Wednesday is my labrum surgery, and as you can guess I'm a bit anxious. But after all of the homework I've done, the consensus of people I've talked to -- doctors, physcial therapists, family -- is virtually unanimous; this needs to be done. I spoke to my doctor today and he reassured me about the procedure, which will likely take 45-90 minutes depending on whether they find damage in my rotator cuff as well. Inquiring GMs are standing by, trying to gauge whether to offer me an NRI to go with my MRI.
Thanks to everybody who's called or written over the past several days to wish me the best. My surgery will be sometime Wednesday morning, and I'll be home by the afternoon. I should be back in my usual chair in a couple of days, when we'll see how well I can blog with my left hand and a few painkillers.
Neil deMause's book Field of Schemes (co-written with Joanna Cagan) has been in my reading pile for quite a while, and I thought of him a couple times over the past few days while reading and writing about the Milwaukee mess. The book's subtitle, "How the great stadium swindle turns public money into private profit," serves to remind that the people of Milwaukee are not alone in being bilked by club owners.
There must be something in the air, because today deMause has an excellent free article at Baseball Prospectus called "The Stadium Game." The piece examines the boom which has seen 19 new stadiums built in 18 years, counting the new ballparks in San Diego and Philadelphia slated to open next spring. According to deMause, these new parks have cost taxpayers around $5 billion, On the boom, he writes:
The start of the new-stadium craze is easy to pinpoint. In 1989, SkyDome demonstrated that a retractable roof was technically feasible (if pricey--the SkyDome lid drove its total cost over $600 million in Canadollars), while introducing baseball's first full-scale food court, complete with baseball's first seven-dollar hot dogs. It also shattered attendance records: the Jays are still the only team other than the Rockies in their Mile High days to sell more than four million tickets in one season, demonstrating that fans would turn out just to take a gander at a new building (though the two titles won by the Jays in SkyDome's first five years helped some, too). When two years later Camden Yards inaugurated the "retro" craze, single-handedly sweeping HOK's old concrete-bowl blueprints into history's dustbin, it set off a feeding frenzy among teams to be the next kid on the block with a shiny new toy.
The result has transformed baseball. On the field, the new home run-friendly parks have helped create the surge in offense that typifies Selig-era baseball, while turning such traditional homer havens as Wrigley Field into relative pitcher's parks. In the stands, the layers of luxury seating that are de rigeur in modern facilities have made the cheap seat with a good view a thing of the past, as nearly every new park has featured upper decks more distant from the field than the old buildings they replaced. The new parks raised demand for tickets, and owners have taken full advantage--new parks have seen average ticket price as much as double in a single off-season.
DeMause examines the remaining candidates for new parks, rating them from contenders to long shots. The most obvious contender is the World Champion Florida Marlins, about whom he writes:
Though Marlins execs have never stopped griping about the unsuitability of Pro Player Stadium for baseball... the team's real problem is the albatross of a lease that Huizenga designed as a way to siphon off funds from the team while crying poverty. (Economist Andrew Zimbalist estimated that in the 1997 championship year, it enabled the former garbage-hauling king to turn a $14 million profit into a $34 million paper loss.) What really needs to happen, says Zimbalist, is "Huizenga ought to renegotiate the lease. If he doesn't, they'll probably get a new stadium, and he won't get any money out of it. Pro Player is a decent stadium, and with a decent lease, that place can work."
DeMause also notes that we're unlikely to see another privately-financed stadium like San Francisco's Pac Bell any time soon:
Pac Bell Park became the only privately funded ballpark of the last four decades for a reason: It was built in a city with the world's highest concentration of dot-com tycoons, at precisely the moment when they were flush enough to be hit up for the long-term seat licenses that laid the foundation for the new park...
The dodgy prospects of even an unmitigated success like Pac Bell--one estimate by Sports Business News projected that the team needs to sell 30,000 tickets a night for the next 20 years just to break even on its stadium debt--points to the dirty little secret of the stadium boom: On their own, they don't make money. Though team owners have been enriched by their new digs, it's not from the new luxury-box and concessions revenues, which wouldn't even pay debt service on all the steel and concrete. The only money to be made in new stadiums is by subsidizing team profits with the public purse.
That doesn't exactly paint a pretty picture for going the Pac Bell route -- not that Bad Rug Bud is about to let another team try. But with no stadium currently under construction for the first time since 1985 (when the Toronto Skydome broke ground), let's hope that the taxpayers in these candidate cities take a long, hard look at the disasters that have taken place in Milwaukee, Detroit, et al before falling into similar traps.
With the Brewers Payne-ful situation lurching towards a conculsion, Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an article examinning a situation Milwaukee fans are all too familiar with: when bad ballclubs enter new ballparks. The consistency of this trend is alarming:
The lessons learned in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cincinnati in recent years have been harsh, bringing a sobering dose of reality to franchises counting on new ballparks and ramped-up payrolls to result in tremendous success, on and off the field. All four ballclubs now are in disarray, financially and competitively.
"When you look at it, all four general managers - Dean Taylor (Milwaukee), Jim Bowden (Cincinnati), Cam Bonifay (Pittsburgh) and Randy Smith (Detroit) - were fired," said Doug Melvin, who replaced Taylor last year.
"All of them tried to go into new ballparks with higher payrolls and thought it would make a difference. That's out the window now. Clubs like San Diego and Philadelphia have to be a little wary about that."
Haudricort rattles off lots of numbers pertaining to the Unfab Four, as he calls them. Rather than regurgitate those numbers, I thought it would be helpful to assemble them into a simple chart, but then I took it a notch further by plugging it into a spreadsheet. Because Haudricort's payroll data had some gaps and inconsistencies, I tossed it aside, instead opting to use the handy USA TodayBaseball Salary Database. That database uses opening day roster figures (not my favorite measure) but actual salaries and prorated bonuses (as opposed to average salaries plucked from multi-year contracts which may be heavily backloaded -- a big plus). Looking at the four teams, the trend becomes very visible (payroll and attendance in millions):
Make no mistake, whether we look at the "before" or the "after," these are bad ballclubs. There's not a single winning season in the fifteen under examination, and the teams' aggregate winning percentage in this chart is .412, equiavalent to a godawful 67-95 record (or rather, fifteen of them).
Looking at the Average section, here we can see that the typical team, entertaining delusions of grandeur, boosted its payroll by a whopping 54 percent upon moving to a new park. Its attendance shot up almost as dramatically, 40 percent upon moving, but on that new field, the team was actually three games worse. The second year in the new park, the team slashed payroll by 16%, and lost big -- another five games on the field, and 25% of its attendance. In year three, payroll was increased ever so slightly, but the on-field product stagnated and attendance sagged another 15%. Year four was downright biblical for the one team that's gotten so far; next year's Brewers and Pirates should beware.
Granted, it's a small sample, but what's perhaps most alarming and depressing about all of this is that once the novelty wears off, these teams look to be worse off than before. Comparing the average of the years 2-4 to the final year in an old park, we see a payroll that's 34 percent higher, attendance that's 6 percent lower, and a team that's ten games worse. Even throwing out last year's Tigers, average team is seven games worse off than before in years 2-3.
What all of this underscores is that, far from Cleveland Indians model and the rhetoric of Bud Selig and various owners, a new ballpark is anything but a panacea for a mediocre team hoping to become competitive. Once the honeymoon's over, disappointment in the team's onfield performance can generate a backlash in the fan base that footed the bill for the new venue, exacerbating a cycle of misery and making it even harder for a team to improve enough to contend. Far from being a model for success, this is a recipe for failure.
Grab the Money: Superdupestar Barry Bonds pulled a puzzling move the other day by announcing that he was pulling out of the Major League Baseball Players Association group licensing agreement. The move is a first in Players Association history but not unprecedented in the world of sports; Michael Jordan pulled a similar stunt. The agreement covers money each player earns through the sale of licensed merchandise such as jerseys, cards, and video games, and means that Barry's name and likeness won't be used as part of those products unless and until Bonds negotiates a separate deal with each company producing the product. That means you or your kids won't play Barry Bonds on a Playstation 2 game, or flip through a pack of cards in search of a Bonds one until Barry gets more money for going it alone.
Damn. Just when I thought I had come around on my opinion of Bonds, he pulled the rug right out from under me. There's no way of spinning this as anything other than a purely selfish move, a cash grab out of naked greed. Is it within his legal rights to take this action? Yes. But licensing money is a slice of the pie by which all major leaguers are created essentially equal, with their payments based solely on service time (see below), not on star power. Unlike the 25th guy on the Tampa Bay bench, Barry's already got an astronomical salary ($16 mil in 2004) and endorsement opportunities galore in which he can reap the benefits of his prowess.
The MLBPA is the strongest union in the world for a reason -- its stars stay in line with the rank and file, increasing all of their bargaining power. For Barry to do this sets an ugly precedent; if Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and a few more eight-figure guys forego the licensing agreement, suddenly the Melvin Moras of the world are going to be out a significant chunk of change.
As for the dollars involved here, I don't have a full grasp on them. Judging from the scarcity of information on the Internet, just how much the MLBPA makes in licensing money appears to be a closely guarded secret (the only source I could find was in a book costing $1,095 -- thanks, I'll wait for a used copy to show up at the Strand). According to a USA Today piece on Topps baseball cards from 2001:
Each big-league player receives a $500 check from Topps in addition to the licensing royalties the company pays the Major League Baseball Players' Association. (Licensing revenue is the major source of revenue for the MLBPA). The union gives each player one check for all licensing rights, from cards to videos to T-shirts. The amount is on a scale, based of years of major-league service, but the MLBPA doesn't disclose the figures.
Five hundred dollars isn't much, but remember that's just one of a multitude of products which the MLBPA licenses. The impact on the players is one thing, and while it won't prevent the aforementioned Mr. Mora from feeding his quintuplets, it's just a jerk-assed thing to do.
But the message this sends to fans is even more jerk-assed. Bonds is saying in effect, "Hey, I'm too good for you to be able to buy my cards and jerseys the way you buy those of everybody else. You fans should have to pay more for Barry Bonds than you do for somebody else." That brand of arrogance has prevented many fans from taking to Bonds as he's scaled unprecedented heights of individual performance the past few years. An extra $20 or $50 for a Bonds jersey may seem like chump change to Barry. But it just proves he's the chump.
Hide the Money: Doug Pappas, the foremost authority on the game's finances, has been covering the developing Brewers' situation in his Business of Baseball weblog. On Friday, in response to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article which stated that in addition to cuts for 2004, the Brewers payroll was going to be reduced through 2006, Doug did some figuring. His estimate reveals a considerable gap between what the Brewers can expect to take in and what their reported operating budgets are:
[T]he report says that the Brewers' baseball operations budget -- not just major league player salaries, but the cost of benefits, coaches, trainers, managers, and the entire minor league system, including signing bonuses for draftees -- will be $60.58 million in 2004, $60.5 million in 2005 and $61.4 million in 2006. For a club in a new ballpark that expects to receive $15 million from the revenue sharing pool this year and more in the future, that's ridiculously low.
$15 million/year (and rising) from the revenue sharing pool
$25 million/year (and rising) from national revenues
$6 million/year from local radio and TV
$50 million/year from gate receipts and other stadium-related revenues. The $50 million figure represents a 40% decline in these revenues since 2001, the Brewers' first year at Miller Park, when they took in $83 million from these sources.
These conservative estimates bring the Brewers' revenues up to $96 million/year. If they spend $70 million/year on baseball operations and debt service combined, that leaves $26 million for other expenses. Where is all that money going?
Those 2001 financial disclosures are the ones Doug thoroughly explored in his award-winning eight-part series, "The Numbers," and they are essential reading for anyone who wishes to grapple with baseball's finances and the sleight-of-hand which they reveal. So if Doug says there's $26 million missing and somebody else (even --especially -- a Selig) tells you "that ain't so," ask them to get out their spreadsheets and run through the figures for you.
And speaking of Bad Rug Bud, another J-S piece reveals that while he's the commissioner of baseball and his ownership stake is in a trust, Bud has put $13.2 million of his own money into the team "over the past five or six years." Hmmmm, doesn't the supposedly neutral commissioner putting millions of dollars into a team suggest a conflict of interest?
Not according to Bob Dupuy, MLB's CEO and president: "In my opinion and the opinion of the clubs, I think Bud has been scrupulous in avoiding any appearance of either favoring or being involved with the operation of the Brewers." Well, case closed, right? Dupuy did elaborate: "The only thing that he has a right to be consulted on is putting up money. He has a right to say he'll invest or not invest when they make capital calls."
So then, Bud the Owner can put his money behind a scheme which Bud the Commissioner (different guy, see?) has helped to create and enforce, such as a revenue-sharing setup which brings the Brewers the most money out of any team in the league and which will cover at least half of its payroll next year. That is rich, and I don't mean Sexson. Kids, if that ain't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is.
Où est le Boof? The reasons behind it are a story for another day, but the winter GM meetings in Arizona wrapped up after a week with only a single deal going down. In the lone trade, the Minnesota Twins traded All-Star catcher A.J Pierzynski to the San Franscisco Giants for reliever Joe Nathan and two minor-league hurlers (repeat after me: There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect). One of those minor-leaguers -- Boof Bonser -- caught my attention not just because of his improbable name (which is almost as good as the just-released Stubby Clapp) but also because he's got a blog named after him which is devoted to his now-former team. Here's what the site had to say on Friday:
And, thanks for the concern, but the name of the blog didn't convey any sort of special attachment to the goofy-named ex-Grizzly. It's a play on "Waiting for Godot", a play where the protagonists wait for someone who never shows up, and my snarky way of saying we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for a Giants prospect. My biggest fear was that the guy was going to make the Giants roster, because then I'd really be screwed and have to consider a name change. "Waiting for Merkin" was a possibility, though that would sound like a blog for some freaky fetish site. Not because that's a problem in and of itself, but because it would just get lumped in with already established sites like, "Waiting for a Bullwhip and an Apology".
Oooookay. Anyway, Bonser just turned 22 in October and he got his first taste of AAA at season's end, going 1-2 with a 3.13 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 23 innings. At AA, he was 7-10 with a 4.00 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 135 innings, numbers which are a bit less impressive when you consider that he allowed 20 unearned runs to go with the 60 earned ones.
The Giants have now traded a considerable amount of pitching over the past year: Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, Damien Moss (who they got from Atlanta as part of the Ortiz deal), Kurt Ainsworth (who went with Moss to Baltimore for Sidney Ponson), and Boof. They also lost rookie pitcher Jesse Foppert to Tommy John surgery in September, and ace Jason Schmidt underwent minor elbow surgery (not TJ) following the season. I'm not sure where the Giants plan on getting their innings from next year beyond Schmidt and Kirk Reuter and don't particularly care. But wow, that's a lot of turnover.
Beyond noting that Twins Geek John Bonnes is very psyched to have a boy named Boof to cheer for, I'll let somebody else take a crack at analyzing this deal. The Transaction Guy -- Cub Reporter Christian Ruzich in a new role -- has to say:
The Giants get trash-talking AJ, a good-hitting and solid-defending catcher, marking the end of the Benito Santiago era. AJ is arbitration eligible and should make between $2-3M, assuming the Giants don't sign him to a long-term deal. He'll be 27 next year, theoretically just hitting the prime of a career that's already seen him put up three years of increasing OBP (last year: .360). They give up a pitcher who hit his stride as a reliever this year after a few frustrating, and injury-filled, years as a starter, and two minor-league pitchers who might turn out to be something special.
The Twins open a spot for The Natural, Joe Mauer, who tore up the AFL this spring [sic -- it's the Arizona Fall League] and may be ready to take on the role of starter at the tender age of 20. If his arm is healed, Nathan can start or relieve, though I imagine he'll slide into the role soon to be vacated by LaTroy Hawkins. Bonser and Liriano are probably a few years away from being major league starters, but they are nice pickups for the Twins.
At the tender age of 20 Mauer hit .341/.400/.453 in half a season at AA after going .335/.395/.412 in high A. But despite those numbers and the optimism folks such as Ruz are expressing, I think Mauer, the overall #1 pick in the 2001 draft, is probably a year away from a full-time job in the Show. At the very least, the Twins will need a veteran caddie along with Mauer, with Matt LeCroy able to play behind the plate as well. But with that kind of depth and a mandate to keep their payrolll at the same level, it did make more sense for the Twins to deal A.J. and try to keep one of their stellar relievers (LaTroy Hawkins or Eddie Guardado) instead of losing them both.
Bronx Bonds on the Beat: In the second installment of his interview series, Rich Lederer of Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat catches up with Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. The conversation runs from Alex's girlfriend ("I've always viewed sports and girlfriends like church and state. They have to co-exist but I never try to mix them") to his film career (a post-production assistant on Ken Burns' "Baseball" series, plus he worked for the Coen Brothers on The Big Lebowski) to his celebrity encounters and interviews (from Marvin Miller and Buck O'Neill to Michael Lewis and Rob Neyer) to his to his work on a book about Curt Flood to his favorite Yankees.
But the most revealing part of the interview comes when Alex talks about his often-stormy relationship with his father and how they've managed to connect through baseball:
But from the start, I remember, if not exactly fighting with my dad, then at least some sense of friction that I rooted for the Yankees. I don't know that it was my first baseball memory, but as far back as I can remember my father railed against George Steinbrenner's boorishness, his arrogance. Steinbrenner was a bully, and an out-of-town bully to boot. Dad didn't care much for Billy Martin either. The truth is, as much as my dad despised George and Billy, he possessed similar character traits. At that point, my dad was drinking heavily and his alcoholism cost him his career in the TV business as well as his marriage. He was manipulative and a bully, too. I wasn't aware of that stuff at the time, but I did know that the one Yankee my old man did hold in some regard was Reggie Jackson. He appreciated Reggie's showmanship, not to mention the fact that he was intelligent and well spoken. So I think the fact that I could connect just a little bit with my dad through Reggie made me care even more about Jackson.
Alex exposes some raw, powerful stuff in that interview, and then he delves further into the topic of fathers and sons at his own blog today, even bringing up the aforementioned Bonds piece I wrote about earlier.
It's almost eerie to read about the Reggie link in Alex's relationship with his father; it's a much darker reflection of the special place Reggie holds in my own baseball bond with my father. From the time I came to understand the game on a professional level, Reggie provided a frame of reference between us. He was the superduperstar then, and while we were unencumbered by an obligation to root for his team, my dad and I were as fascinated by his mythology and his loquaciousness as we were of his talent. He was larger than life, but in a happier way, perhaps, than he was in Alex's world.