from The New York Times talks about how he taught himself to play piano as well as drawing and animation while he was rehabbing. While MLB was shut down during the pandemic, Gregorius became a tattoo artist, according to The New York Post. If Gregorius isn’t already a baker, I have no doubt he could teach himself to become a good one quickly.
Robert: 1. What was your earliest baseball memory? (I have a curious desire to feel old)
As mentioned above, I generally remember being able to stay up late to watch the Phillies’ playoff games in 1993, when I was five. My mom told me when I was younger than that, I would walk up to the TV and talk to the players, especially John Kruk. I also vaguely remember going to a Pirates-Phillies game at the Vet around that time period. We sat in the nosebleeds and I was (and still am) afraid of heights, so I kept complaining. An usher let us move to a lower level. You could do that then because hardly anyone went to Phillies games back then and ushers were generally chill. They stopped being chill when Citizens Bank Park opened.
Robert: 2. The 2017 and 2018 offseason was largely bad for baseball labor, and management seemed to try a course correction for 2019 in preparation for the next CBA. 2020 has arguably been bad for owners (I say arguable because they are rich and the stock market is up) do you expect this offseason to resemble 2019 or 2018? What impact do you think the next CBA will have on the owners’ decision to spend?
I think the reduced profits (compared to what they would have made) will make most teams tighten up their pocketbooks this offseason. You’ll still see your elite free agents, J.T. Realmuto for instance, find deals, but those B-tier and under free agents will have to lower their expectations. Frankly, it might be in their best interests to take one-year deals until the sport recovers from the economic impact of the pandemic. I expect this coming offseason to see shorter multi-year contracts and fewer guaranteed dollars than even the last few years, which were comparatively slow to previous years.
As for the next CBA, there will be two major issues at play: service time manipulation and the competitive balance tax (also known as the luxury tax), which attaches compensation to certain free agents. That compensation acts as a disincentive for teams to sign those players, so their markets dry up. I expect the MLBPA to have its most successful round of negotiations in two decades for a couple of reasons: the players have shown more understanding of labor issues and have more solidarity than I can personally remember, and the public – thanks in part to media coverage – has bent towards supporting players. Historically, fans and the media have almost always sided with ownership.
I would love to see the service time model scrapped entirely, but I don’t know that the union will be able to get the owners make such a huge concession without giving up something major in return. Perhaps some of this year’s “temporary” changes become permanent, such as the expanded playoffs. At minimum, though, I expect the union to successfully negotiate some kind of a deterrent so top prospects start the upcoming season on the major league roster rather than temporarily stashed in Triple-A until their team guarantees an extra year of contractual control, as the Cubs famously did with Kris Bryant in 2015. And I expect free agent compensation to be eliminated.
@OneMoreSAHM: Who is the best defensive LF for the Phillies, and why is it Vince Velasquez?
SAHM is referencing a game last season in which Phillies starter Vince Velasquez was used out of necessity in left field during an extra-inning game against the White Sox. Velasquez made two outstanding defensive plays in left and nearly made a third.
While I think Velasquez has McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Rhys Hoskins, and Phil Gosselin beat defensively, Adam Haseley would be the best defender they could put in left. But Haseley is better in center anyway, like Roman Quinn. Among those you’d reasonably put in left, I think Velasquez is at or near the top, amusingly enough. If you gave him a year or so to work primarily on hitting, I think he could be a passable fifth outfielder.
Matt: Once and for all: Why is baseball!?
Short answer: Antitrust exemption. Baseball has been a legal monopoly ever since the Supreme Court decided in 1922 (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League) that Major League Baseball was not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act. MLB never faced competition from other businesses. Even the NFL saw competitors in the All American Football League, the USFL, and the XFL.
@keeFS: I could look up what baseball did during the “Spanish flu” epidemic, but since you offered.. in general (i.e. not a history essay) what did it do? Any interesting stories/facts/rules/stars come out of that?
The Spanish Flu occurred in 1918, four years into Babe Ruth’s career. He was a pitcher at that point, and a good one – in 1916, Ruth led the league with a 1.75 ERA over 323 2/3 innings. The virus affected many of Boston’s hitters, leaving the club shorthanded. With few options, the Sox gave Ruth some more playing time as a hitter, sticking him in left field. In 95 games in 1918, Ruth led the majors in home runs with 11. The rest, as they say, was history. In a sense, the Spanish Flu gave us Babe Ruth, the hitter, which forever altered the trajectory of baseball in both a literal and figurative sense.
The American and National League had a shorter season in 1918 as a result of the pandemic. The schedule called for 154 games but teams on average played 129 games that season. 1919 also saw a shorter schedule with 140 games.
The Red Sox won the World Series at the end of the pandemic-riddled 1918 season, the last time they would win it all until 2004. After the 1919 season, the Red Sox famously sold Ruth to the Yankees. Boston’s championship drought was blamed on the “Curse of the Bambino.”
@GlennQSpoonerSt: Given the increase in unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change should MLB mandate that all future stadiums/fields be designed/built with retractable roofs?
Last October, The Washington Post detailed how the Oakland Athletics are considering rising sea levels in regard to their new stadium. This is definitely something we’re not talking about enough. The ridiculous weather we have seen in recent years – the frequency and power of hurricanes, for example -- is inextricably linked to global warming. Warmer temperatures mean more evaporation and water vapor, which means more snow and rain as well. So, absolutely, new stadiums should be built with that consideration in mind. Retractable roofs, climate control, the whole nine yards.
Will MLB mandate such a rule? Only if the owners collectively find frequent game postponements enough of a nuisance to address it in such a big way. Historically, MLB owners have not liked wearing leashes. Remember, the owners run MLB, not Rob Manfred or whoever the commissioners might be in the future.
@heycardis: What do you think about municipal ownership of teams? In a broader baseball context, not just MLB.
I think it’s a fantastic idea, which is not to say it doesn’t have its own potential shortcomings or avenues for abuse. But public ownership would but a tremendous amount of money right back into the surrounding neighborhoods, rather than into a handful of rich people’s pockets. Those owners, by the way, lobby local governments to foot the bill on their new arenas, claiming that they will create jobs and stimulate the economy. But Stanford economist Roger Noll was among those to show that claim is unfounded.
The money local governments spend to attract professional sports teams could instead be used on schools, hospitals, roads, and so on. A collectively-owned stadium and sports team would get a much better return on investment which could address those other needs. As always, the issue is rich people being greedy. And you’d have to worry about that with public ownership, too, so you’d need a lot of transparency and oversight.
I hope you enjoyed reading the mailbag as much as I enjoyed answering your questions. If you have any feedback, or have any questions for the next mailbag, feel free to leave a comment here or reach out to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Twitter.