Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Baseball – like one of America’s most beloved cartooned protagonists, Charlie Brown – can’t win, no matter how hard it tries.
Since the questions and requests for thoughts on the suspension of Manny Ramirez last week, Roger Clemens’ personal mission to seek the truth and the continuing soap opera of Alex Rodriguez have subsided some, this feels like a far more comfortable time to speak some about the overarching theme of performance-enhancing use in the sport.
After the initial surprise (or in the case of Ramirez, complete and utter shock) and some time to read various reports, opinions and Facebook comments, the overall news elicited a mere shrug of the shoulders. It’s not so much that baseball fans have become completely numb to the accusations and confessions of PED users; the personal shock comes from the fact that Manny is one of the best pure hitters to ever step in the batter’s box. The eventual ambivalence stems from the open secret that Major League Baseball has quite the history with cheating.
The lone difference these days is that the players truly have the upper hand.
This is a league that banned non-white players for six decades from its professional infancy in the 1870s until 1947 when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were the first black players to play in the modern era. Considering that there were talented players of various hues and households that were barred from the majors, do you really think that the New York Yankees would have won 26 championships or that Ted Williams would have been the last player to bat .400 for an entire season?
This is a league where the reserve clause bound players to one team, even as many owners did little to improve the long-term performance of their clubs. Beyond the fact that a player could not freely negotiate his worth to his current club and offer his services to another employ, this allowed owners to have their way with their players. Instead of being granted their release to sign with any franchise, the most valuable players on the team were either coerced to re-signing for not much more than the previous contract, traded to other teams for the rights to other players or traded outright for cash. If this did not keep some teams in perpetual awfulness for years and years, then certainly another pro-cheapskate owner tactic has.
Over the past few seasons, MLB has given several teams revenue sharing payments from higher-payroll teams such as the New York Yankees and Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and (Anaheim) Angels. Revenue sharing is baseball’s version of welfare, subsidizing some of the payrolls for the Minnesota Twins, both Pennyslvania teams (yes, even the Phillies got a piece back in 2006), both Florida franchises and the Oakland As. The idea that a few billionaires and corporations refuse to follow the adage “spend money to make money” shows how short-term thinking can kill long-term competitiveness (and wealth).
This is a league – a business, rather – that is exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act based on notions in 1890 that it could not remain popular and profitable with a significant competitor lurking in the shadows. This exemption may have very well been the reason for the existence of the reserve clause and the continued fuzzy math of the current economic model.
As great of a league as it is, we must keep in mind that this is an organization that allowed for spitballs, as evidenced by one of the Hall of Fame’s most infamous inductees, Gaylord Perry. He may have earned his credentials with other pitches; however, he was the best of all the junk-throwers of that era.
So what does all of this have to do with juicing, 50-game suspensions and salacious books? For all of the anger and indignation that we feel and want others to feel, the truth is that baseball has never been a sport on the up-and-up. This isn’t to say that the entire culture is dirty to those of you who believe PED use taints the game and its players. This post doesn’t give the players the chance to abscond themselves from responsibility of their own bodies. Yet, it’s too easy to shake a fist at the current shepherds of the game when there has always been some sort of skirting of the rules.