When baseball’s hot stove turns cold, fans pay the price
Here at ColoradoBiz, the entire SportsBiz team (that would be me with sideline support from Editor Mike Taylor) remains united in the hope that by the time you read these words, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Dallas Keuchel are all attired in new Major League Baseball uniforms that fit properly, display adroit embroidering of surnames and are freshly laundered. And that maybe one of them is wearing Rockies purple. (Hey, we can hope.)
But on the eve of baseball’s annual and glorious return to life anew and grass afresh, none had found new homes in LoDo or elsewhere, and regardless of whether they do (or whether they have by now), their temporary lack of team identity carried with it a foul scent.
To be sure, how multimillionaire owners allocate their staffing budgets is none of my business and little of my interest, despite what would seem to be a breathless fascination otherwise. For all the internet’s promise, one of the sour byproducts of unlimited pages to fill is an unnecessary volume of noise, words and paragraphs around the minutiae of baseball economics. If you don’t have a cousin’s friend’s brother who tweets seven times a day about his take on MLB payrolls, consider yourself blessed.
Basically, I could give a rip.
More vital to my well-being as a baseball fan is whether, with the pitch count at 2-1 and a speedy rookie aboard second, so-and-so at the plate can whip the barrel of the bat around with impeccable timing and lace one to the right-center gap for the go-ahead run. You know: the actual playing of the game.
This old-school fascination with what happens on the diamond is why we probably should care about the bandying-about of the word “collusion” and the apparent reticence of teams to dig deep to get promising young men out of the agent’s office and onto the outfield grass.
Chris Iannetta, the Rockies catcher, made convincing points the other day about why fans should have a rooting interest in what’s going on behind baseball’s discouraging labor scene.
“There’s teams that can become much more competitive just from tapping into the talent pool that’s available on the free-agent market right now, and not being willing to do that should be alarming to everybody,” Iannetta told the New York Times.
This is the point, right? That what we’re facing down isn’t just the swapping of decimal points and dollars around the 30 teams that constitute Major League Baseball, but the quality of the product on the field. You could practically weep reading what Iannetta had to say about the result of what’s increasingly looking like a broken system.
“We play a game our whole lives and we work our butts off, and we want to compete against the best — and when the best isn’t out there on the field, it doesn’t feel right,” he says.
Is some of this posturing? Sure. Iannetta’s on the MLB Players Association’s executive board, so he’s got skin in this game and a bias around what the desired outcome should be.
Who cares? The important implication is what happens from the fan’s POV. If we’re not watching the game’s best battle it out on a Wednesday at Coors Field after battling the I-25 traffic and ensnaring an alarmingly pricey pre-game hot dog, why are we there at all? The core premise of fandom is a shared suspension of disbelief: the idea that our guys can play with their guys and come out on top. Worse than the specter of losing a game is the specter of winning a game when the other guys weren’t trying.
That’s what Iannetta was getting at: that baseballs owners have adopted a deflating new game plan. Tank this season in hope of redemption down the road. That may be one reason why last year eight MLB teams sank below 80 wins for the first time in baseball’s modern era. And why, as of mid-February, Harper’s Topps 2019 baseball card showed him in last year’s Nationals uni. My best guess – and let’s hope I’m wrong – is that the path forward for the Big Three free agents is a one-year rental, not a breathtaking signing that will elevate the fate of a single team for the next five years. If that’s the case, it’ll be a bummer for those of us who like our games to be competitive, our $7.25 Coors Field draft beers to be cold and our players to be hometown heroes. For more than just 81 games.