Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pittsburgh Pirates fire manager John Russell

The Pittsburgh Pirates fired manager John Russell earlier this week.

2008 Topps John Russell

The Pirates lost nearly 300 games under Russell the past three seasons. Click here for a recap and analysis of Russell's performance as manager.

The Pirates have not had a winning season or a playoff season since 1992. Defenders of the MLB status quo may try to place blame for the Pirates' woes on Russell, but clearly that scnario makes no sense given the Pirates' history in the Marvin Miller era. One of the players recognized the folly of expecting a new manager to make a difference in today's climate:
The general mood about Russell's ouster might have been best summed up by one of the team's more important players saying, "What's this going to do?"

Another commentator tried to place blame for the Pirates' failures on the man who has owned the team for the most recent four of the past 18 losing seasons in a row.

Denying the economics of the Marvin Miller era leads the Miller defenders to scapegoat individuals who may be responsible only for failing to overcome the free agency obstacle. The scapegoaters are pointing at small pieces of the disaster while exempting the architect of this disaster from criticism.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

George Steinbrenner and Marvin Miller

RIP to George Streinbrenner, who passed away today at age 80.

I will address this topic at length later, but suffice it to say that there are those who criticize Steinbrenner for his many faults while praising Marvin Miller for essentially the same thing.

Without George Streinbrenner (or more particularly George Steinbrenner's money), there would be no Marvin Miller. The reverse is true also. Without Marvin Miller, the Steinbrenners of the world would not be able to turn the business of baseball into a free-for-all or make baseball the subject of the back pages of the tabloid newspapers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

LeBron James

Free agency in baseball led the way for free agency in other sports, including basketball. The point of this post is not to lament the high price that LeBron James commands or to explore the details of his free agency or his contract.

The point is to record the spectacle that James' free agency has produced and the inevitability of such spectacle the moment the Marvin Miller era began. Adrian Wojnarowski commented on this spectacle on the eve of James' big announcement regarding his move to the Miami Heat:
The Championship of Me comes crashing into a primetime cable infomercial that LeBron James and his cronies have been working to make happen for months, a slow, cynical churning of manufactured drama that sports has never witnessed. As historic monuments go, this is the Rushmore of basketball hubris and narcissism. The vacuous star for our vacuous times. All about ‘Bron and all about nothing.

James is throwing a few foosball tables at Boys & Girls Clubs, an empty gesture out of the empty superstar. He’s turned free agency into the title of our times, a preening pageant of fawning, begging and pleading. Hard-working people are dragged into municipalities and told to hold signs, chant scripted slogans and beg a diva who doesn’t care about them to accept a $100 million contract. . .
. . . . . .
But this isn’t about kids and sports, and it sure isn’t about the credibility that comes with winning championships. Something’s changed here, and LeBron James has gone a long way to devaluing winning and losing in the NBA. David Stern has long pushed the individual over team, marketed showy over substance, and LeBron James represents the manifestation of it all.

Greatest talent to ever walk into this league, the self-proclaimed King, and now everyone gets a front-row, primetime seat for how it means to live without self-awareness, without restraint. The vacuous star for our vacuous times, live on Thursday night and fitting himself for a ring as the undisputed Champion of Me. All about ‘Bron and all about nothing.

Congratulations to Marvin Miller. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Marvin Miller Mad-lib

This blog went live on June 20, 2010. Since that time, I have received numerous comments (both here and on other blogs) from those that refer to the exceptions of baseball history as proof that free agency has changed nothing. Defenders of Marvin Miller and the free agency era base their arguments on small market teams that sometimes win and big market teams that sometimes lose.

The arguments are always the same and work like a mad-lib. Fill in the blanks:
Remember that time back in ________{fill in year} when the _________________________{fill in name of small market team} had a good year? Well that proves that small market teams can win and that Marvin Miller changed nothing. So forget this issue and let's get back to electing Miller to the Hall of Fame.

Or the following is the other side to the same coin:
Remember that time in _______{year} that the _______________ {name of big market team} had a bad year? That proves that you can't buy a pennant.

In baseball, even the worst teams win 50 or 60 games a year. The best teams lose 60 or more games a year. Anything is possible.

The small market teams can accumulate enough talent to put together a winner for a few seasons before the grim reaper of free agency comes to harvest their best players. The big market teams sometimes make stupid decisions and end up losing for several years in a row. All of these things happen despite free agency. Free agency is not a neutral factor. It weighs against the small market teams.

The irony is that free agency does not necessarily help the big market teams. Rich teams frequently squander the advantage that free agency gives them. Free agency is inferior as a strategy to building teams internally through farm systems. Big teams that buy existing talent often suffer as a result of this strategy.

But free agency does act as a veto on the success of the small market teams. Small market teams will lose their best talent, even if the result does no good for a big market team. It makes no difference to point out that the Dodgers, Yankees etc. often lose.

The tragedy of the Miller era is the hopelessness of the future for the small market teams - not the success of the big market teams.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette acknowledges the obvious; salary cap; NFL 2011 lockout/strike

Sometimes we can better understand the situation in baseball by comparing MLB to the NFL. The NFL followed MLB into free agency, but with substantial differences. Salary caps and revenue sharing have prevented the NFL from turning into the complete free-for-all poker game that baseball has become. I will explore this subject further in greater detail, but a small item in a Pittsburgh newspaper has acknowledged what everyone seems to know, but what few say openly on a regular basis:
Many people are worried about an NFL lockout in 2011 and the long-range impact it might have on professional football. Will it leave the sport without a salary cap? Will it turn football into baseball? Heaven forbid, will it turn the Steelers into the Pirates?

Legitimate concerns.
[The remainder of the article focused on other football issues]

While I do not believe the impending strike/lockout will produce these dire results (if it happens at all), that a newspaper would make that comparison between the two sports is significant.

The Steelers have been successful (mostly) for forty years. The Pirates have endured 18 losing seasons (including 2010) in a row. Pittsburgh sportswriters and Marvin Miller apologists around the country blame the Pirates' (and other teams') failure on stupidity. Numerous general managers in a row have coincidentally been unable to evaluate talent and draft the "right" players for 18 consecutive years. That is the accepted explanation.

But yesterday the Post-Gazette contradicted the official storyline. The Post-Gazette writer has acknowledged that a salary cap is all that stands between the Steelers' winning tradition and the Pirates' recent failure.

If the accepted storyline is correct, it should not matter how high the salaries are. The Steelers are good at evaluating talent and the Pirates are bad. That is the story and the Miller apologists are sticking to it. But the Post-Gazette writer knew better (at least for a day). Marvin Miller-era free agency is at the heart of the problem. An uncapped salary structure would doom the Steelers to the Pirates' fate.

If the NFL salary cap goes away, Steeler talent scouts and management are about to get a lot more stupid. Maybe Pittsburgh should start building an even more expensive football stadium in anticipation of the day when this fear becomes a reality.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey

I sat watching some of the Yankees-Dodgers game on June 26th, as Tommy Lasorda and Reggie Jackson made an appearance in the broadcast booth. They spoke of the history of the two teams and their battles in the World Series in 77, 78 and 81. They traded barbs (mostly from Lasorda). One of the broadcasters mentioned Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey as the great Dodger infield of the 1970's and how they stayed together for "nine years."

1973 Topps Ron Cey

1973 Topps Lopes

How many such infields have stuck together for that long in the Marvin Miller era? We can all name the infields for our favorite teams (or some team that won the World Series), but how many have enjoyed that much longevity and stability? It is fun to honor the players of the past, but we should also learn from their example. While the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey combination may be unique in history, it is less likely to be repeated in the Marvin Miller era without a tremendous expenditure of money.

1983 Topps Garvey

Marvin Miller apologists will be quick to point out that those four stuck together even after the end of free agency, while ignoring the fact that the full effects of free agency took years to percolate through baseball (and beyond). Much of the damage was not done until the anit-collusion awards of the late 1980's. Rome was not built in a day and baseball was not destroyed in a day either.

1986 Topps Russell

See these blogs for more on these players.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why negotiations under "free" agency are not, in fact, "free."

Do you think that today's baseball players are overpaid?

Do you think that baseball players were underpaid prior to free agency?

Do you think that the correct salary level for players lies somewhere in the middle?

If you answered "yes" or "no" to any of the above questions, you are wrong.

It is not up to voters, courts, legislators or anyone other than the free market to set salaries (or any other price). Salaries, in a free market, are set by the voluntary agreement of the participants. The Marvin Miller apologists will say that free agency made such agreement possible. Players were not "free" to negotiate until "free" agency came along. The apologists then get bogged down in a discussion of language and clauses and technicalities, all of which miss the point.

In fact, under "free" agency, freedom of contract and freedom to negotiate are illusions. Prices and salaries are not arrived at freely when -

  • one side is forced to hire the other side under penalty of fines and sanctions;
  • contracts are not always recognized (and sometimes punished);
  • the dollar amounts "agreed" upon will be subsidized by the government; and
  • one side is prevented from defining itself as it sees fit and is forced to separate into factions, each of whom must, under penalty of law, compete with each other (even before the negotiations with the other side begin).

All of these conditions have existed in Major League Baseball since the Marvin Miller era took root.

  • The owners are forced not only to hire free agents, but to bid up their salaries to some arbitrary level, or else they will be fined hundreds of millions of dollars for "collusion;"
  • Should owners attempt to contract with each other to limit or avoid a free agent bidding war, such contract will be invalidated and the owners, again, will be fined for collusion;
  • No matter how much the owners are forced to pay, local governments (backed by eventual federal bailouts) will subsidize the salaries by building (and incurring bond debt to pay for) improved stadiums capable of raising more money; and
  • Major League Baseball is treated legally as multiple individual employers with no relation to each other, instead of being able to define itself as one employer, so that the law can more easily require each arbitrarily defined "employer" to bid against each other for "free" agents.

It will take many posts to document how each of these conditions makes it impossible to consider any baseball salary truly "free." The salaries are arrived at through a combination of compulsion and bribery. The owners are compelled to pay, and then subsidized by the municipalilties and, ultimately, the taxpayers.

The players have a gun to the owners heads. [More accurately, the owners are herded into the colisseum and forced to fight each other like the gladitorial contests of ancient Rome.] The owners then get to turn that gun to the heads of the cities, who then turn it on the hapless taxpayers. The taxpayers are then told that the resulting World Series victory will restore civic pride and "revitalize downtown."

All of these factors introduce force and arbitrariness into salary negotiations. Salaries become a matter for public debate instead of simply being decided by market conditions.

It is telling that the same people who believe that "free" agency liberates contract negotiations also would have no opposition to such things as government salary boards (or a "pay czar") that would determine wages, prices or other terms left normally to the market.