Monday, November 19, 2012

Love, hate, and baseball

Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays - the only sports team that has earned entirely uncritical, and unrepentant, love from me - made an insanely aggressive trade. It's not an exaggeration to say that it's probably the most exciting move that the team has made since they signed Roger Clemens, if not Rickey Henderson. And the latter happened almost 20 years ago.

But just as the trade reminds me why I love sports, it's equally capable of reminding me why I hate sports.

The Miami Marlins, with whom the Jays completed the trade, have now divested themselves of the large majority of their payroll. Last season, they started the year with (if I'm remembering correctly) ten players making over $2m, several of whom were also making north of $10m. Now, they have two, the highest-paid player making "only" $6m. In total, their payroll is now hovering somewhere around $20m.

So, why is this hate-worthy? Because the Marlins are infamous for exploiting baseball's revenue-sharing system. Designed to help poorer franchises compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox, teams like the Marlins instead use the money to increase their profit. From 2002 to 2010 - that is, since current owner Jeffrey Loria bought the team - the perennially-cheap Marlins averaged a total player payroll of about $55m and a pre-sharing profit of something like $15m. After revenue sharing? Most like $45m - or about 80% of their total player costs. That's not a sports team that's being run out there to actually win. That's a team that's designed to lose, and, perversely*, make money doing it.

And a year after appearing to reverse course and doing badly - having to reverse course, because they had convinced the city and its politicians that they would build a good team if the public built them a $600m stadium - the Marlins have decided to return to the reliably profitable method of tanking on the cheap. And, honestly, who can blame them? There's a lot of chance and random variation that gets in the way of turning a profit with a winning-team; but there's a formula that guarantees monetary success if you do badly enough. Given those options, it's not surprising that one or more teams would take the good-for-business, bad-for-baseball approach. It makes more than a little bit of sense.

But, fuck, it really makes me hate pro baseball.

*I say "perversely" as if capitalism doesn't routinely reward failure. It does, of course. But it's still a fair description.

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