Sunday, June 20, 2010

Marvin Miller Ruined Baseball - Introduction

Every so often I see films of baseball in the 1970's (and before). I am reminded of a time when the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles were more than mere farm teams for the major market teams.

I am old enough to remember a time when the Royals won their division 3 times in a row (followed by world series appearances a few years later).

I can remember the 1970's, when the Pirates were contenders year after year, with the only question being whether this would be the year that they would go all the way instead of finishing in second place (or whether they could repeat as world champions). The idea of last place was never even considered possible - much less expected.

I remember the Orioles being loaded with talent every year and seriously contending for first place. I can remember two world series between the Pirates and Orioles - a matchup that is out of the question for modern baseball fans.

Most importantly, I can remember the excitement of seeing young, talented prospects that would provide competitiveness for years to come without feeling resignation and despair at the knowledge that these prospects would soon and inevitably be playing for major market teams.

That baseball world is now a thing of the past. We live in a whole new reality. While I do not intend to focus on the details of how the players' union won its battles against the owners, the following sequence of events is important:

  1. The century old "reserve clause" was effectively eliminated in the mid-1970's, allowing players to achieve free-agent status and create bidding wars for their services;

  2. Any attempt by the owners to fight back by agreeing not to bid on players was denounced as "collusion" and resulted in arbitration victories for the players in the mid to late 1980's and expensive fines against the owners;

  3. The costs imposed by free agency and owners' legal inability to fight it resulted in increased expansion in the 1990's together with a wave of municipal financed stadium construction, replacing many relatively new baseball stadiums and plunging teams and (already precarious) cities into debt; and

  4. As baseball careers became better than winning the lottery (even for marginal players), players became willing to make deals with the devil by injecting themselves with gonadotropin (for example) in exchange for a .250 average - or sometimes even the ability to rewrite (destroy) baseball's treasured record book.

I know that is quite a mouthful. It will take more than one post to lay all of this at the feet of Marvin Miller. His defenders will protest that Miller was not even the union head when the steroid era began.; or that Miller was not the one that decided that more expensive stadiums were needed.

It is true that Miller did not commit the cities to pay the price for his free agency in the form of new stadiums. But Miller bears equal responsibility as those who did make that choice. Miller took Major League Baseball's finances over a cliff. The cities, lacking any politcal backbone, naturally followed.

It is also true that the union (like everyone else) officially opposes steroid use. I will stipulate that the union has been very cooperative in trying to find solutions (although I may revisit that issue later). But the point is that Miller set the forces in motion in the 1970's. He turned baseball into a poker game/lottery/free-for-all where contracts are meaningless and players can enjoy the fruits of taxpayers' money in exchange for taking a little juice. It makes no difference that the union might shed a few crocodile tears over the mere symptoms of this problem now.

Miller's defenders will also say, "But he changed the game!" That is exactly my point. Miller changed the game. If Miller is to take the credit for such monumental changes, he must also take responsibility for all of the consequences. The same people that want to canonize Miller for "changing" baseball end up attacking -

  • Managers for failing to win with teams devoid of high priced talent;
  • Owners for spending too little/too much;
  • Management for thinking only of the short term;
  • Players for not earning their salary/ taking steroids/ being disloyal;
  • Cities for not spending enough/spending too much on ball parks;
  • etc.

All of those groups listed above do share the blame. But they are merely rats running through the Marvin Miller maze. Sometimes they make a wrong turn. But we should not give them sole responsibility for being in the maze in the first place.

It is impossible to document all of these points in one post. It would take an entire book (or many books) to explore fully the consequences of Marvin Miller's influence. That is why he does not get the credit (blame) he deserves. We remember only the manager that can't win a division or the owner that keeps making dumb personnel moves year after year. We forget the roots of the problem. And that is why I am here: to remind us all of the real issue - to tie many of today's issues back to their root cause.

Because as long as we (the fans) forget how we got here, as long as keep hoping that our small market team has some chance to reestablish its prior greatness, as long as we keep wishing to sign that one new prospect to replace the bums that now wear the uniform, we will be the ones forever trapped in the Marvin Miller maze.


  1. Were you saying this in the 1980s when the Twins won as many World Series as both New York teams combined?

    Were you saying this when the A's, Twins and Pirates were the best teams in baseball in the early 1990s and the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees were the worst?

    Were you saying this when there was a 15 year stretch (1979-1993) where 12 different teams won the World Series and none were called the New York Yankees?

    Were you saying this when the Rays won the pennant with the lowest payroll in the American League and 4 of the top 6 payrolls missed the post season?

    The Pirates and the Orioles have become laughing stocks because of incompetent drafts and spending money on the wrong players.

    If the Expos could put a winning product on the field in 2002 and 2003 when they didn;t even have an OWNER, then the Pirates and Orioles can field a contender

  2. Give me time. I WILL say that about all of those situations. In particular -

    Yes, the Pirates were the best in the early 1990's, but it couldn't last (among all of these situations - this one proves my point the best). They couldn't keep their high priced players. They nearly won the division in 1997 with the lowest payroll in MLB, but it couldn't last. They will one day return to the playoffs only to see their best players go away again.

    And they really weren't the best in the early 90's - the Braves were (because of Ted Turner's CNN money).

    Your 15 year stretch (1979-1993) began as the Marvin Miller era was just beginning to be felt. The Pirates and Royals kept enough of their players from the pre-Miller era just long enough to win. The Phillies won by signing high priced talent.

    The Yankees had the highest winning percentage in all of baseball during the 1980's. Their losing period (1989-1992) was as brief as the Pirates' winning period.

    The Dodgers won the series in 88 and had near misses in 91 and 94. That sounds like a very brief period of playing poorly. I am sure that Pirate and Royal fans would love to have a 7 year stretch like that now.

    As far as the Expos - yes, they fielded a contender, but they also went broke and were forced out of Montreal through a series of transactions that I will explore at length. (The city's refusal to build a new stadium is most intriguing). What good is it to field a contender if you go broke doing it? The teams I referred to in my post won AND remained viable over a long period.

    It is possible for small market teams to put together temporary winners, but it won't last. Baseball has become a game not of building winners brick-by-brick, but of getting the best poker hand in a given year. I will address each of the scenarios you have mentioned (and some you haven't - like the 97 Florida Marlins, the 97 Orioles, the 2010 Rangers and many more).

    Check back for updates and thanks for commenting.

  3. Have to agree with Sully - your argument makes little sense historically. Today's Pirates, Royals and Orioles are nowhere near the farm teams that the Kansas City A's were for the Yankees in the 1950s and early 1960s. And how about the Washington Senators (both versions), the St. Louis Browns, both Philadelphia teams? Disparity has been a constant in baseball history.

    I was also going to say that this is not a very libertarian viewpoint but then I saw your other blog and I see that despite your profile you are more a mainstream reactionary than any kind of libertarian, and indeed your argument here is far more reactionary than libertarian.

  4. Also the Pirates are another bizarre choice - that team finished first exactly once between 1928 and 1969.

  5. I have two "other" blogs, one of which is devoted to one of the founders of modern libertarianism. "Reactionary" is nothing but a label. This is about substance, not labels. There is nothing libertarian about having municipalities pay for stadiums (for any reason) and especially so that baseball players can be millionaires. Libertarianism is not just about drugs and being "anti-war."

    The Pirates were competitive from the very late 50's through the early 80's. I don't see an era like that happening again under the current system (except for a few brief periods like 90-92).