This offseason, clearly, has been defined both by inactivity and an attempt to understand it. As free agents sit home just days before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report, baseball and its fans have engaged in a conversation about economics and worth, value and spending. For some, inherent to that conversation is a sense that players ought to be content with what they have, that front offices presented with aging sluggers and hurlers have their hands tied. Voices as estimable as Bill James have endeavored to distance ball players from those who do so-called “real work.” Others have posited that owners are just being smart, and that really, don’t grown men playing a game make too much compared to the rest of us already? They aren’t teachers or firefighters, after all.
Players and analysts often seem surprised by this reaction. How can normal folks side with billionaires over millionaires? The incredulity is understandable: when moved to attribute avarice to strangers, it seems as if those with billions would make for more compelling targets. We get worked up over it, furious at the dearth of solidarity, fearful for what it might mean for other, less public struggles that involve our friends and neighbors.
But I wonder if we haven’t made a mistake. We’ve assumed that the sides are clear. But I think most fans don’t see millionaires pitted against billionaires; I think most fans don’t see the owners much at all.
Players stretch out over green fields. They thump home runs. They give us little bits of themselves to take with us. But players also leave. They give themselves to new people, people who aren’t our folks, who live in different places. They do that to us, or that’s how it can feel. The fan’s relationship with a player must necessarily be flexible. Players are a source of great fun and joy, but also embodiments of frustration. Fans weave those feelings, those experiences, together into a fabric in which we can cloak ourselves, a name across our backs, but one which is also liable to be pulled taut and ripped apart when we perceive conflict with the name on the front.
Of course, players don’t leave all on their own. Like fans and managers, analysts and hot-dog vendors, players exist within an ecosystem. They lose time to younger bucks; their value to the team is measured exclusively in what they can fetch in a trade; they’re offered something less than they’re worth. They react, eddied about by and reacting to those around them. As time has gone on, however, more of the ecosystem has been revealed.
As fans, we see the analyst, angling for efficiency and value. We see the manager, too, orchestrating the shift. We believe that smarter baseball makes for better baseball, for winning baseball. Sometimes, we cheer just as loudly when our favorite analyst or prospect writer gets hired away by our team — a different sort of person for whom we can root. We continue to enjoy our hot dogs. But the boss remains obscured. Like prey that sees only flashes of its predator through the grass, fans aren’t really situated properly to develop a full portrait of ownership. We don’t see the owner, we just see the team.
Sometimes baseball is a family business, but often it’s not. How do you put a face on Rogers Communications, keep it steady in your mind’s eye? This thing on which we we spend so much time is just another holding. Some fans follow the composition of those portfolios closely; many of them read these electronic pages.
But probably most don’t experience baseball like that. It all blends together; it becomes pinstripes. And that is a big part of the players’ problem. Because, when your fans just see the team, it isn’t millionaires pitted against billionaires. It’s millionaires pitted against fans’ hopes and dreams, against our nights in the best part of the year, against our Octobers. J.D. Martinez’s refusal to accept less means we’ll have a less good time. It suggests, unfairly, that one side is out for themselves, while the other is there for the game. It’s the players’ great rhetorical challenge.
But this challenge may also suggest a way forward, one some players have already begun to embrace. If the reason fans come to resent big contracts is that they pit a player’s interests against the club’s, might not those same fans come to resent owners who neglect to try to win? Can’t players throw their rhetorical lot in with the game, with the fans, with victory? With watchable baseball? The Braves, Marlins, Padres, Phillies, Pirates, Reds, Royals, Tigers, and White Sox are all at various stages of tearing down, tanking, or rebuilding, but none of them seem interested in putting a winning team on the field. Depending on how the first half goes, the Orioles may join them — and the Mariners, too. The A’s remain stuck in a perpetual state of merely existing, Schrodinger’s Team, always both contending and tearing down, simultaneously alive and dead.
With so many teams in the process of purposely not-winning, we must ask how well the strategy employed by the Astros and Cubs will continue to work. Sometimes you win a World Series, but sometimes you’re the mid-2000s Mariners, still bogged down despite a Dustin Ackley and a Jesus Montero and a Justin Smoak, never really closer until a Robinson Cano comes along. Not every team will be able to draft first overall. And if they don’t, where will they be except another year older?
This year’s crop of free agents is aging and looks to be expensive, but they aren’t without merit. They could make teams better. Heck, they could, properly constituted, be better than some of the teams they’d serve to improve. The Tigers and Braves and Royals aren’t a J.D. Martinez or Mike Moustakas away from the playoffs. For fans, though, that isn’t always the point. Sometimes you just want baseball that is slightly less bad, less defeated, less of a farce. Sometimes you delight in the simple joys of competent baseball at the hands of a Jason Vargas, in a fly ball cleanly tracked down by the speed of a Jarrod Dyson. We want our guys to win. But if they don’t, we want to be able to convince ourselves they might. We want good baseball. We want someone to at least fight for good baseball, even if it’s a bunch of millionaires.
The whole system might need to be razed. The union has made so many concessions for so long that the fight to right things will undoubtedly be ugly. It might require strikes and stoppages. Historically, the public has not rallied to the players’ side in those moments, and their pressure and sympathy is not without value. A different tact may be necessary. If I were the players, I would talk about how all that tanking or not-winning doesn’t always work. How it makes for very bad, boring baseball. How it is pitted against our nights in the best time of the year. How it is indifferent to our Octobers.
It doesn’t mean the players can’t keep trying to articulate the real contours of the labor dynamic; to show what and who is in the long grass, as it were. They can and should. They could advocate for minor-league pay increases and better treatment for international players. They could show solidarity among themselves. But they should also talk about the game itself, its green fields, and how this summer many of us seem likely to be left, over and over, with a lopsided score in the other team’s favor.
Players are the game, more than widget makers are products on store shelves. As they fight for their share before they take the field, they should keep reminding fans they’re fighting for our game, too.
Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the host of FanGraphs Audio. Her work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing and Just A Bit Outside.