Yesterday, the CBS Sports Twitter account posted a tweet lauding the Rays for beating the Yankees in the AL Division Series, putting Gerrit Cole’s $324 million contract up against the Rays’ combined payrolls from 2016-2020 totaling $303.2 million. I made a throwaway tweet that got a small amount of traction, but specifically in the Rays community. I wrote, “Great, now do the money the Rays receive from revenue sharing every year and don’t reinvest into the team.”
CBS Sports HQ @CBSSportsHQGerrit Cole contract value: $324 Million Rays payroll: 2020 + 2019 + 2018 + 2017 + 2016 = $303.2 Million https://t.co/fTMDFywFhr
Rays Twitter wasn’t happy about my comment. I returned hours later to my mentions full of invective. I have been covering baseball in some capacity since 2007, so my expectations for online interactions are below sea level. But don’t worry, this isn’t about the mean things random people said about me on the Internet.
I started thinking about fandom. I was born and have spent my entire life in southeast Pennsylvania. Naturally, I’ve been a Phillies fan for my entire life. During a normal non-pandemic year, I try to go to at least a few Phillies, IronPigs, and Fightin Phils games. I was ecstatic when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and have been frustrated annually with the team since 2012. But I’ve never been the type of fan whose mood is affected when the team performs poorly. Nor have I been the kind of fan who gets offended when someone says something negative about the Phillies. I have, actually, likely been among the team’s biggest critics over the years. After all, my now-defunct Phillies blog that I ran for over a decade was a portmanteau of Ashburn Alley and the phrase “crash and burn.”
Among the things Rays fans accused me of with my innocuous tweet: I “trash(ed) (their) team,” I “don’t let people enjoy anything,” I am “hating” on the Rays, etc. My tweet was accompanied by a screenshot of a news article about the MLBPA filing a grievance against the Rays a couple years ago for pocketing their revenue sharing money (about $45 million) rather than using it to acquire better players. It was pretty specifically about principal owner Stuart Sternberg’s thriftiness. He has a net worth, by the way, just short of a billion dollars.
I made no comment about Rays fans, the Rays as a team, or any of their individual players. Nor did I express dismay at their success. But still, fans identified a pointed criticism at a near-billionaire as a slight against them and their favorite team. Why do fans cape for the billionaire owners who would, without thinking twice, snatch a piece of bread out of their starving mouths? These are the same aristocrats who demand local governments subsidize the expenses for their new stadiums, promising future economic benefits (which rarely materialize), but immediately take money out of the public coffers for things like schools, hospitals, and roads. Billionaire MLB team owners, like all owners of capital, are not on our side.
There are quite a few reasons for this, having varying levels of impact over the years. The first is a half-century’s worth of propaganda. Marvin Miller created Major League Baseball’s first union in 1966. Until very recently, most of the coverage from the media was one-sided, favoring the owners because most journalists were given conditional access and uncritically parroted whatever executives told them. Journalists were also sometimes restricted by their superiors from publishing articles critical of MLB ownership. The media then passed their biased viewpoints onto fans, which is why the players have been accused of being greedy millionaires anytime there has been a threat of a strike or an actual work stoppage.
The media and fans, generally, thought Curt Flood was in the wrong when he refused to report to Philadelphia after the Cardinals traded him following the 1969 season. Flood’s case became the galvanizing factor behind MLB’s reserve clause eventually being nullified in 1975. We saw members of Congress earlier this year pushing for Flood to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was on the right side of history, but a large swath of the media and fans were not at the time. The anti-labor viewpoint held then has been repeated not just for free agents but for things like the 1994-95 work stoppage, players taking advantage of paternity leave, filing grievances over service time, etc.
Another reason is that player salaries are public, but the teams’ books – with the exception of the Braves’ – being closed. As a result, journalists and fans alike don’t have a clear picture of how much money teams are taking in and owners are pocketing every year. There are reasonable estimates, but nothing concrete and resistant to obfuscation. Anytime you’ve heard the owners rebuke public criticism, they have never offered to open up their books to the public. All of the so-called bogus criticisms against the owners could have been squashed in an instant by simply passing along a spreadsheet to a beat writer or publicizing it themselves. But for 54 years since the inception of the MLBPA, not a single owner has offered up this information because doing so would reveal the secret: the owners are not poor, and they could totally have afforded that free agent that would have put the team over the top.
Third, I blame video games and the rise of analytics for creating more pro-ownership sentiment. In baseball video games, you are often tasked either directly or indirectly with being the GM of your own team. You can create players, make trades, participate in drafts, sign free agents, the whole shebang. MLB The Show 2020, for example, balances trades by factoring in payroll considerations, just like real life. You can’t just acquire Bryce Harper if you’re the Rays because you (supposedly) don’t have the payroll space to afford him. We have subconsciously trained a generation of fans to consider a team’s payroll in every situation, even though it’s not our money to begin with. Sternberg saving $5 million by avoiding the luxury tax or whatever has no material impact on our lives; Rays fans just get to watch a less talented club take the field.
Analytics has had a multifaceted effect on how fans perceive labor issues. For example, I started my blog back in 2007 focusing heavily on using analytics. My most noteworthy viewpoint back then was that the Phillies’ five-year, $125 million contract extension with Ryan Howard in 2010 was a huge mistake, citing stats like his WAR and BABIP. A lot of analysis that came from the rise of the Sabermetrics movement in the early and mid-2000’s was payroll-focused. We could better spend that money, I and many others argued, by drafting better and focusing on “value” free agents. Every article, even if they each only influenced on other person, gradually chipped away pro-labor public perception and decreased players’ earning potential. In this case, it was the earning potential of Ryan Howard and players like Ryan Howard. While people my parents’ age grew up reading anti-labor sentiment in newspapers, people my age were reading it in Sabermetric blogs. Some of us were writing it. A not-insignificant number of bloggers from the early and mid-2000’s – not me, obviously – are now working or have worked in MLB front offices. Few, if any, have gone on to work for the MLBPA.
Every once in a while, you get that dopamine rush as a fan that you crave: your team succeeds in the postseason and wins a championship. Among the first things a championship-winning team does after receiving the Commissioner’s Trophy (also known as “a piece of metal”) is hand it off to the team owner. In 2018, the Red Sox defeated the Dodgers in the World Series, which let owner John Henry take the stage. Fans at home and in bars all across the Northeast cheered as Henry hoisted the trophy triumphantly. A year and a half later, Kennedy shrunk the club’s payroll by more than $40 million, trading away 2018 AL MVP and fan favorite Mookie Betts so the Red Sox wouldn’t pay the relatively minor penalty for exceeding the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold. Betts is back in the postseason with the Dodgers and is eight wins away from winning a championship. The Red Sox finished 2020 with a 24-36 record, dead last in the AL East.
Henry’s loyalty to the Red Sox, to Boston, and to Red Sox fans begins and ends at creating value for shareholders. He has a net worth of $2.8 billion. Along with the Red Sox, he is the principal owner of The Boston Globe, Roush Fenway Racing, and Liverpool FC. The Red Sox could have a $300 million payroll and the penalty would be a relative drop in the bucket to Henry. He could personally ensure that the Red Sox are perpetually competitive, never needing to consider the CBT or go into a rebuilding phase. But that doesn’t create as much value to shareholders and doesn’t increase his own personal wealth, which is why he ditched the fans and made the team markedly worse without blinking earlier this year when he sent Betts and David Price to Los Angeles.
The owners don’t give you that dopamine rush; the players do. The owners are, in fact, actively robbing you of further dopamine hits. There’s an old saying often used to laud unselfish players, that they “play for the name on the front of their jersey, not the back.” In 2020, fandom should be all about the name on the back, not the front. We should substitute “Rays” on those uniforms for “Sternberg;” the classic Yankees logo for Hal Steinbrenner; the Phillies’ red pinstripes for John Middleton. Watch games instead to see Fernando Tatis Jr. do exciting things, to see Bryce Harper hit tape measure homers, to see Mike Trout entrench himself as the greatest player of all time. If the owners can’t count on your brand loyalty, they will have to make an actual effort to obtain it! Or, better yet, they will abdicate the sport entirely and teams become municipally-owned and ran. A guy can dream.