Major league baseball players earn more, much more, than their predecessors could have imagined in their wildest dreams. One would think that today players would count their blessings, be delighted and the game would greatly benefit from the increased earnings. One would be wrong.
Indeed, the quality of play, the attention to baseball fundamentals—such as bunting, situational hitting, backing up, always hustling and throwing to the right base—has been declining for decades. Players make big money and have better working conditions than ever. However, players, time and again, get long-term contracts, then play the game as if they didn’t care.
That’s something you rarely if ever saw back in the 1950s and 1960s. Granted, that’s when players had few rights. They worked on one year contracts, made good, but not fabulous, salaries. They usually had to have off-season jobs to make ends meet. Today’s star players make enough from one big contract to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, yet some actually whine to the media that they are underpaid.
And it is obvious that some of these high-paid stars just don’t give a damn. For instance, often they will not bust it out of the batter’s box, hustle in the field or sometimes even forget the number of outs. Here is an egregious example of the state of the national pastime. A play in a recent Sunday game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays illustrates how careless, uncaring, play has become the norm, with players, fans and managers accepting these shoddy standards. Of course, this disgraceful state of affairs would have sickened the fans and players of 40 or 50 years ago.
First, before I delve into the disgrace in the Bronx on Sunday May 4, 2014, let me stipulate a few things. I’m glad players earn all the money they can. Why should players be any different from the rest of us who work for a living? How much do I want to earn? As much as possible.
One never knows when a money tap will shut down and a longtime job might end. Usually it ends a bit sooner than one expects. Who knows how long anyone can earn a good living in any profession? (By the way, I know a lot about that since, over the last few years, I’ve stopped being an employee and become an independent contractor with no guarantee of anything except plenty of taxes and filing rules). So the career of a ballplayer, the same as a career of anyone else, can end when one least expects it. So make hay while the sun is shining because there could be clouds over that horizon while your taxes—-and dollar debasement of inflation through the central bank is a de facto tax—-never decline.
Secondly, before returning to the Sunday debacle of the game in the Bronx, I confess that I have been a Yankee fan since roughly age 4. I grew up in the late 1950s on a hill overlooking Yankee Stadium in a South Bronx neighborhood called Highbridge. I don’t expect the Yankees to win all the time. But I do expect the Yankees—-and the other team I love, the Boston Bruins—-to play hard. Then win, lose or draw, I accept what happens. That’s because even the best, most talented, people in anything can’t win every time. That is another reason why a competitive order is exciting, unpredictable and brings out the best in all of us, or most of us.
Unfortunately, in the Yankees-Rays game, I saw an example of the worst of baseball. The game was knotted at one. I believe it was in the third inning the Rays were threatening and put two men on base. Wil Myers, a promising young outfielder with a lot of talent, came up and hit a fly ball to deep right center field. Myers, initially assuming the ball would be caught by Yankee center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, loped down to first base. By contrast, Ellsbury was playing hard. He was tracking the ball when he crashed into the wall. He missed the ball and it rolled away.
Meanwhile, Myers, apparently out for his Sunday afternoon stroll in the park, moseyed down the first-base line and finally realized that his ball was not caught. Then, and only then, he decided to run fast, something major leaguers are supposed to do all the time. He rounded first and stepped it up into high gear. Ellsbury was on the ground and unable to retrieve the ball. Meanwhile, the Yankee right-fielder, Carlos Beltran, initially stood in rightfield. He watched the play as though he had paid to get into the ballpark and was about to order his third beer. Beltran is actually a high-paid superstar working on a three-year contract.
After a while, it finally dawned on Beltran that he was supposed to back up Ellsbury. When he finally came over and retrieved the ball, the newly rejuvenated Myers was actually running hard. He rounded third base and headed home. The throw from the outfield came late. Myers arrived at the plate with an inside the park three-run homer that never should have happened had Beltran done his job.
In the Rays dugout, Myers was all smiles, joking around with his team-mates. In effect, he was saying: “Hey, I don’t have to hustle. And I can still hit a home run.” Later, Yankee manager Joe Girardi, a former Yankee who did play hard when he was a Yankee in the 1990s, said of Beltran: “I don’t think he anticipated what was going to happen,” he told the New York Post. “He didn’t read what could possibly happen there.”
Translation: Yes, I’m manager of the New York Yankees, but it’s difficult to discipline a guy who makes much more than I do and whose contract goes longer than mine. Actually, there’s no interpretation needed for what Hall of Famer and former manager Frank Robinson said a few years ago about the state of baseball: “The players run the game.”
By the way, I saw Frank Robinson play in the 1960s and 1970s. And he was a hell of a player. Just ask the people he played against. And whether running to first base or sliding into second base to break up a double play, Robinson, unlike many of today’s players who probably make ten times as much he did, had one speed: hard and fast.
The men who played this great game hard—-and for a lot less money, and who never received long-term contracts—-would be disgusted with today’s players. The ghosts of Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams and other great players were turning in their graves on May 4th. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, pace Hollywood movie makers, never stood posing when he hit homeruns (No hitter did in that era. If you did, the pitcher would have put you on your back the next time you came up!).
The problem is that many of today’s players have never heard of DiMaggio or the Robinsons, etc, otherwise they would have some respect for this great game. And, like many other Americans, they have no sense of history, any history, even the history of the institution that makes them rich. Yet a philosopher once said that to understand America, one must understand baseball. (I can remember my Viennese grandmother, who had a thick German accent throughout her life, listening to the Yankees World Series game on the radio. Unlike her son—-my wonderful father—-she knew little about baseball. Yet she was struggling to understand what was happening because she instinctively knew that something important was going on).
These spoiled players—-and I hope they are a minority—take for granted what they get today and couldn’t care about tomorrow. Well, when you take something for granted, often you lose it. But many of today’s stars, don’t care about tomorrow. Indeed, tomorrow may be unpleasant for the great game. Yes, old men like me—-I’m 61—love baseball and will always love it. But what happens when my generation is gone in 20 years or so?
The other day I went to a Yankee game with some of my relatives and sat next to a young man in his 20s. He likes the Yankees. As with so many young people, I wanted know his favorite sport. Once again, I received a familiar answer.
“Well, I like baseball. But really football is just the greatest sport of all.”
Fifty years ago I, and many other young people of my generation, thought the opposite. Baseball would be our game forever.
Unfortunately, many of the baseball players of this generation—-with their long-term contracts and don’t work up a sweat attitude—-don’t even think about that.