For the love of the game

September 29, 2009

I’m sitting here listening to the Orioles post-game radio show, as has been my habit this season  (they lost to the Red Sox, 11-5). Gary Thorne is interviewing Dave Trembley, who, interestingly, has never played professional baseball. (He’s really an educator. He has a master’s degree in education. I think his value to a team comes from his experience in coaching adult athletes and knowing how to  motivate them, not so much from actual techniques. That’s what his coaching staff is for.) Trembley mentioned that earlier this week, Brooks Robinson popped his head into the clubhouse, and the younger players gathered around for autographs, advice, and stories. Trembley himself had never met Brooks until this week. He talks about a “presence,” which I find amusing,  but that’s his opinion. Trembley retold a story Brooks told about a season in which, after a very good season (did he ever have any other kind?), he held out for more money during spring training. Brooks didn’t mention the year, but he did say that  Harry Dalton was the O’s GM at the time, which would put it in the 1965-1971 timeframe, a very successful period for the Orioles indeed. Eventually, Brooks got what he was asking for. The disputed sum? An extra $500/week.

I hear a lot of baseball clichés thrown around and misconceptions passed on, in both the national and local media. One of the ones that bugs me the most is the following: Today’s baseball players are in it for the money. Not like the old days, when they were in it for the love of the game.

This is—how can I put this politely?—total bullshit. Let’s deconstruct this, shall we?

1) Many of today’s fans forget what baseball life was like before free agency. From listening to some of them, I gather that they think that guys like Brooks Robinson were routinely offered salaries similar to today’s salaries, and turned then down. “Naw, I don’t need millions,” they must have said in this alternative universe. “Just give me $23,000. I’ll play for the love of the game.” The reality is that baseball’s reserve clause, along with decades of owner collusion, depressed salaries. In a nutshell, the reserve clause stated that when a player’s contract with a team expired, the team nevertheless retained rights to that player. If you’re thinking, gee, that doesn’t sound like any contract I know, you’re right. The player had two choices: demand a trade or release, or sigh and trudge back to the same team to sign another contract. In addition, the team losing the player in question had the right to demand “equal value” from the team eventually signing the player. So, for example, let’s go back to Brooks Robinson. He won the American League MVP award in 1964. Let’s suppose he decided to ditch the Orioles in 1965 in search of more money and sign with, say, the Tigers. (And Lord knows the Tigers could have used him at third base instead of Don Wert…but I digress.) The Tigers would have been obligated to, not so much reimburse, as compensate the Orioles for Robinson’s departure, in players, cash, or a combination. So there was no real advantage to a player to go elsewhere, as a team would be reluctant to try for such a player knowing they’d have to compensate his old team.

Brooks Robinson’s salary in 1965, according to http://www.brooksrobinsontribute.com/, was $50,000. Think about that. Fifty thousand dollars. That’s it. I make more than that now, for crap’s sake. That’s what he was able to squeeze out of the Orioles’ front office after winning the MVP award.  

The fact is that players didn’t play for millions back then because millions simply weren’t there. Even Mickey Mantle, a near-god on a very rich team in the biggest market in baseball, never made a base salary of more than $100,000 in a season. 

Consider also the June 11, 1969 entry in Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

In the bullpen it was can you top this on general managers. Bob Locker told this one about a contract argument with Ed Short, general manager of the White Sox. This was after Locker had had his best season in 1967—77 games, 125 innings and a 2.09 ERA. It was a year after Phil Regan of the Dodgers had had his super year—14-1 and a 1.62 ERA—in relief. [Blogger’s note: The save statistic was not introduced to MLB until 1969.] Short had offered Locker $16,000 and he was asking for $18,000. Short said he was asking a lot and that what the hell, Regan had just signed a contract for $23,000. “If Regan is making only $23,000  then I’m asking too much,” Locker said. “You check that. If he signed for $23,000 I’ll sign for $16,000.”
The next day Short called him and said, “I called Buzzie Bavasi (the Dodger GM) and he told me Regan was making $23,000 this year.”
“All right,” Locker said. “I’ll take the $16,000.”
After he signed he got to thinking about it and just for the hell of it he wrote Regan a letter. He asked in Regan would mind telling him about what he had signed for. And Regan wrote back saying he’d signed for $36,000.
“You know, you don’t mind a guy deceiving you a little during contract negotiations,” Locker said. “You get used to it. The all do it. But when a guy just outright lies to your face, that’s too much.”

Ball Four is full of anecdotes like this. Ever since receiving the book in original hardcover edition as a birthday present, I’ve been influenced by the looks Bouton provides us behind the scenes, and no influence is greater than that of my opinion on player salaries, as well as my opinion of people who think baseball players (but, oddly, not football or basketball  players) are paid way too much.

2) For many ballplayers of the 20th century, baseball was their ticket out of a dismal life prospect otherwise. Mickey Mantle is the canonical example here. (Babe Ruth, of course, was another.) Growing up in rural Oklahoma in a family in which cancer ran, Mantle expected to work in the mines like his father, and apparently also expected to die young. Except he could run like the wind. And his father, determined to insure a better life for his son, taught him to hit a baseball from both sides of the plate. Mutt Mantle died at age 39 of Hodgkin’s disease. Would we rather his son have had the same life?

3) Today’s players don’t need baseball to make a good living. Many of them have college degrees. In the local media, Mike Mussina is held up to us as the canonical example here. He has a degree in economics from Stanford and could easily have had a career in finance, banking, or even as an economics professor. His Orioles teammate, Jeff Ballard, also graduated from Stanford, his degree being in geophysics. Ballard had his day in the sun, and last I heard is a seismologist in Montana, which I guess can be a pretty cool job if you’re interested in earthquakes. And Jim Poole, another Oriole from that era, has a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech. And those are just a few of the guys I know about. You no doubt can think of players on your favorite team who would have had a great career without baseball.

Okay. So, if the players of forty and fifty years ago didn’t play just for the love of the game, and the players of today aren’t in it for the money, what motivates players today?

In a word: WINNING. Dan Patrick held focus groups with MLB players some years ago, and their raison d’êtrewas nearly unanimous: winning. It’s all about the ring. These are highly competitive people. And, as Roger Clemens or Brett Favre can affirm, winning is addictive. You win one, you want to win another. To these guys, the thrill is like no other in the world.

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