Baseball players aren’t always the smartest individuals on the block. We’ve seen any number of examples of that, especially in this day and age of social media. But this week two players, two Justins, have shown they’re brighter than the average bear. Or the average MLB owner at least.
At a time when the league is coming off its lowest attendance in 15 years and when over 100 of 164 free agents remain unsigned to contracts with the gates to Spring Training camps creaking open in less than three weeks, the league management continues to stick its head in the sand.
2018’s total attendance dropped to below 70 million for the first time since 2003. It was the second year in a row the number of people saying “take me out to the ballgame” dipped noticeably. Granted, the situation isn’t yet dire. The 69.6 million attendance is still miles above the barely 60 million that passed through the gates as recently as 1996. But no way should the business minds that run the sport be ignoring the fact that the average game’s crowd in 2018 was 1200 people shy of what is was in 2017. Nor that 17 of 30 teams saw their totals drop last season.
Yet, that’s more or less what they are doing. MLB officials told Forbes magazine that the drop in ’18 was “primarily connected to the historically bad weather we faced in spring” and added that 102 games took place in a temperature below 50 F (10 Celcius.) Rob Manfred continues to fret about the length of time between pitches and defensive shifts. Oooh,he hates “the shift”… if only he could ban that, fans would flood back in record numbers, he’s sure.
Now, I will say that the weather early last year was terrible in many cities. It was a cold spring through much of North America, and even in cities with climate-controlled stadiums (aka Toronto, Milwaukee) , there might be an incentive to stay home if getting to the stadium means heading out in -10 weather or traversing icy roads. But the problem with that is that so far, this winter is as cold as last so there’s a good chance April might be just as cold again in Minneapolis, Chicago, even Dallas and Atlanta, so that part of the problem may not self-correct. And the league is exacerbating the problem by scheduling games earlier than ever in March. The average overnight temperature in Minneapolis, for instance, is 25F in March. Chances of pre-Easter night games at Target Field being played in comfortable conditions are next to nil.
But for all that, MLB is missing the obvious. Let’s turn it over to the two Justins.
“There is a lot of the league that rather makes money than win,” new New York Mets reliever Justin Wilson noted, adding “if you’re a player (that) isn’t very fun because we play this game to win.” Grammar aside, he makes a great point, and could add that it’s not “very fun” for fans either! Over to superstar Justin Verlander, earlier this week in a Houston newspaper:
“The biggest detriment to our game right now is the non-competitiveness of two-thirds of the league,” according to the Astro. “That’s why you’re seeing free agents not get signed.”
Bingo! MLB quickly fails to mention that for the first time ever last year, 8 teams lost 95 or more games. With ticket prices rising constantly, there’s not a lot of incentive to go out and cheer on your home team when it’s a nice Sunday in May and they’re already 20 games out. Let alone on a chilly, rainy night. Nor when teams are only trying to win enough to be able to dump the talent. Take the Blue Jays for example, whom the league itself mention on their website assessment of bullpens, that if Ken Giles repeats his good pitching (after being traded to Toronto) of last summer, he can be traded before July 31. What a glowing endorsement for Canuck fans to flock to Rogers’ Centre!
Verlander’s dead on accurate. About one third of the whole league is interested in trying to win in 2019. Even that might be a wee bit optimistic, as teams like the White Sox have some talent but seem a ways away but despite making loud proclamations of having money to spend and a will to go all the way, have done very little to add to the roster this off-season. As it stands now, unless your hands are regrettably damaged you can count the realistic threats to win the World Series on your fingers.
The obvious answer is for the other two-thirds of the teams to try and be competitive and have stars not just for the purpose of jettisoning them for minor league talent. Of course that’s easier said than done. I have however, one suggestion that might help that happen.
Change the draft. Right now, the MLB draft for young talent follows the time-honored tradition in most sports. Let the worst teams pick first. The teams pick in reverse to their records, thereby letting the worst team have the first shot at the best college-aged player around. In theory, it should help the bad teams get good fairly fast. It’s an especially good incentive as we keep seeing better prepared young kids thanks to baseball academies, better understanding of workout techniques and diet and so on. Phenoms like Ronald Acuna (20 last year with Atlanta) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (20 this year and already on many experts lists of ten best hitters in the game despite not being in one big league game yet) seem to be coming around more frequently and increasing the hunger for that first, second or third (at worst) draft picks. Pity the Red Sox and Yanks, who try to win annually and end up picking 29th or 30th!
The answer, and yes, people in places like Miami and San Diego won’t like it, is to eliminate the structure of the draft being tied to win-loss records. Pick the teams randomly, through a bingo ball drop or computer algorhythm or whatever, so that the Red Sox would have an equal chance to the Orioles or Royals at going first.
Although it might seem unfair at first, it’s really the only way to prevent teams from deliberately “tanking” – being as bad as they can be in order to hopefully get better players in the draft and “someday” being ready to make a run for the roses. Because that seems to be the current philosophy in most team offices. The reasoning seems to be “well, if we spend a little and try, we’re maybe going to be able to win 82, 83 and finish third. So why not put out a trashy team, try to go 60-102 and get some good players for our minor league teams and maybe 5 years from now, we may be good and then we can bring in a $30M a year stud to help us win it all before tearing down again.” A philosophy which sucks if you’re a fan … and ultimately harms the bottom line of the team, salary dumps notwithstanding, as fans stay away and resist buying those flashy new caps or jersey the team tries to entice them with. Which results in less money for those teams and less chance of them getting in free agents who can help or even keeping around 4th or 5th year players they’ve developed.
Failing that, maybe the only thing that will work is taking the talented Mr. Verlander off the mound and dumping him in the Commissioner’s chair.