Friday, January 14, 2022

Baseball Is Not Just a Business

On Thursday afternoon, I read a tweet that set me off, and posted my own in loose response:

“Every MLB team can afford to pay market rate for great baseball players. If there is one idea that has to be eradicated, it’s the image of some teams — and their owners — as ‘have nots.’ Stop letting people wealthy enough to buy baseball teams play victims.”

This blew up a bit, by personal standards, and it’s ruined my mentions for 24 hours. Fine, play stupid games, win stupid prizes. I should know by now I can’t teach sports economics to every bro who accidentally got two issues of Forbes delivered to him in 2013 and now thinks he’s Paul Krugman. The EIBs bother me, but at this point they’re a symptom of a larger problem that I’m never going to solve.

No, what is really making me mad is this, and I’m paraphrasing:

“Dude, they’re running a business just like anyone else, and they get to make a profit.”

Here’s the thing: No, they’re fucking not. A baseball team isn’t just a business, and I know this because they don’t print the grocery store standings in the paper. There’s no half-hour show recapping the day in car dealerships. Your kid didn’t ask for an Albertson’s jersey this Christmas, with her favorite checkout clerk’s name on the back.

Baseball isn’t a business like any other, and the 30 people and companies who own those teams know this. Baseball teams, and the league itself, race to coat themselves in community and patriotism and hot apple pie whenever it’s convenient for them. They trade on the image of baseball, one they had no hand in crafting, to stay exempt from inconvenient laws, to dip into the public coffers, to ask for special treatment.

A baseball team doesn’t have to show a profit, although if we had perfect information we would see that most do, in most years. When one doesn’t, absolutely nothing bad happens to anyone. The businesses those 30 owners run that generated enough money for them to buy a baseball team -- those are the ones that have to sweat the bottom line. The law firms and grocery chains and trucking companies...they’re real businesses. The baseball team is the unlocked achievement, the bauble, the special toy. It is not a business like any other, because baseball teams aren’t evaluated based on their profits, they’re evaluated based on their wins, their championships, the number of moments they create for the people who invest not just their money, but their time and their passion.

You’ve literally never had a heated conversation over which accountant was better, but with two beers and the right bar stools, I could get you into a debate about Mike Trout versus Willie Mays, about Pedro Martinez versus Greg Maddux, about Boog’s versus Shake Shack. I doubt you care about the architecture of Chipotle or Sweetgreen, but you probably have opinions about the warehouse in Baltimore versus the Green Monster versus the ivy at Wrigley.

Baseball isn’t a business just like any other, and defending cheap owners who won’t try to put winning teams on the field with smarmy third-day Business 101 takes is an insult to the people who raised you. None of these owners you defend would buy a house and then not furnish it, demanding their neighbors chip in for the flat screen and the expensive grill.

If they can afford to buy the team, they can afford to pay good players. Stop apologizing for them when they don’t.