It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Coverage

In addition to flattering me with some choice casting, El Lefty Malo (a/k/a Alex Lash, a mentor from way back) raised a provocative question in this post last week: is sabermetrics anti-labor?

One thing about our sabremetric era that doesn’t get discussed much: it’s inherently anti-labor. “Efficiencies” is not a word workers want to hear from the executive suite. When Bob Seger sang “I Feel Like a Number,” he wasn’t talking about OPS+ or Revised Zone Rating (and by “Like a Rock” he sho nuff didn’t mean Tim Raines), but there’s more than a grain of truth to the suspicion that all this statistical research turns people into commodities as owners squeeze the most performance from the least amount of capital.

But one man’s soulless Futuramic dystopia is another man’s common sense. Why not try to figure out who actually plays better defense? Why not ask what, exactly, is the pitcher’s contribution to his team’s success? Smart players will take advantage of the technology, too, whether it’s digital video or higher math.

Besides, when we describe baseball players as “labor,” we’re not exactly talking the downtrodden and oppressed. Baseball players are, shall we say, exquisitely exploited. If this report is accurate, Bobby Abreu is about to take a 67% pay cut, and he’ll still make at least $5 million. After pocketing more than nine digits during his illustrious career, Tom Glavine isn’t sure he’s willing to play for $1 million.

…So when I root for the Giants to build the best team possible at the most sensible price, I guess I’m siding with The Man and against my brothers in the fields. So much for solidarity. I don’t feel too guilty. The players’ union, like many other unions in history, has grown from a righteous cause to a juggernaut that has made its share of transgressions. For example, there are some who feel it’s just as complicit as management in the steroids cover-up. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

…What’s all this about? Perhaps as player contracts have increased, they’ve alienated more fans. Perhaps as prices have gone up, the fan base has become more white collar, more identified with ownership, not labor. Maybe it’s the Internet’s fault, making math and statistics and computing power so much easier for kids to get hold of. Damn you, Internet.

At times I’ve wondered about this question myself. In the six years since Moneyball was published, most of its lessons have been absorbed into front offices, but at a pace much more slowly than that of the business world (see Michael Lewis’ epilogue). Those lessons resonated most clearly with an audience of baseball fans who fancy themselves as the next Billy Beane — or, given even greater success — the next Theo Epstein. Stat geeks channel their inner GMs, talking of team-building and refusing to overpay for mediocrity.

Nonetheless, I think it should be apparent that among this crowd is enough understanding of the game’s historical nuances, from the rising and falling tides of offensive levels to the long and sordid history of its labor-versus-management battles, to find plenty of sympathy for the players’ side. Search “Marvin Miller” in the Baseball Prospectus database and you’ll find a wide selection of articles by numerous authors which either tilt towards the labor side or are heavily critical of the management side, and in particular, commissioner Bud Selig. I’ve written about Miller myself, and have long viewed the game’s steroid saga through the lens of the labor battles which left the union with the upper hand when it came to any attempts to impose testing. From a 2004 FI piece:

While I want to see the game I’m so passionate about come up with a sensible way to handle the problem, I see the failure to do already in the context of a labor-versus-management war that has waged continuously for the past 35 years. The owners have historically shown a strong aversion to bargaining in good faith and produced union-busting tactics such as collusion and replacement players, and they’ve offered up a general dishonesty about the game’s financial state as well. None of this justifies the players’ use of such substances, but the owners’ actions haven’t engendered the kind of trust necessary for the Major League Baseball Players Association to join the owners in constructing an effective and proactive means of combating their usage either. While the players’ conduct in this matter hasn’t been exemplary, their hands have yet to be forced, and the MLBPA didn’t get to be the most powerful labor union in history by selling out its rank and file just to appease a casual fan’s notion that everything was a chemical-free hunky dory.

While I had another couple of thousand words to follow this post regarding the less-than-flattering picture of the Major League Baseball Players Association that’s been painted by the A-Rod affair, that entry got stuck in the pipeline behind my other work, and now we’ve got Rodriguez’s press conference shit show to consider…

Or not. While I thought Rodriguez did a particularly craptacular job on Tuesday with his fable of the unnamed cousin administering an compound of unknown effect on an unspecified schedule during that “loosey goosey” era of being not-quite-so-young but certainly stupid, I’m far more tired of the way the mainstream pundits manufacture outrage in 800-word parcels while failing to acknowledge their own culpability in an issue that’s more nuanced than “liar, liar, pants on fire!/cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater!” Remember, those pundits the ones who anointed Rodriguez the New Hope after they were forced to topple the previous gods they anointed such as Mark McGwire. They’re the ones who looked the other way while ballplayers were gobbling greenies back in the day and failed to report the steroid story as it was unfolding in major league locker rooms. They’re the ones who forget that all too often, big-money athletes have big-time failings as human beings, and their ability to hit curveballs 450 feet doesn’t make them saints or qualify them to be role models. Exactly what credentials do they have to serve as judge, jury, or executioner?

A-Rod deserves plenty of anger, sure, but the guy didn’t commit murder, didn’t bust his wife in the mouth for burning dinner, didn’t gamble on baseball, didn’t steal an election, didn’t wage a war based on faulty intelligence, didn’t cause the economy to collapse, didn’t bilk investors out of billions, didn’t cancel Arrested Development. For all of his obfuscations, he’s admitted to far more wrongdoing regarding steroid usage than any other player accused of using ever has, yet there appear to be some who won’t be satisfied with anything less than him opening up his wrists in remorse and bleeding to death mid-press conference while confessing to drowning kittens in puddles of spilled human growth hormone.

Colleague Joe Sheehan hit it out of the park yesterday at BP:

One of the ongoing notions in the past decade’s witch-hunting is that people — really, the media — just want players to confess, to own up to what they did. The idea is that by coming clean, the public — really, the media — will forgive them and allow them to get on with their careers. In fact, most of the case against Mark McGwire is that he didn’t do just that, and baseball fans — really, the media — have never forgiven him. The legal case against Barry Bonds isn’t about drug use, but about words. Rafael Palmeiro failed a test, but his reaction to it, pointing fingers at teammates, is what doomed him. We — really, the media — hate this behavior, belittle it, and yearn for a player who will talk about his use.

Yesterday afternoon, Alex Rodriguez sat down and answered as many questions about his use of performance-enhancing substances as any team-sports athlete ever has. No one has ever gone into the level of detail that Rodriguez did in his statement and in the 40 minutes of questioning that followed. No one has copped to as extensive a usage history. Whether you think he would have been there absent Selena Roberts’ reporting, the fact is that he provided more information about his personal use than any player caught up in this mess.

Yet it’s still not enough for many. The reaction to Rodriguez’s press conference has been at best apathetic, and at worst, critical. His demeanor, his word choice, his expressions, his inflections have all been picked apart, and he’s been given no credit for the details he provided. There’s an assumption that he’s being deceptive, duplicitous, and insincere. Whether this stems from the dislike so many people have for this very insecure man, the dislike of his agent, or the general disdain for the successful and wealthy — let’s face it, sports coverage has devolved into thinly disguised class warfare — this most open moment has been dismissed, and Rodriguez has been given no credit for providing it.

Contrast that with the reaction to the press conference at which the Chargers’ Shawne Merriman openly discussed his… oh, wait, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the NFL doesn’t have a vested interest in making its players look bad to gain the upper hand in an unending war against its own product. The NFL would never sustain a story like that through multiple news cycles, never allow PED use to overwhelm the story of training camps opening, never contribute to speculation that its game and its stars were somehow less than because of their behavior.

The other day, Bud Selig whined that he shouldn’t be held responsible for the so-called “steroid era,” claiming that he wanted to talk about the problem as far back as 1995. As I’ve mentioned, Selig has flipped on this issue a few times, sometimes claiming to have been fighting it for a while, sometimes claiming he didn’t know there was a problem. I suppose he could have been fighting a problem he didn’t know about. It’s not as if Selig was running a needle-exchange program, but given that the man was an owner for 25 years and commissioner after that, I’m going to say that he had both the knowledge and the authority to do more than he did. His busy schedule of misleading Congress, putting out endlessly innumerate claims of poverty, attempting to break the union, destroying franchises, and extorting billions of dollars from taxpayers didn’t allow much time for attacking this issue.

Selig’s announcement last week that he was mulling punishment for Rodriguez was particularly laughable given the non-punitive nature of the original offense (which was supposed to remain anonymous, of course) and the ease with which an arbitrator would have swatted such an attempt away. “Jaffe mulls punishment for Selig” would have been just as credible a headline. The commissioner and the union leadership deserve to be sweating from the heat of the spotlight now just as Rodriguez is.

Anyway, I could go on, but I’ve had enough of this unappealing topic for the moment except to say that the idea that A-Rod is beyond redemption because of this transgression is pretty dumb. He’s got nine more years of playing ball according to the terms of his contract, and while the guy has shown his ineptitude at dealing with life beyond the foul lines, he’s hardly down to his last at-bat in the public sphere. If the media intends to make his every day as miserable as the past several have been — not just for the slugger, but for fans who have some sense of scale regarding his actions and their context, fans eager to embrace the renewal marked by the rite of pitchers and catchers reporting — then this truly is our prison without bars.

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