By Joe Guzzardi
Major League Baseball’s player lockout had no sooner begun than commissioner Rob Manfred sent a letter to fans attempting to assuage ire about the possibility of another partial season – the sixth in 50 years – or even no season at all.
Fans can read through Manfred’s letter, but cutting through its tedious gobbledygook, the bottom line is that the billionaire owners, who preside over a multibillion-dollar industry, want to keep as much of their fortune as possible. The players, many of them already multi-millionaires, want to earn oodles more even sooner. MLB has at least ten billionaire owners; four of them have a net worth that exceeds $2 billion. The New York Yankees are the wealthiest team, valued at $5.25 billion.
From a list of the 20 richest players that includes the active, the retired and the disgraced, their net worth ranges from a low of $80 million – CC Sabathia – to the highest – Alex Rodriguez – $350 million. In 2021, the average player’s salary was $4.2 million, nearly a two-fold increase since 2003, while the 2019 median household income was $69,000. The minimum MLB salary for an eight-month work schedule is $570,000. Fans have no rooting interest in the confrontation between owners and players; a pox on both their houses is a commonly heard rebuttal to clashes between the billionaires and the millionaires.
Baseball is in trouble, not a news flash, but an indisputable fact that should grow more worrisome to the commissioner, the owners and the players.
On the field, a single game illustrates baseball’s woes. In game seven of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates against the New York Yankees, the two teams combined for 19 runs and 26 hits, but the game wrapped up in a tidy 2 hours 36 minutes.
Today’s fans, especially the younger ones that baseball desperately needs as it plods forward, find the games too long and too boring. The average length of nine-inning games in 2021 was a record 3 hours 10 minutes, compared to about 2 hours 30 minutes in the 1970s. Games in the 2021 postseason were even longer. The average length of a nine-inning game was 3 hours 37 minutes, with nine of the 36 games grinding endlessly on for four hours or longer.
The major culprit is the number of pitchers used in a game. The 2020 rule which requires that a pitcher must face a minimum of three batters or complete an inning before he can be removed is ineffective. In the 2021 regular season teams used a record 3.4 relief pitchers per game. In the postseason, nearly half the starting pitchers were yanked before the sixth inning which boosted the average number of relievers summoned in a nine-inning game to 4.3. No surprise then that last 30 World Series games have all ended past 11 p.m. EDT. Back in 1960, the Pirates finished off the Yankees at 3:36 p.m.
Today, MLB has more in common with Apple than it does with what was once reverently referred to as the national pastime. Immediately endangered is Spring Training which, in the dead of winter, fans eagerly anticipate – sunny skies, swaying palm trees, green grass and fastballs. Assuming the games are played, bring your wallet. The well-heeled Yankees charge $100 for standing room tickets.
Dinosaur fans remember a happier era when the months leading up to Spring Training were about baseball, not lockouts. No fans had the months between February and April better than Brooklyn Dodgers’ rooters who visited Dodgertown, in Vero Beach, Fla.
In his book, “Dodgertown,” author Mark Langill described how the camp became the fruition of team executive Branch Rickey’s long-time dream to bring his players together in a single, top-notch training facility so that all the Dodgers – regulars and minor leaguers – could be evaluated at the same time. Vero Beach, with its vacant, post-World War II Naval facility, was the perfect place. Dodgertown provided dozens of batting cages, two mechanical pitchers, an electric eye umpire that also measured the velocity of each pitch, a sliding pit and a track coach. Some of those baseball-oriented features were Rickey’s innovations. Off the field, the Dodgers kept their players occupied and happy by providing jukeboxes, shuffleboard, horseshoes, croquet and pinball machines. Food was readily and abundantly available. “Take all you want, but eat all you take,” read the cafeteria sign.
But just as the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957 for Los Angeles’ lucre, they abandoned Vero Beach in 2009 for the more profitable Camelback Ranch. The Arizona facility offers tourists more than 150 Dodgers caps for sums that range up to $65.00.
Those lordly prices help explain why the Dodgers franchise has $3.6 billion value, and why baseball fans are turned off.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected]