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Monday, August 20, 2012

Greed is Driving Force in Baseball

Baseball has long marketed itself on the narrative that it is the national pastime, where the true players play for the love of the game over any other alternative gains. To play is to personify purity, gamesmanship, and national pride, among other superlatives. While those things may have occasionally been true, they have been used as window dressing to establish baseball’s public persona since becoming professionalized. There are many things I love about baseball, but there is no denying that one of its primary cornerstones is greed, which seems to be growing stronger every passing day and clouding the future.

Any time there is significant money to be made the lengths people will go to secure their piece of the pie can run the gamut from disappointing to despicable. The average major league player will earn more than $3 million in 2012, and owners stand to make exponentially more with tickets, concessions, merchandise, and television money lining their coffers. Needless to say there is a lot of money to be made and the public has begun to see an onslaught of actions representing pervasive greed in the game. Instead of being seen as individual discrepancies, they should be regarded as part of an expanding epidemic. Notable instances this past year include:

-    - Pitchers formerly known as Fausto Carmona and Leo Nunuez were arrested for identity fraud after it was determined they had changed their names and shaved three years and one year respectively off their ages in order to be more desirable prospects coming out of their native Dominican Republic. These are hardly isolated events, as it seems hardly a year passes without others being caught in similar cases. Looking at the numerous Dominican baseball hopefuls, many of whom come from crippling poverty, it might be easy to initially understand why they would be willing to break the law. But when it comes down to it, absent special playing talent, baseball rewards those who are willing to claw their way to the top, regardless of whose shoulders and heads they must step on to reach their desired summit.

-    - In yet another common theme, a major league team strong-armed its local community into publicly financing a new stadium, while doing little to repay such generosity. The Miami Marlins leveraged their threats of moving into approximately $500 million of public funding. This was another in a long line of similar extortion jobs, despite there being little to no evidence that publicly financed sports arenas ever pay off.

The Marlins, through false claims of poverty, wound up having to foot about 20% of the bill ($120 million) for the new park, while retaining naming rights and all generated revenue. It looked like the Marlins had started to repay their community when they embarked on a $190 million free agent spending spree this past off-season, but that good will barely made it to the All-Star break. In a massive fire sale the team traded a quarter of its roster and announced their regrets in having spent so much money during the winter. As things stand, the Marlins are a last place team with no direction, playing in a gorgeous new stadium they were able to weasel at a bargain price.

-    - San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera was enjoying a career season this year until it was announced he had been suspended for 50 games following a positive test for synthetic testosterone. While he was derided for the positive test, he also received some initial support for being one of the first players identified with PEDs to not offer an excuse and just admit making poor choices. Any good will he may have accumulated went out the door with the most recent report that he had spent the better part of the last month trying to concoct a scheme involving a fake website and a fictitious health product to get out of his punishment. Since Cabrera is in a contract year, the tens of millions of dollars he stood to (and probably has) lost was likely the mitigating factor in him taking such measures. As incredible as Cabrera’s alleged plot may sound, it is a perfect example of the lengths players will go to in order to maximize their earning potential during their relatively short playing ability window.

Fans can still find wonderful entertainment and emotional investment in baseball but need to temper their expectations because of the game’s changing landscape. Incidents like those mentioned above are only becoming more commonplace. Disappointment is just a breaking news story away, and only the most optimistic of Pollyannas can now proclaim with a straight face 100% belief in the character of a particular player or team.

The most prevalent attributes in baseball are not talent, desire, or hard work; it’s money and greed. For as long as the game can survive with such enormous sums of money being up for grabs, there is little that should come as a surprise when it comes to what people are willing to do to get their share. There may be no “I” in baseball, but there are dollar signs. Lots of them.


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