December 31, 2018;
New Year’s Eve greetings from the new world headquarters of The Best American Baseball Experts Society, which also happens to be my new homestead in downtown San Antonio.
After 23 years in the family home in the suburbs, Mrs. Commissioner and I moved to town. We traded our low pastoral view of a golf course for a high, electric view of the city. We look out at the Tower of the Americas which celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year, having been built as the centerpiece of San Antonio’s Hemisfair held in 1968. We also look down on the Alamodome which is half the Tower’s age, having opened in 1993, but which is effectively much older for its intended purpose. Both structures are surrounded by the renaissance in downtown San Antonio and we are very happy to be in the middle of it – well, actually above the middle of it, on the 25th floor of a hotel/condo complex.
Alas, there is no MLB ballpark in view, although when it opened the Alamodome was billed as a multi-sport facility that raised the city’s hopes of obtaining a NFL or MLB franchise, perhaps even both. But apart from one NFL season with the Saints after Hurricane Katrina and several Spring Training games with the Rangers, there have been no major league sports played in the building since the NBA’s Spurs left in 2002 for their own home, AT&T Center (just slightly out of my view around the eastern corner of our building). Sadly, with the current demand for single-purpose arenas the Alamodome is now considered unsuitable for any major league sport.
Whether it is for a MLB or NFL team, the city will have to build a new facility to attract one. Most of our city leaders have rightly decided that public financing is needed in many other areas first. This change in civic opinions is causing difficulty for franchises in Oakland, Tampa and even Phoenix. And though we have some very wealthy business persons here, none has taken it upon himself or herself to fund a stadium construction project to attract a team, despite some prodding from me. Of course we all know that, in the modern world of professional sports arenas, if you do not build it they won’t come.
There is some talk of the local minor league team owner building a downtown stadium for his AAA franchise on a tract I can see directly out of my new bedroom window. Although I would prefer it to be a MLB stadium, I have been dreaming of such a view of any ball park since my pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams in Iowa with my son, Jack, in 2015 (note Ray Kinsella’s upstairs bedroom bay window in the left background).
But much has changed in the world in just three years, starting with Jack…
as well as our address and, of course, the political climate. 2018 is a very different time, even from 2015. The passage of just three years can obviously bring about a lot of change, even in our beloved and “timeless” game of baseball, which is not as unchanging as we like to think.
Just two months after Jack and I had a catch at the Field of Dreams, the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series. This year KCR won only 58 games and finished 33 games behind the Indians in the AL Central. The Royals went almost 30 years without making the post-season and now are so bad again that it seems almost a dream that they appeared in back-to-back World Series in 2014-15, and were only one swing of the bat away from being the first repeat champion in almost 20 years. Remember, Salvadore Perez popped out as the potential winning run at the plate for the last out of Game 7 of the 2014 Series against the Giants. And speaking of the Giants, that 2014 championship was their third in five years. Since then the team is a collective 34 games under .500 and the front office just underwent a major overhaul. Former GM Brian Sabean has three championship rings and no job. The fortunes of a franchise, its players and its executives can change very quickly. And the process runs the other way as well. (See HOU, 2015-2017).
The game itself changes too, perhaps not quite as quickly, but sometimes dramatically. We all know that strike outs are up and hits are down. In 2018 there were more strike outs than hits in a season for the first time ever (41,207/41,019). (Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.) This is a marked change from just 2015 – 42,106 hits vs. 37,446 k’s. One thousand fewer hits and 4,000 more strike outs in just three years time is, indeed, a dramatic change at the plate. Not surprisingly, the league batting average dropped from .254 in 2015 to .248 in 2018, the lowest since 1972.
But changes have occurred on the mound as well, and I am not just talking about TBR’s pioneering use of an “Opener” – a “relief” pitcher starting a game and then being relieved by a “starter” in the second or third inning. For a game that has been around for over 150 years, baseball has shown that there are still innovations to be made. But of course these pitching innovations are all designed for one long-standing objective, to get twenty-seven outs while allowing fewer runs than your opponent.
In 2015, pitchers compiled a 3.95 ERA, while pitching only 104 complete games (out of 4,858 chances). In 2018, the league ERA increased to 4.14 with only 42 complete games thrown in 4,862 chances. So why did the league ERA go up while batting averages went down? Two simple words: home run. In 2015, pitchers gave up 4,909 long balls. In 2018 that number increased to 5,585. Also, walks increased from 14,073 in 2015, to 15,686 in 2018. So, in 2015, a plate appearance resulted in a walk, strike out or home run 30% of the time. In 2018 that percentage increased to almost 34%. That is dramatic change at the plate and on the mound in just three years.
And the change has extended on past the mound into the infield and outfield. There have always been walks and strike outs and home runs in MLB, if not in these numbers, and probably there have always been some shifts in defensive alignments, but definitely not like this. There were approximately 14,000 defensive shifts in 2014 (I couldn’t find an actual stat for 2014 or even any figures for 2015). This number increased to over 31,000 in 2018. In 2012, the total number of shifts was estimated at fewer than 3,000. That is a ten-fold increase in just six seasons! Yes, dramatic change has happened in the field, literally.
But wait, there’s more! The changes are even occurring in the stands. Overall fan attendance in 2018 was down 4% from 2017, totaling fewer than 70 million for the first time in fifteen years. That is still a lot of tickets sold, and fans clearly still feel deeply about America’s past time. (I had some thoughts about this back in 2012: https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/the-only-real-game-in-the-world-i-think-is-baseball-babe-ruth/.) But when your customer base is declining, and by more than just a blip, attention should be paid. There are many possible reasons – weather, smaller parks, ticket prices, length of games, fewer balls in play, tanking teams, changing millennial attitudes, even a change in ticket sales reporting by MIA (a good abbreviation for Jeffrey Loria, don’t you think?). But whatever the cause, the interesting, or even important question is what is MLB going to do about it, if anything?
Commissioner Rob Manfred has encountered much opposition with proposals for dramatic on-field changes such as a pitch clock, the banning of defensive shifts, and perhaps even an electronic umpire to call balls and strikes. Even his little changes, like limiting mound visits and stepping out at the plate to improve pace-of-play have raised some eye-brows among purists for its impact on the feel of the game. But how does Manfred preserve traditional interest in the game while simultaneously creating new fans out of those not previously engaged? No one can accuse the Commissioner of not thinking deeply about the long-term health of the game we all love, but we can be concerned about him considering too much change for the game’s own good.
Which brings me to the biggest change in MLB in recent years, in my opinion, which has occurred during Manfred’s tenure as Commissioner – the state of the owner/player collective bargaining relationship. It short, it has declined even more than fan attendance. After an unprecedented period of collective bargaining peace – there has been no work stoppage since 1995 – the winds of conflict are increasing and a storm appears to be approaching with the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021, just three years from now.
The first reason asserted by the players for the currently brewing unrest is not surprising. Exhibit “A,” as we say in the practice of law, for the MLB Players Association would be a chart showing that in 2018 the average MLB salary declined for the first time in the past fourteen years and for only the fourth time in the past fifty (twice due to strikes). You don’t have to be an economist to understand that falling wages creates labor unrest. But of course, there is another side to this story – the owner’s side. Commissioner Manfred, an experienced labor lawyer and negotiator would counter on behalf of the owners (despite what Bowie Kuhn argued in his memoir, the Commissioner is clearly not a neutral party in labor disputes) with the his own chart showing the average MLB salary in 2018 was over $4 million, and that the decline on average was only $1,436. That is 3/100ths of 1%! How can that be a cause for concern?
I have written on the subject of MLB collective bargaining before and concluded that the personalities sitting at the bargaining table are as important as the issues presented on it. https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/. I know this to be true from over fifty years of following MLB on and off the field, as well as from my own experience of thirty-five years at the financial bargaining table. Even if mine has not been a collective bargaining table, the first issue is still always about money.
If the first MLBPA Executive Director, Marvin Miller, were alive today he would counter Manfred’s counter-arguments with the fact that MLB revenue topped $10 billion in 2017 and 2018, and that franchise values continue to rise such that even the lowly Marlins, with a true attendance average of barely 10,000 fans/game in 2016, still sold for $1.2 billion in 2017. Loria bought the Miami team for $158 million in 2002. Sports franchise values, even in small markets, have risen sharply with lucrative media deals and revenue sharing. Even operating deficits can be managed with the now universally accepted Moneyball approach and the rapidly growing strategy of ridding your roster of nearly all veterans to improve draft choices and lower payroll while rebuilding (See HOU, 2011-14.) The sharp decline in the number of long-term player contracts and the developing decline in big-name free agent signings would incense Miller and lead his successor, Donald Fehr, to allege collusion among the owners. Both of them would insist that a player strike is the only way to reverse what they perceive to be unacceptable player “losses.” Of course, Miller and Fehr were both motivated by what they viewed as unreasonable (or corrupt) owner leadership such as Busch, Finley, Veeck and Steinbrenner, as well as biased and ineffective (at best) Commissioners such as Kuhn, Ueberroth, Vincent and Bud Selig.
After unprecedented and real losses on both sides, Selig and Fehr finally reached an understanding, as did the players and the owners, in the Spring of 1995, ending the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series. The twenty-three years of apparent peace and unquestioned prosperity for both labor and ownership since that time, as well as the expected relative peace and prosperity that will continue in years 24-26 before the current CBA expires, ought to ensure that both sides will do almost anything to avoid another strike. However, many professional observers are pessimistic, at best.
The role of Rob Manfred as Commissioner, an experienced labor negotiator who served as outside counsel to the league at the table opposite the MLBPA in 1995, cannot be overstated. Despite his very likable personality and the “everyman” approach he brings to his position, Manfred is a corporate management attorney at heart, and sometimes he wears that heart on his sleeve. I had the opportunity to ask him directly during an appearance here in San Antonio whether Marvin Miller should be in the baseball Hall of Fame. His reaction, while restrained, was visceral (“relating to deep inward feelings rather than the intellect”). Only after attempting to downplay Miller’s successes and enlarge his apparent mistakes could Manfred bring himself to admit that Miller’s impact on the game had been historic. (Of course, the owners have never been able to muster even that level of acknowledgment.) I took from that small personal interaction, as well his subsequent sparring with Tony Clark and even Mike Trout(!), that Manfred could have a very rough time getting another collective bargaining agreement done, and that is even without considering what directions he will get from the owners. He just received a five-year contract extension to serve as Commissioner through 2024, so the owners clearly believe he is the man to represent them in the next round of collective bargaining. Mr. Manfred is certainly a very accomplished professional, but the perils for him in this process are obvious. He will need to use all of his skills, but most of all, I believe, he will need a better relationship with the MLBPA leadership, which frankly is something of an unknown.
The 1995 labor resolution ushered in the very first Wild Card game in the MLB Post-Season. And the “wild card” in the 2021 labor negotiations will undoubtedly be the MLBPA, starting with Tony Clark. He was hired as the union’s director of player relations in 2010 and has been the Executive Director since 2013 following the death of the highly-regarded Michael Weiner. Clark is the first former player to lead the union and he was active in player representation and union matters for much of his playing career. However, that career started with his Rookie of the Year-winning season in 1996, a year after the last strike. So he has never been involved in a work-stoppage. Neither, of course, has any of the current MLB players. No one knows whether Clark’s player background will strengthen the resolve for a strike, or even whether he and the current player representatives have the will to recommend one to strengthen the union’s bargaining position. As a non-lawyer himself, one would expect Clark to rely heavily on an experienced legal counsel, and it appears he is preparing to do just that. Enter Bruce Meyer.
By hiring a Wall Street labor attorney who describes his reputation as that of “a tough litigator who also knows how to make deals when necessary,” Clark and the MLBPA are obviously preparing for a fight. Meyer served as a partner for many years in the prestigious NY firm of Weil Gotshal Manges, and immediately before joining the MLBPA he served as collective bargaining counsel for the NHL players association where he worked for the Executive Director Donald Fehr (yes, the same Don Fehr who lead the 1994 MLBPA strike and who directed the NHLPA during the 2012 owner’s lockout that canceled nearly half of the season. Getting the picture?
Meyer may know how to make a deal “when necessary” but that compels the question of ‘whose necessity’? Does that mean that the union will strike until its members can no longer endure the consequences, thus making a settlement necessary? Or does that mean that the potentially catastrophic impact of any work stoppage on the already questionable health of the game will necessitate a resolution without a strike? Only Mr. Meyer knows, or Mr. Clark and perhaps Xavier James, another Weil Gotshal attorney hired this Fall by the MLBPA. Or perhaps none of these gentlemen know, because it is the union membership itself that will ultimately define the meaning of “necessity.” And, of course, the current player representatives (a list of whom does not even appear on the MLBPA website) may not even be in that role, and probably won’t be, when the bargaining begins in 2020 or 2021. Will current league representatives Andrew Miller and Daniel Murphy, both aged 33, even be in the league at that time? And will one of the many developing stars in what has become a youngster-driven league emerge as the new voice of the players? Further, baseball players are not generally known to be politically active or particularly astute businessmen. Hence my belief that the professional administrators are the key to any reasonably amicable resolution.
Being of a similar age and having practiced in the same area of law (and geography) for their entire careers, I assume Meyer and Manfred know each other. Let’s hope they do and that they like each other. Either way, let’s hope that they don’t each spend the next two years marshaling weapons and drawing battle lines. The players are already alleging free agency collusion and demanding new rules to prevent roster gutting which they say reduces high-paying contracts. They also want the DH in the NL and the continuation of large numbers of September call-ups and the prohibition against a team leaving its future stars in the minors at the start of a season just to reduce service time and maintain control of the players for an extra year. These are issues that strike at the owners’ fundamental control of the operation of the game – I use the term “strike” intentionally – and I don’t see the owners giving on many or perhaps any of them without a protracted fight. That leads to a sobering view of the future.
One of my favorite baseball writers, Jayson Stark, recently observed: “They (Manfred and Clark) did a fine job of avoiding … popular phrases like ‘strike,’ ‘lockout’ and ‘NLRB….But if you spent a couple hours, as I did, listening to them talk about the state of the sport … you’d be terrified right now. Terrified that things are ‘bad and getting worse’.” Traditionally, that “never ends well” in this sport. (THEATHLETIC.com, 7/18).
We are now within an hour of 2019, a time when the financial fortunes of most Americans is improving under the presidency of Donald Trump, or at least their perception of the economy is positive ($4 million/year MLB players notwithstanding).
But despite this fact most of Americans can’t stand the president, even many of those who voted for him. Further, many feel that he and other world powers are edging us all closer to a global conflict. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/12/26/cocktails-hell-korea-china-russia-peace-war-austin-bay-column/2376471002/. At least, as political historian Austin Bay has said, they have forged “an extremely hazardous form of peace.” I know that Bay’s topic is much more important than baseball, but I can’t help but think that this phrase is an apt description for the current state of owner/player relations. I would prefer that they adopt my own term – “spring-training anmesia” – but at the very least they should heed the famous wisdom of George Santayana: “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Rob Manfred should remember the last MLB strike in 1994 because he was involved in it. Commissioner, baseball’s past, and it’s future, is in your hands.
On that cheery note, I wish you a Happy New Year, one that is certain to continue the winds of change on the baseball field and probably in the world as well. I am about to go up to the roof to watch the fireworks marking the end of San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration. Three hundred years is a long time for a city to have existed in North America, and for almost 150 of those years baseball has been played here. Here’s hoping that the game will still be played three years from now, and for another 150, and perhaps even another 300 years, no matter how the game and the world may change.
P.S. The start of 2019 looked pretty good from my new vantage point.