[Part 1, “The Good,” is here.]
If it weren’t that I was emulating the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, the title here would be, “The Terrible.”
This week, Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame-lock Clayton Kershaw was pitching a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins with just two innings and six outs remaining. There have only been 23 perfect games—no men on base at all, no hits, no runs, no walks, no errors— in baseball’s 150 year+ history. Kershaw has never pitched one, and at 34 he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He had only thrown 80 pitches, meaning that he was likely to finish a perfect game, if he succeeded at pitching one, with less than 110 pitches thrown, well under what is considered risky for starters. Yet Dodger manager Dave Roberts took Kershaw out of the game. He’s done this before with pitchers in the midst of no-hitters, usually when their pitch count was high, but this time there were no reasons, just excuses.
What’s going on here? It’s the corporate approach to baseball. Roberts used a utilitarian argument, saying that what mattered most was getting to the World Series, not any single game. In other words, the fans don’t count; even if the chances of our ace being hurt by pitching two more innings is remote, the decision has been made organizationally that protecting long-term investments like superstars with multi-year guaranteed contracts has a higher priority than the game itself.
Watching a pitcher try for a perfect game or even an ordinary no-hitter is any fan’s dream; not only is it pitch-to-pitch suspenseful, but if you witness one, you have been a part of history. Your ticket and program become collector’s items. Baseball’s priorities as demonstrated by this sickening episode are literally upside down. In recent years, it has eliminated two of the most exciting plays in the game, take-out slide at second base to break up a double play and the collisions at home plate, and all but eliminated the prominence of star starting pitchers by reducing their workloads drastically. It’s a professional sport where its athletes are all millionaires, but as Roberts’ decision proves, it is unwilling to take any risks to keep the game exciting and memorable.
Utilitarian trade-offs only are ethical if competing factors are assigned the right values.
Then there are the MLB teams that don’t even try to win or field a competitive product. The strategy is called tanking. After World Series title runs first by the perennial cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs and then the Houston Astros, tanking has become a popular way to rebuild. Instead of accepting mediocre play that holds little chance of pots-season glory, a tanking team will trade away high-priced veteran players for unproven prospects and, to be blunt, stink for season after season, with small payrolls and a series of 100-loss seasons. Such teams do not reduce the price of tickets or ballpark food, though what they are selling has lost much of its value. The practice alienates fans and enriches tanking owners. Players hate it, because in any season at least four or five teams have taken themselves out of the market for the best free agents.
The new, contentiously-negotiated agreement between the players and the teams was supposed to address tanking, which can only be effectively addressed by a mandatory minimum payroll rule. When ethics fail, law or rules have to step in. Baseball teams are supposed to serve their communities, but the contagion of elevating profit and single-goal success over integrity and concern for stake-holders has taken hold of baseball’s culture. Days after the owners ended the lock-out to allow the season to begin, two franchises with grand traditions of fielding exiting teams held fire sales, slashing their budgets and signaling that they were joining the tankers: the Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds. Good job, everybody!
In Cincinnati, fans and sportswriters were vocal in expressing their anger, so last week the team president, Phil Castellini, told them to stuff it, saying in part,
Well, where are you going to go? Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? That’s the other thing — you want to have this debate? If you want to look at what would you do with this team to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists? It would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And so be careful what you ask for…I think we’re doing the best we can do with the resources that we have. We’re no more pleased with the results than the fans. I’m not sitting here saying anybody should be happy. I’m not polishing trophies in the office right now, and that’s what we’re here to do.
His rant did not go over well.
Later the same day, after the team’s PR director had grabbed him by the throat and screamed, “What the hell’s’ the matter with you?” the Reds CEO issued a pro forma apology:
I apologize to Reds fans and regret the comments that I made earlier today,” he said. “We love this city, we love this team and we love our fans. I understand how our fans feel and I am sorry.