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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Birthers = wackos

August 4, 2009

Conspiracy nuts, anyone? Susan Jacoby’s The Secularist’s Corner in the July 24 Washington Post addresses the bizarre movement among some (I’ll use the polite term) rightwingnuts claiming that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen and therefore occupies the White House illegitimately: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/community/groups/index.html?plckForumPage=ForumDiscussion&plckDiscussionId=Cat%3aa70e3396-6663-4a8d-ba19-e44939d3c44fForum%3a7cceb09e-a8ae-44b4-b7af-92605cbce240Discussion%3aeb65f3a0-b283-478c-8c7c-53780c6b32b8

On August 4, the President’s birthday, the Post features a column by Eugene Robinson on the same topic: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/03/AR2009080302219.html?hpid=opinionsbox1 (I’ve posted several comments to the flame wars.)

I am annoyed and perplexed by the birthers, a name much too polite for them. Running for President is like applying for a job. Hell, not like, it IS applying for a job. Let’s suppose you see a job you wish to apply for, and the requirements are clearly stated, as they always are. Would you bother to apply if you didn’t meet the requirements, and you knew it? Of course not! This is the norm. If the requirements state bachelor’s degree, or MCSE certification, or, let’s be more to the point, US citizen with TS/SCI with polygraph clearance, would you even bother? Of course not. And the reason you wouldn’t bother is that the employer would ditch your application immediately.

Same thing here. Perhaps these people think someone wakes up one day and decides, hey! I’m going to run for President. It doesn’t happen that way. Paperwork needs to be filed. The candidate needs to qualify for the ballot in the 50 states and/or their party’s primaries. How on God’s green earth does someone get that far without meeting the basic qualifications? They answer is, they don’t.

So this is a disturbing movement. Never before have I seen people  demanding to actually see a candidate’s birth certificate. As well, when the actual birth certificate has been presented, graciously, even though Mr. Obama is under no obligation to do so, the accusation is that what they’re looking at is a fake or forgery. (This, of course, is what Holocaust deniers like David Irving and Ernst Zündel say when confronted with literally tons of physical evidence from that period in history.) Along with the birth certificate thing, I also see shrill demands to know how Obama funded his college education. Since when is that anyone’s business? I guess for them, college is illegitimate unless it was bankrolled by rich parents who got you in as a legacy student. Scholarships don’t count. (A degree is not required for the job anyway. Good thing for Abe Lincoln it wasn’t.)

So I can only conclude that this movement is fueled by racism, or more accurately xenophobia. Adding to the, mm, irony isn’t the right word, but the bizarro-world-like nature of this movement is that one of its leaders is a foreigner with a box-top law degree. Excerpt from her web site:

For information and simple explanation of’ “Natural Born Citizen”, Why it is important, Birth Certificate and Eligibility issues, also see www.ObamaNotQualified.com by Jim who created and Orly’s site maintains and her blog.

I’d say the lack of coherence tells you everything about this woman you need to know.

It’s also noteworthy that their candidate was born in a location that was never one of the 50 states, as Hawaii was. That doesn’t seem to bother them.

Obviously, or perhaps not, both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain satisfy the required qualifications for the job. It’s a little too late to be bleating conspiracy theory. If you don’t like the President’s policies, and I certainly don’t, object to the policies. Don’t vote for the Congress(wo)man who voted to pass the bills. But lunatic rants aren’t going to gain traction with many.

The saddest thing I can see in all of this is that these people breed. If we’re going to keep up in math and science with the Indians, Chinese, and Koreans, we need to raise children who can think critically. This encompasses deconstructing urban legends and debunking the conspiracy theories. These people’s offspring, should they possess the same critical thinking skills as their parents, will never be able to do that.

For some sad humor, listen to this interview of Orly Taitz by Alan Colmes: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/birthers-gone-wild and this viral YouTube video of the Delaware resident wrapping herself in the flag (figuratively) and claiming the President is not a citizen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N2AXWTPNHs

Lately, I’ve been reminiscing about intelligent small-government conservatives. They do seem to be a disappearing breed. Many years ago, I was deeply in love with one. Guess I still am. Voices like his are being drowned out by the religious wingnuts, the Christofascists, and lately, the conspiracy nutjobs who seem to represent the Republican party.

Sometimes I think to myself, “William F. Buckley must be rolling in his grave right about now.” It took a little poking around on the web to remind me that Buckley wasn’t always that civil. Those of us of a certain age, ahem, might remember when Buckley almost came to blows with Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic National Convention: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gore_Vidal#Vidal_vs._Buckley

I admit, being a few days short of ten at the time, can’t say I remember all that much about the event.

Whatever you may think of these two men and their political views, it appears Vidal has the last laugh at age 83. Buckley is pushing up daisies, while Bill Maher says, “You know those Dos Equis commercials featuring the Most Interesting Man in the World? Well, this is the most interesting man in the world.”

http://www.hbo.com/billmaher/episode/2009_04_10_ep149.html