Sep 30, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
October is here. The month where baseball decides its champion, adds to its rich lore and cedes far too much of its soul to broadcasters who absolutely, positively, must tell you about 50 times about the hot new sitcom.
Irony always abounds in this game that’s always had its share of contradictions. Just as we might see the Yankees (again, yawn) and the Phillies (again, yawn) in the World Series, a new movie sheds light on a recent tale of a man, and a franchise, fighting the powers-that-be.
It is, of course, Moneyball, based on the Michael Lewis book about Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, somehow winning and contending despite a small market and a payroll about $100 million or so behind the big guys with the cash cow regional networks.
First, the abbreviated film review – it’s really good. It’s sharp, well-written, funny, honest and human, with a terrific central performance from Brad Pitt as Beane, who is sure that his system works and furious when it doesn’t. The visuals and, especially, the use of silence to emphasize the tensions of the story, really add to the tale.
A larger question, though, has sprung up in the aftermath of both the book and the movie. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Beane turned down the Boston Red Sox GM job that Theo Epstein got. Also, it’s common knowledge that, when the Sox finally won it all in 2004, it did so implementing the Moneyball approach of walks, pitch count and on-base percentage, only with actual cash on hand.
So did baseball change? Or did the rich guys just get smarter, continuing to leave everyone else struggling for the scraps?
It’s a little of both, of course. As in all sports, when anything is successful, it gets copied, whether it’s football offensive schemes or basketball defenses. Beane and the A’s had to know that their methods would spread.
Once that happens, it goes back to simple economics. And despite a luxury tax and some amount of revenue sharing, Major League Baseball remains a caste system, and proud of it, almost reeling when someone other than the rich guys has success.
Over and over, we’ve heard that the large markets and the big-name teams deliver the higher TV ratings. Then that perception becomes reality, and a Giants-Rangers World Series is treated as a contagious disease that must be avoided, instead of a wonderful story that should be highlighted.
From a long-term standpoint, this does not help baseball one bit. In essence, you’re telling at least 20 of the 30 teams that they don’t count, even when they’re good. Add to it an economy still in the dredges, and no wonder game attendance has sunk in so many places, even where teams have recent playoff appearances and a rather rich history, like Cincinnati.
Now, look at the stadium issues on two coasts. Oakland, the focus of Moneyball, still is in search of a way to get out of the Coliseum and into a real ballpark, so that it can have actual revenue streams. Despite all that it’s done well, Tampa Bay’s long-term viability is nonexistent unless it gets a stadium that doesn’t have a catwalk.
No one is saying that baseball needs a strict salary cap system as in the other major pro sports. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a sport where fans of every team have some sense of optimism. And by that, I don’t mean the spring-training-everyone-has-a-chance optimism, but real hope that, every season, they have the will, and the means, to go out there and compete.
It says something that even the most iconic of players are vulnerable to earth-shaking moves if they’re not in pinstripes. Never once, in his prime, did Derek Jeter have to consider whether his team could afford him, as St. Louis must do with Albert Pujols, or be sure that they can’t afford him at all, as Milwaukee faces with Prince Fielder.
Maybe it’s already too late. After all, the NFL is showing, yet again, why it trumps all other leagues, even after the PR nightmare of a lockout that threatened the current season.
Going into the season’s fourth week, the combined records of Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland were 8-1. If such a thing happened in baseball, all the fans would guard their optimism, knowing it was just a matter of time before their stars took the big money and ran.
For that is still the crisis MLB faces. The logic of Moneyball wasn’t wrong, in terms of wins and losses. It’s just that cold, hard economic facts force Billy Beane and his small-market ilk to tilt at windmills by logging into their computers, trying again to find a way to keep up with Goliaths that appear larger than ever before.