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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: MLB Players have a Problem and the Machinations of Mad Mad Manfred…

By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)

I’m not saying the players could strike, but I am saying they would be stupid to consider it. And that is a serious problem for the Player’s Association.

If you’re just catching up, the slow market this offseason and proposed game changes to address a mythical pace of play problem have led to tension between Major League Baseball and the player’s union. An unheard of number of free agents still exist, and Mad Mad Manfred continues to insist on changing a game that’s survived two World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and The Great Depression.

But no, really.

Some poorly-considered research among teenagers in an attention-deficit era suggests baseball needs to speed up, so by all means, let’s change what’s led to the most lucrative period in the game’s history in the hopes that the 15-year olds in Starbucks will put down their Pumpkin Spice Lattes and overpriced pastries and grab a dog and a beer at a ballgame in their twenties.

For the record, I love Pumpkin Spice Lattes.

Oddly enough, the voice of the fan has been joined by the multi-million dollar cry of MLB players, here. Most reports out of the union are against Manfred’s ridiculous ideas, but that could all be positioning to win public perception for a soon-to-explode negotiation over free agent issues.

You see, the players have bargained themselves into a pickle, and they don’t see a good way out of it.

Over the years, they’ve given ground on things like luxury tax thresholds, international signing practices, and even compensation when qualified free agents sign with a different team. The pressure of such a team-friendly economic climate has reached a boiling point, and the players are about to blow.

That’s okay. Sometimes things need to explode so they can come back fresher, stronger. The problem here is, the players don’t have a reasonable direction to explode in. Any so-called soft approach would likely lead to one of two outcomes: Violation of the CBA, or early retirement for the gambling players.

Or, of course, they go on strike.

Many of you reading this are too young to remember the strike in 1994, but it was horrendous. A bleak, bitter affair that killed the World Series. Imagine that. A year without a World Series, for crying out loud!

And it left many fans of the game disenfranchised for good.

Most of us know older fans from that time – fans that grew up with the game, loved the game, and learned to count on it as a constant, albeit sometimes contentious, part of their lives – fans that swore off baseball for life as a result of the strike.

“Those damn millionaires!” my dad might say. “I get up, work in the hot sun all day (he built houses), and barely get by. Those cry babies play a kid’s game and get paid millions!”

His opinion was shared by many who ultimately said, as one voice, “Go back to work, or I’m done.”

And they were. It took years and a substance-induced home run binge, notably Sosa and McGwire’s pursuit of 62 in 1998, to bring some of them back. But many never returned to a game that had, as they saw it, betrayed them by celebrating greedy, self-aggrandizing whiners.

Sure, today is different.

Most baseball fans understand that the sport is bringing in more money than it can spend, and, as Giancarlo Stanton articulated this offseason, every MLB team has plenty of money. Those same fans can connect the dots and reach the logical conclusion that team owners make that money off the backs of the players, players who endure a 162-game marathon season – at least half of which is spent away from their families – grueling travel, and even an “offseason” following strict team workout and dietary guidelines.

And then those fans can conclude, in a reasonable, clear-thinking moment, that if anyone in the sport deserves to get paid millions, it’s the players putting their families and bodies on the line every day.

But if strikes have taught us anything, they’ve taught us this: The first things chucked out the window of the conference room when players go on strike are reason and accountability.

From this side of the picket line, players can view the possibility of a strike with all the optimism and stubbornness in the world, and writers can argue with fans on Twitter about the injustice of it all – for some reason, modern writers have taken up the cause of the poor, downtrodden baseball player against the evil rich owner – but at the end of the day, a baseball strike comes down to one thing and one thing only.

Blue collar Joe sees multi-million dollar ballplayer on TV with ten pounds of jewelry and a tricked out ride and says, “What the hell are they cryin’ for?”

There’s just no way for the players to win public perception in a strike, and if you think there is, you’re part of the disillusioned that will learn the hard way.

And that puts the players in a very difficult position.

They must push back and win concessions in key areas to give future free agents breathing room, and they must hold the line against Rob Manfred as he seeks to rip into over 100 years of baseball tradition. But they must do it without losing fans in the process, which means without going on strike, or we all lose.

Baseball is not like football. Fans don’t typically wake up one day, watch a game on TV, and decide to become a fan. Not usually. Instead, the game is passed down from parents to sons and daughters as a family tradition. Losing even a small portion of one generation of baseball fans – especially fans who will have experienced two strikes in their lifetime – can do significant damage to the game for years to come.

If players truly want to protect baseball and improve the negotiating climate for their colleagues, they must avoid a strike at almost all costs.

And that is going to make it very difficult for players to accomplish anything of value.

Speaking of those ridiculous changes proposed by Mad Mad Manfred… Let’s get this straight. If games in 2018 last longer than 2 hours and 55 minutes, a pitch clock will be added for 2019? And if still too long, an additional clock will be added in 2020? Seriously?!

This reads like a significant and intentional misunderstanding of the pace-of-play issue, even if one exists. The length of a game is, at best, loosely related to the actual pace at which game action plays out in front of you. And even if they were directly connected, how long a game lasts has almost nothing to do with bringing fans into the game. But let’s pretend for a moment that the two are related in a way that matters…

A pitch clock, if implemented, would mean pitchers and catchers have to decide more quickly what pitch to throw and pitchers have less time between pitches to recover, both of which could potentially lead to more mistake pitches to hit. Which means more offense and more fatigue for pitchers. Which means longer innings and likely more pitching changes. Both mean longer games. In that way, the 2019 pitch clock itself will lead to the additional clock in 2020. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. By seeking to pick up the pace of play, you will lengthen games. By using the length of games to determine whether more pitch clock implementation happens, you all but ensure that more pitch clock implementation does, in fact, happen.

It almost feels like a setup.

And about the so-called research that’s driving Manfred to change the game… Supposedly, research exists that tells Manfred that young people will not become baseball fans because the games are too slow. And yet, most fans that actually watch baseball – the most lucrative sport in America – are vehemently opposed to most proposed changes.

Who the hell are these researchers talking to?

If you are a sports fan that doesn’t like baseball or doesn’t yet watch baseball, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to watch it even if MLB speeds up the games. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not about pace. It’s not about pitch clocks. And it’s sure as hell not about how long it takes to issue an intentional walk. It’s simply a matter of taste. There are sports fans who lean towards football, and then there are sports fans who lean towards baseball. There are sports fans who love hockey, and there are sports fans who obsess over basketball (or so I’ve been told).

Despite what anecdotal evidence suggests – you know, the idiot that says, “I don’t watch baseball cause it’s too slow!” – the speed of the game doesn’t typically factor in to acquiring new fans. If you change the pace of play and then go back to that same “it’s too slow” guy and ask him if he watches baseball now, he’ll come up with some other reason for why he doesn’t like it. He may even still say “it’s too slow” because his perception of the speed of the game has little do with pitch clocks and a lot more to do with the start and stop nature of baseball. It’s not continuous progression on the field, like football, or non-stop motion like basketball or hockey – it’s throw a pitch, stop, throw a pitch, stop, etc. THAT is why the game feels slow to non-baseball fans, not how many seconds exist between pitches. That hasn’t been a problem for years (I remember the days when pitchers would circle the mound for what felt like hours between pitches).

So what’s the real reason driving Manfred to implement pace of play changes… It’s about money. I read an article last year that was perhaps the most revealing article I’ve read in a long time. I’ll summarize and butcher the main point here for you.

For MLB, it’s not about new fan/viewer acquisition. Despite what they say, it’s not about picking up the pace to make the game more palatable for non-baseball fans. It’s simply about keeping viewers already watching the games a few minutes longer. Apparently, in the advertising world, those extra few minutes are worth a ton of money. Here’s why…

Somewhere reports exist that show when viewers tune in and turn off games. This article said that the so-called casual fan tends to get bored and turn off a game at X point in time. Because this impacts TV ratings later in games, MLB and their partners are able to sell fewer ads – or ads for less – during those time slots. By simply picking up the pace of play, MLB theorizes they can keep a group of fans watching the game for just long enough to put them in a different ad revenue bracket.

That’s it. Keep fans already watching the games engaged for a few seconds longer, show those results on TV ratings reports, and sell more ads for more money. Getting new fans has nothing to do with it. It’s about keeping existing casual fans from pressing that little button on their remote for just a few moments longer.

Finally, a little old school griping… In honor of my father who recently passed away, here’s just a few words on those millionaires playing a kid’s game.

Yes, I know there’s a lot of money in MLB and players deserve it more than others. And yes, I know players work extremely hard and sacrifice a lot. And, of course, yes – in terms of pure value, the ability to hit a 95 mph fastball 400 feet more often than anyone on the planet is worth a lot.

But come on.

You will never get me to support a player’s strike as long as salaries are what they are. Getting paid what a player is worth and getting paid what they deserve are two different things. No one “deserves” to get $25 million a year to play baseball, even if their ability means their “value” is “worth it.” Sure, players should be the first ones to get the lion’s share of MLB revenue – although, it should be said that when measuring that, we place a lot of emphasis on what a player does/goes through and little on the financial gamble/resources and effort/work that goes into owning/developing an MLB team.

But there are very few professions in this world that are paid at a level that fairly represents their actual value to their company’s profits.

MLB players are the ones doing the trench work to bring in the money? Me too. I do that for my company. Cashiers do that for their companies, who wouldn’t make money if there weren’t people checking out customers up front, or sales associates to help those customers find product.

But are those employees paid at the level they deserve? Of course not.

Why not?

Because, in reality, they’re more replaceable than an MLB star is.

I get it. What Stanton can do with a bat makes him more “valuable” than other humans. But he plays baseball. Don’t tell me value always equates to “deserve.”

Why is that an important distinction to make? Here’s why…

As long as baseball is being played and I’m getting enjoyment out of it in exchange for my cable TV bill, my stadium tickets and refreshments, and the endless merchandise I throw money at with my team on it – as long as I get baseball – I’ll stand on the side of millionaires getting their fair share of profits based on their “value” to that revenue stream.

But take away my baseball?

That’s when I call a guy getting offered $15 million a year for 5 years “undeserving.” So what if you’re not getting what you’re worth. How many of us really do? We work hard, make our respective companies millions, and we get paid peanuts.

And you want to strike over the difference between $15 and $17 million?

Please.

Now, I know there are guys that get pushed out of baseball over things like this, and that sucks. And I know there are guys making league minimum – they’re not all stars – but go take a look at league minimum again.

$507,500.

A year.

Now, what would you do for that amount of money just once in your life?

I know, I’m not “valuable” enough to get that compared to an MLB player. Fine. But don’t tell me he “deserves” it.

And if that player goes on strike, that’s all most fans will be thinking about.

There. I said it, Dad.

Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entitiesHe’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.

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