Thursday is baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline, and I couldn’t be happier, because it means we can all stop talking about “eating salary.”
One of the big draws of sports fandom is the civic unity and shared identity that comes with rooting for a certain team. I love this. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve been able to break the ice with strangers I see wearing Phillies gear, or who see me wearing Phillies gear, and being a bit of a loner, I’ve found that occasional friendly interaction nice. And that’s to say nothing of the joy that came, so many years ago, from deriving positive self-worth from a good Phillies team I had nothing to do with, and of doing so with people who felt the same way. That feeling is the reason I have a hard time relating to people who don’t like sports.
The ugly side of that experience is that it casts the fan’s lot with ownership, and around this time of year, that ugly side takes physical form, like the homicidal oil slick from Star Trek, in the shape of fans rooting for teams to either eat or dump salary.
Money is a huge consideration in sports, and since it would be naive to ignore its impact on team-building and player movement, I don’t begrudge fans for being aware of its impact on the quality of their team. However you came to love your chosen team, you want it to do well, and because money buys players and players produce wins, you want your team to spend its resources wisely.
The problem is, that’s how Matt Kemp, an OK player who isn’t as good as he was three years ago, gets talked about in trade gossip like he’s an outstanding debt. That’s how Philadelphians have turned on Ryan Howard, a lifelong Phillie, model citizen, and cornerstone of the best era in franchise history, and how they’ve begun treating anyone who suggests that Howard’s life might be frustrating right now the way the people of Salem treated John Proctor. That’s how Twins fans think the inexplicable things they think about Joe Mauer. Money is the resource that determines everything else, and that resource is finite, and fans are invested in their team winning. So, they don’t want an inordinate amount of that resource tied up in someone like Kemp, who’s not producing as much as his salary would suggest, or in someone like Howard, who isn’t producing anything at all.
That’s the story and that’s largely the national mind-set, because it’s easy to view players as the problematic end of baseball’s money issue, since they play a child’s sport for more coin than most of us could credibly imagine making. It’s also a lie, or at the very least a delusion that owners and their allies are in no hurry to disabuse us of.
That’s how Billy Beane became a national hero, if you care to state the premise of Moneyball differently, for paying his employees significantly less than they were worth and validating an owner who was too cheap to put out a competitive product.
You see, baseball isn’t like other sports. Despite individual teams having budgets for player salaries and despite the existence of a luxury tax, there’s no salary cap. And even if there were, the salary cap would be an owner-generated artificial construct created for the sole purpose of suppressing wages as revenues increase, just like it is in other sports.
I’ll stipulate that if a team is going to make money, it can’t simply spend whatever it wants on players: If the Rays, for instance, spent $500 million a year on salary, they’d go out of business pretty quickly. But the threshold for spending more while remaining profitable is a lot higher than teams are willing to go right now.
You know how I know this? Because while we know what every player in the four major sports makes, we don’t know how much money owners make. Every time there’s labor unrest, calls come for owners — who claim to be on the verge of collapse under the backbreaking burden of wage costs — to open their books and show us. And they never do.
When those numbers come out through other channels, they don’t exactly stoke the case that teams are impoverished city institutions, like libraries or something. In 2007, the Pirates won 68 games and made $15 million in profit. The next year, they finished with 67 wins and $14.4 million in profit. Last month, as Zach Lowe reported, 21 of the NBA’s teams made a profit in basketball terms alone, a number that counts money lost due to revenue sharing but does not count money earned on stadium ownership or other ancillary income or tax write-offs. Do a little process of elimination and you’ll discover that the Sixers were one of those profitable teams. The Sixers are not only the fourth-most popular pro sports team in Philadelphia, they might be the fourth-most popular basketball team in Philadelphia, and they put out an unwatchable product. Trust me: If last year’s Sixers were a burger chain that sold D-grade beef, I’d be the guy who got stomach cancer from having consumed so much of it.
Or how about the other ways that sports owners make money? The Braves are abandoning a 20-year-old stadium that they got more or less for free so that they can take nearly $400 million that was essentially stolen from Cobb County taxpayers in a smash-and-grab job. Mike Ilitch, the billionaire owner of the Detroit Tigers and Little Caesars, is taking $261.5 million from the city of Detroit for a new arena for the Red Wings. A billionaire, taking handouts from a city whose financial situation can best be described as “Thailand, 1997.” Between Ilitch, Herman Cain, and John Schnatter, I’m starting to think that if I really wanted to get rich, I should’ve made shitty pizza and conducted class warfare instead of trying to write for a living, but hindsight is 20/20.
And even if it weren’t so hard for owners to lose money, why should you give a damn if they did? You shouldn’t, is the answer, because even if the owners of the Pirates or Marlins or Braves went under, they could sell the team back at an unimaginable markup. Donald Sterling’s punishment for being the villain in an Upton Sinclair novel is to sell the Clippers for 160 times what he paid for them, giving him a share of $2 billion with which to live out what remains of his life and tip the boatman more than two coins when it ends. We live in a world where the Milwaukee Fucking Bucks sold for $550 million. If a team does lose money, the owner can make it all back with one phone call.
So in the coming days, and in the offseason, and when the NBA and MLB renegotiate their collective bargaining agreements, and when the NHL locks out its players again, remember this. The Phillies don’t need to clear Ryan Howard’s salary to return to competitiveness; ownership could spend around that mistake if it wanted to. When the Braves let Jason Heyward walk as a free agent, it won’t be because they can’t afford him, Freddie Freeman, and Andrelton Simmons. It’ll be because Cobb County taxpayers won’t be able to afford Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, cops, and teachers all at the same time.
Money’s an important part of playing the home GM game. But don’t lose sight of who’s really got more of it than is healthy, and whose side you’re on and for what reason. Just because Matt Kemp isn’t a textbook member of the proletarian revolutionary vanguard doesn’t mean someone’s not being exploited. And before you rail about how much men get paid to play a boy’s game, stop to think for a moment. Think about the last time you bought a ticket from an owner who said he didn’t have enough money to field a competitive team.