November 2012

Marvin Miller, The Man Who Reinvented Baseball

Last season, $10,000 would have bought you eight front-row tickets to one regular season game at Yankee Stadium.

In 1966, $10,000 was the average salary of a Major League Baseball Player.

1966 was not one of the years of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Inflation since then has not been 7500 percent.  Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan were on the cusp of the majors, the Mets had just gotten the right to sign Tom Seaver, three-year old Jamie Moyer had already thrown a baseball, and Peter Gammons had just begun to write sports for The North Carolina Daily Tar Heel.

1966 is not ancient history. And as Marvin Miller became the head of the nascent Major League Players Association that season, Sandy Koufax was pitching his last campaign for the Dodgers. To get Walter O’Malley Dodgers to pay Koufax just $125,000, Koufax and Don Drysdale had to threaten to sit out the season. Along side them on the Dodgers’ pitching staff, a rookie named Don Sutton was being paid $6,000. Sutton was hoping to soon reach the income of the average major leaguer. Ten Grand didn’t exactly leave you homeless, but if you didn’t also have a regular working stiff’s job in the off-season, it wasn’t enough to raise a family on.

And Marvin Miller changed that.

You can argue that the pendulum Marvin unleashed from its artificial restraint has swung too far to the other side (and you’d be wrong – who is about to sign a six billion dollar contract? The new Dodgers owners, or Evan Longoria?) You can argue that what Marvin wrought has destroyed competitive balance and especially the small markets (and you’d be wrong – in the 18 seasons before his ascent, the Yankees had won 15 pennants and the Dodgers had won nine, and the team then in Kansas City had finished last or in the bottom four 13 times). You can argue that the freedom Marvin enabled has destroyed the continuity of players and made the one-team player nearly extinct (and you’d be wrong – there are 41 Hall of Famers who played for only one team, and a disproportionate number, 11, are from the Free Agent era. The only thing that’s changed is that the players can now initiate their own jarring relocation, not just the owners).

You can also argue that free agency and everything else Marvin Miller accomplished has created that bill for $10,000 for eight tickets at Yankee Stadium, and you’d be wrong yet again. As someone long ago observed, this assumption requires the secondary one that the owners would never have raised prices if there hadn’t been free agency. That assumption ignores the fundaments of business, to say nothing of the reality of baseball pre-Marvin Miller, in which the owners managed to quadruple ticket prices while barely doubling player salaries. As the realities of the new economics of the game unfolded in the ’70s and ’80s it became obvious that for years, for decades, for generations, the owners had been keeping 70, 80, or maybe 90 percent of all revenues, and that even as society grew more affluent and the definitions of disposable income and luxury almost switched places, the owners kept hitting the players over the head with the economic hammer just because they could.

One thing you can not argue is that Marvin Miller hurt the owners. This used to be the first response to the Major League Baseball Players Association that he built: that the man that Braves’ Vice President Paul Richards called a “mustachioed four-flusher” was a communist or a socialist or anarchist who would destroy the game, its owners, and their God-given right to profit. It was an act of faith for owners and Commissioners and even a huge percentage of players (Stockholm Syndrome) that without the Reserve Clause that Miller and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and Peter Seitz brought down, teams would go bankrupt, or at best the small markets would never compete nor last (in the 19 years ending in 1972, 10 franchises moved. In the 40 years since, one moved).

As the first wave of Free Agents mourn him, and all the players since give distant thanks, the owners ought to build statues to Marvin Miller. According to an anecdote told by their then-VPs Buzzy Bavasi and Fresco Thompson, the Dodgers profited six million dollars in 1963 and four million in 1964 (and thus owner Walter O’Malley complained that he’d “lost” two million). That the Dodgers – and everybody else – went from those then-dizzying figures to tens of millions, then hundreds, then to signing multi-billion dollar tv deals – is directly attributable to the new economics that Miller unleashed.

He, personally, put the word “billion” into baseball. Into all sports, for that matter. And via the miracle of imitation, probably into other forms of entertainment.

Marvin once admitted to me that he did not foresee the intangibles that the liberated player would create. Who could have known that player contract negotiations and the covering of them and the kibitzing about them would become an industry that would rival coverage of the game on the field itself? Baseball’s off-seasons used to have occasional trade rumors, an invigorating flurry of deals at the all-too-brief Winter Meetings, and the searing experience of the release of veteran former stars late in Spring Training.

And then suddenly you could spend weeks wondering where Reggie Jackson would go – and the Free Agent Season was born. And suddenly fans, battered by decades of owner disloyalty and now confused by the added mobility of the players, decided they could create their own teams – and Fantasy Baseball was born. And then teams began to offload unsignable players and the drama of the Trade Deadline took on new form and dimensions. And then the idea of trying to scientifically put the proverbial dollar sign on the muscle replaced the “Sign Wayne Garland – he won 20!” methodology, and SABRmetrics began to gain a head of steam that is years away from culmination.

In that he utterly reshaped the way the game was played on the field, Babe Ruth probably reigns supreme on the list of those who changed baseball most. In that they reshaped its color (and our nation’s attitude – and laws), Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson probably share second place. But only they can even be considered above Marvin Miller as men who had greater influence on the history of baseball. As an aside, I do not slight Curt Flood here. I revered him, and was honored to have met him. Conceivably he sacrificed a Hall of Fame career to try to gain for himself and his colleagues the freedom Miller and the arbitrator Seitz and some lunkheaded owners, and Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith finally gave them. But remember that Marvin Miller tried to talk Flood out of suing, and warned him that he was not operating from a position of strength, and that the players did not yet understand why they needed to support him, and that he would probably lose his case. As always, Marvin was – tragically – right. Curt Flood is just behind Miller on this list.

My first personal exposure to Marvin Miller came while covering the second wave of the union’s struggles, in the 1980’s. By 1981 the owners still didn’t see what gifts he had bestowed upon them, and they stubbornly tried to force him to take them back. The players had no choice but to strike, and for 50 days I got to cover Marvin’s profound sighs. I found myself fascinated watching him conduct himself with such an even keel, such aplomb, amid chaos and confusion and anger and fools who would not suffer him, gladly or otherwise. It was an unintentional education, and I later got to tell him so. I’d love to be as good at it some day as he was on his worst day.

Update 4:00 PM EDT: I was just re-watching Hot Stove’s coverage of Marvin’s passing and I thought this was a fitting picture to freeze from the ‘b-roll':

File footage from MLB Network 11/27/12

Marvin Miller, before or during the 1981 baseball strike negotiations. The guy in the mustache and the all-too-thin tie, back left, is a 22-year old radio reporter who would get his first tv shot because CNN’s strike correspondent took two weeks off after the strike was settled.

The original post resumes here:

Even in 1983 the union had its own internecine growing pains. One night I was coming home from CNN and walking up Third Avenue when I saw his unmistakably dapper figure walking down it, towards me. I was going to say hello, but even at a distance I could read that there was something even more focused than usual, even more purposeful, even more burdened, about the look on his face. I thought the least I could do as thanks for all his cooperation with me was to leave him alone.

Later that night I was bowled over to discover that the Union, the direction of which he had turned over to the mediator who had worked the 1981 strike, had rebelled against and unseated his successor. When I passed him on the street Marvin had been on his way to the meeting at which he would help the players rid themselves of the new director, and himself semi-reluctantly came out of semi-retirement to help Don Fehr get on his feet as the new chief.

I mentioned that to him when we spoke two Fridays ago. “I remember,” he said with a laugh. “I thought I was fortunate that that damn fool kid reporter didn’t recognize me!” The conversation did not dwell on the embarrassment that is his absence from the Hall of Fame, nor his complete repainting of the baseball landscape, nor the strikes and other tortures of his 17 years giving birth to his union. It was mostly about his fears for the loss of individual freedom in the American society that would so soon be without him.

Fitting, that, because whatever happened after he achieved it, Marvin Miller’s original goal as the head of the players’ union was freedom – to eliminate the nonsensical conclusion (improbably upheld by the Supreme Court) that because baseball players “played,” their bosses were not truly running interstate commerce. And thus, a 17-year old kid who signed a one-year contract with, say, the Philadelphia Phillies, was actually signing a 25-year contract. Each “one-year” agreement had a proviso allowing the owners to “renew” the contract for another year. And in the renewal year, the proviso re-set, and the contract could be “renewed” again.

It wasn’t actually slavery, but it sure as hell wasn’t freedom.

And that one word was what Marvin Miller was all about.

The Non-SABRmetric Argument Against Miguel Cabrera

It was my privilege to be part of this morning’s MLB Network Hot Stove roundtable on the real election of 2012 – Cabrera v. Trout (reairs at 4 PM ET if you’re reading this before then).

If you noticed the index cards in my hand, you’ll know that I offered a lot of data – not about VORP or WARP or BABIP or any of the new analytics – but essential hardcore boxscore stuff that undercuts the second biggest argument for Miguel Cabrera as American League MVP: That preference has to be given to the guy on the winning team, and that Cabrera ‘carried the Tigers on his back into the playoffs.

Firstly, the Tigers finished with only the seventh best record in the American League. That’s seventh out of fourteen. In the pre-division days they used to call that The Second Division – and it was a sign of shame. As it applies to this topic, there is also this embarrassing reality:

Angels (Trout’s team)           89 wins, 73 losses

Tigers (Cabrera’s team)        88 wins, 74 losses

The Angels, playing in a far tougher division, won more games than the Tigers did – yet any MVP doubt is supposed to fall on Cabrera’s side because he was on “the winner?”

It doesn’t make sense – it’s a remnant of the days when only one team per league made the “post-season” – and it wasn’t Cabrera who won the AL Central, it was Cabrera and the rest of the Detroit team -but I’ll just concede it to Cabrera’s supporters.

What I will not concede is this assumption that Cabrera deserves the MVP over Trout because, since the Tigers made the playoffs, he was necessarily more valuable – especially as the Tigers managed to sneak past the collapsing White Sox ‘down the stretch.’ One of the cards I didn’t get to fully reveal on the show suggests Cabrera was hardly repeating the Carl Yastrzemski feat of 1967 over the last two weeks of the season.

After the games of September 18, the Tigers were two games behind Chicago. The remainder of the season gives us a small but insight-filled sample of what Cabrera did – and what he didn’t do – over the last 15 games.

CABRERA, AFTER 9/18/12:

Games:                                 15

Average:            .291 (16/55)

Homers:                                4

RBI:                                      10

BB:                                          3

It should be noted that three of Cabrera’s RBI came in one game – on September 29 – and two others came on October 2. So he drove in runs in seven of the Tigers’ 15 stretch games.

And there’s a fascinating statistic from those games. The Tigers only won four of them. In other words, they were 4-and-3 when Cabrera drove in runs in a game…and 6-and-2 when he didn’t.

More confusing to the Cabrera “Pennant-Winner” meme, is Detroit’s record when other Tigers drove in runs in those final fifteen games:

TIGERS RECORD WITH RBI BY…

Prince Fielder                  6-1

Alex Avila                         4-0

Jhonny Peralta               4-0

Austin Jackson               4-1

Delmon Young                4-1

Andy Dirks                       3-1

Miguel Cabrera               4-3

But…those RBI in those four games won those games, right? The MVP surely did something essential in the most essential of simple stats, down the stretch, right?

Not really, no.

This is from a card I was in the middle of reading when Chris Russo cut me off. He had reason to do so.

CABRERA RBI AFTER 9/18/12, DETAILS:

1. 9/19: Tigers leading 4-0 in 7th when Cabrera hits solo HR (6-2 win)

2. 9/22: Tigers leading 7-0 in 4th when Cabrera hits solo HR (8-0 win)

3. 9/23 (1st Game): Scoreless in 4th: Cabrera RBI 2B produces 1-0 lead (10-4 loss)

4. 9/23 (2nd Game): Scoreless in 1st: Cabrera RBI 2B produces 1-0 lead (2-1 loss)

5, 6, 7. 9/29: Tigers leading 2-0 in 7th when Cabrera hits three-run HR (6-4 win)

8. 10/1: Tigers leading 1-0 in 6th when Cabrera hits solo HR (6-3 win)

9, 10. 10/2: Tigers losing 1-0 in 3rd when Cabrera 2-RBI 2B produces 2-1 lead (4-2 loss)

I’d grade the actual game situations in which Cabrera produced as ‘tepid.’ Two of his RBI (and half of his homers) were clearly unnecessary tack-on runs. His three-run blast on September 29th would prove necessary when the Tiger bullpen melted down; the solo job on October 1st might have been necessary – hindsight can’t give us a clear answer. On the other hand, the drove in the first run in both games on September 23rd, and his double wiped out a one-run deficit on October 2nd – and that the Tigers blew all three of those games should not subtract from the clutchness (clutchiness?) of those hits.

My point in here is not to dismiss what Cabrera did for the Tigers as the White Sox plummeted past them. There are countless fielding plays, runner advancements, and just his presence in the lineup to consider as “clutch” contributions. But the RBI-by-RBI examination proves conclusively that Miguel Cabrera did not carry the Tigers on his back down the stretch. He was not the slam-dunk MVP of his own team at the team it mattered the most. Without fine-toothed comb examinations of each game it’s hard to say who was, though the superficial data suggests it was Fielder.

I’ve already gone on at length about why I don’t think the Triple Crown matters in MVP voting (it’s outdated analytics, as dangerously misleading as if we based the voting on the first set of statistics that were so popular pre-1871, which was a ratio of Runs Scored to Outs Made). But I added one bit of research that underscores Rob Neyer’s point that if you have a Triple Crown, it usually means that a lower-than-normal average or homer or RBI total has proved to lead the league in what can only be described as a happy anomaly:

LOWEST AVERAGES TO LEAD AMERICAN LEAGUE SINCE THE INTRODUCTION OF THE DESIGNATED HITTER IN 1973:

.326   Bill Mueller, Boston, 2003

.328   Joe Mauer, Minnesota, 2008

.329   George Brett, Kansas City, 1990

.330  Miguel Cabrera, Detroit, 2012

.331   Michael Young, Texas, 2005

Cabrera won the Triple Crown – in part – because batting average was way lower than usual, and he produced the fourth lowest average among the last 40 A.L. batting champions during a year in which he had terrific homer and RBI numbers.

So you don’t have to go to WARP or VORP or VOR-WARP to deflate the Cabrera MVP qualifications. Good old-fashioned numbers and easy to read details can do it for you.

Oh, by the way, about clutch? During that same post-9/18 time, Trout went 16/52 (.308) with three homers, six RBI, and ten walks. Moreover, after August 19th, as the rest of the Angels made their feeble attempt to stay alive in the West, they were unbeaten…in games in which Mike Trout drove in runs.

The Marlins: A Modest Proposal

So. Time to take Marlins Park and: A) Disassemble it; B) Crate it; C) Sell It; D) Ship it to San Jose (or Oakland, or Portland, or San Bernardino, Austin/San Antonio/Round Rock, or – wherever).

Now that the Miami experiment is over (as forecast here a year ago next week, and reiterated here last June) and Hanley Ramirez, Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and the merely arbitration-eligible Emilio Bonifacio have either been offloaded in A Going-Out-Of-Business-Sale (or are about to be), the Marlins are officially the Montreal Expos of the 2010’s and baseball is unofficially dead in Florida.

Notice I did not write South Florida. All of it. Rays’ owner Stu Sternberg was already less than sanguine about getting significant scratch from the state and local governments for a new ballpark that is absolutely essential to his survival in Tampa/St. Petersburg. If he had any hopes left after the disastrously low crowds for the free ballpark the good burghers of Florida gave Jeffrey Loria, they have to be gone now and he has to be looking elsewhere.

There are all sorts of other implications if the Reyes/Buehrle/Johnson deal to Toronto is completed as advertised. Obviously, this revivifies a Toronto franchise that was already showing signs of being on the upswing last year and as far back as 2010-11. It sure knocks the price down for whoever is the Jays’ first choice for the manager’s job. It might make John Farrell a little remorseful. And it buries the Yankees in the American League East; there would now be at least three other teams in the division with more talent than New York. The prospects of Alex Rodriguez going to the lame duck Miami franchise (first reported blah blah blah here and blah blah blah ) might actually have increased, on the premise that Loria and MLB have to do something to make it at least look like they’re trying to field a product worthy of 2013 big league ticket prices).

But the biggest long-term implications are fairly simple: the franchise carousel, all but quiet since the upheaval of the 1953-72 era, will begin to spin again.

Miami has a slight chance of survival (that stadium is standing, and a mess of prospects can suddenly win a division – ask the Oakland A’s about that) but Tampa Bay is gone. One would assume that at the latest the season of 2020 opens without a Florida team in the majors.

Where do the Rays (and probably the Marlins) move?

Here are the top U.S. Metropolitan Areas without MLB teams ranked by population, on 2011 estimates drawn from the Official 2010 United States Census:

12. Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario CA          4,304,997

23. Portland OR/Vancouver WA                            2,262,605

24. San Antonio/New Braunfels TX                      2,194,927

25. Sacramento/Roseville CA                                  2,176,235

26. Orlando/Daytona Beach FL                             2,171,360

30. Las Vegas                                                               1,969,975

31. San Jose                                                                  1,865,450

32. Columbus OH                                                        1,858,464

33. Charlotte/Gastonia NC                                       1,795,472

34. Austin/Round Rock TX                                      1,783,519

35. Indianapolis                                                          1,778,568

36. Virginia Beach/Norfolk                                     1,679,894

37. Nashville                                                                 1,617,142

Nashville you say? Virginia Beach? Hahahahahahaha?

Not so fast. Every metropolitan area on this list is larger than Milwaukee and Riverside, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento are bigger than Cincinnati. There are certain practacalities here. All of Southern California is Dodger/Angel territory and the Magic Johnson group that just spent Eleventy Billion on the Dodgers isn’t going to give up claim on anything. Though Texas is a big place don’t tell that to the Rangers and Astros, who claim both the San Antonio and Austin zones. Columbus is Cleveland’s territory (unless it’s Cincinnati’s), Orlando would have at least some of the same problems as Tampa/St. Pete, and the Giants and Athletics are in their fifth different decade of arguing over San Jose.

So the Rays go to Portland and the Marlins to Sacramento? Not so fast.

You know who’d be 15th on the list – right between Phoenix and Seattle – if we made it of not American metropolitan areas but North American?

Right.

15. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Regional population: 3,824,221.

But wait, didn’t things go very badly in Montreal before? They certainly did, but not because of the city nor its love of baseball. Corrupt government and underfunded ownership and a betrayed fan base – all of them saddled with the greatest white elephant in the history of North American sports construction, Olympic Stadium. In every full season between 1979 and 1983 – even in that XXL Airplane Hangar – Les Expos drew at least 2,102,173 fans a year.

The peak total – 2,320,651 in 1983 – edged out the Cardinals for second place in National League attendance, and was just about a million more than the Mets drew in New York. It was about then that stuff started falling from the roof of the tribute to provincial graft, and star players started falling off the Expos’ roster. But make no mistake about it: Montreal supported baseball. As late as 1997 the Expos still brought in a million-and-a-half fans (more than the Mets or the Giants).

If all that could not be done in the ’90s and ’00s could be put together – a downtown stadium with government support, plus a well-run franchise making a long-term commitment – baseball’s second try in Montreal could be a triumph. And consider if it were the Rays fleeing north. Not only would Montreal get that well-run franchise, but it would suddenly find itself in a division with rivals from hated cities like Boston and New York…

…and Toronto.

Montreal and Toronto in the same division. Genius, I tells ya. Genius.

It’s a win-win. Unless you’re one of those few Florida baseball fans.

Oh yeah, I left out a fifth thing to do about the Marlins and Marlins Park: E) Ship Giancarlo Stanton separately. And while you’re at it, you might as well start wrapping uber-prospect Christian Yelich too.

 

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