If Matt Taibbi ran things, there would be more parity, more replays, and more drunk mascots.
If I ran things, there would be more parity (sorry, Yankee fans), more replays, and more drunk mascots. But first, a mea culpa (again, sorry, Yankee fans).
By Matt Taibbi
Another baseball season is upon us, and God help me. I’ve been dreading this for a while now, knowing that sooner or later I was going to have to grab a big wooden spoon out of my kitchen and start eating up that giant bucket of shit that’s been owed me ever since I wrote that “Brian Cashman is a fool to think he can buy a World Series” column around this time last year.
Yes, that was me, cranking out 2,000 words of dead-certain smug-itude about how adding C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira to an 89-win Yankee team couldn’t possibly work, about how Cashman’s plan of building around aging multimillionaire mercenaries with injury histories and no chemistry would end in ignominious failure and, in all likelihood, another Red Sox championship.
I wrote that, and not only did I believe it, I actually thought it was totally logical and that wishful thinking was barely a factor in my reasoning. Then I watched in horror as the Yankees first steamrolled the younger Rays and Red Sox down the stretch, then rode to World Series victory on the backs of its supposedly aging stars, with good-luck charm Kate Hudson cheering from the stands. (I had to mainline Neurontin just to keep my fingers from seizing up as I typed that.)
So, Yankee fans, I stand before you today, your bitch. In fact, at the conclusion of this article I’m going to enclose an e-mail address so that you all can send me 50GB JPEGs of Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, plus whatever other abuse you left out in the past five months of gloating hate mail (that one note I got calling me the “biggest douchebag since Liberace’s boyfriend” was pretty funny). If I receive more than 1,000 letters, I promise to post a video of myself on YouTube listening to an endless loop of John Sterling’s The-e-e-e-e-e Yankees win! while sitting stripped to my underwear in a cardboard box full of dead shrimp for a full hour. I figure that should just about make things even.
Meanwhile, as we begin a new baseball season, it’s clear that the game in the pseudo-post-steroid era still has some issues. Attendance was down 7 percent in 2009, team revenues were flat, TV viewership was in decline (by 10 percent on Fox and 8 percent on ESPN), and several franchises are giving off a very strong death smell (more than 60 percent of the seats at Oakland’s Alameda County Coliseum were empty last year). While the NFL and the NBA have achieved genuine parity, worked out effective salary caps, instituted sensible replay systems, and, well, kept Kate Hudson from playing an important role in choosing the league champion, baseball keeps lagging behind. It seems to me that a few modest changes would improve things immensely.
1. Institute Instant Replay and 2. Time Controls
The jig was up for human umpires when the clearly stoned Tim McClelland made that crazy-ass call in the ALCS last year. As Angels catcher Mike Napoli nearly simultaneously tagged out both Robby Cano and Jorge Posada at third, the whole world could clearly see that neither Yankee was touching the base; you could see it from the moon. McClelland was standing right there, a foot away, staring right at third, and it was like God himself chuckled and reached down from the sky to pull McClelland’s hands out wide for the “safe” sign. The poor guy looked like he’d been hit with an oil tanker as the enormity of his fuckup began to dawn on him, but he still wouldn’t change his call.
The problem with baseball replay is that the game is already too slow. But to me this is an easy fix: Start making the pitchers work faster. Instead of fining slowpokes after the game (the current system), issue a warning and then a balk for guys who circle the mound pondering their portfolios too much. Similarly, start pinging batters like David Ortiz and his glove-spitting routine for excessively time-consuming OCD rituals — maybe start with a warning, then dock them a strike, then move on to forced injections of SSRI antidepressants, which have proven effective against repeated cup-crotch adjustments and other ritualistic behavior.
3. Add a Salary Cap and 4. a Salary Floor
Baseball badly needs a system like those of the NBA and (at least for now) the NFL: hard salary caps that rein in both ends of the spectrum. On the high end, the Yankees and Red Sox blow the curve for everyone by annually making great bonfires of money and inviting the Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles of the world to warm themselves by the existential hopelessness radiating from its flames. The Sox and Yanks are baseball’s own version of the Too-Big-to-Fail Wall Street barons: No matter how much they fuck up or how many toxic assets they accumulate, they can always buy their way out of trouble by speeding past the “soft” salary cap. In a three-year period between 2003 and 2005, the Yankees spent $110 million on the corpses of Jose Contreras, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, and Kyle Farnsworth — moves that would have sunk any other team — and still won the division every year. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have spent ungodly amounts paying other teams to rehabilitate their failed acquisitions. It’s really an amazing list that includes, but is not limited to, the Sox paying $7 million for the Dodgers to enjoy the greatest two months of fertility-drug connoisseur Manny Ramirez’s career, $13 million for the Cardinals to witness the unlikely resurgence of iron-gloved shortstop Julio Lugo, and $11 million for the Braves to see the seemingly arthritic Edgar Renteria turn back into an All-Star. Even so, excepting one year, the Sox made the playoffs throughout the seven-year Theo Epstein era.
On the other end, teams like the Marlins have perfected the art of dirt-cheap mediocrity. A’s GM Billy Beane once put it best: “I think a lot of small-market clubs…ask, ‘Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?’ ” In the case of the Marlins, the player’s union actually had to go to the league and push the team to spend more money. Despite the fact that the Marlins received an estimated $30 million from baseball’s revenue-sharing program, their total payroll in 2009 was just $37 million. In other words, under the current system, poorer franchises can remain welfare bums, fielding whole squads essentially for free, making virtually guaranteed profits serving as glorified AAA teams. It’s gotten so bad that superstar players on small-market teams are often tacitly understood to be the future property of big-revenue clubs, with future Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez and future Yankee Prince Fielder being good examples.
5. Free Bernie Brewer
There probably isn’t a more potent symbol of the insanity of the PC age than the forced sobriety of the Bernie Brewer character at Milwaukee’s Miller Park. The Bernie of the ’70s was a flesh-and-blood dude with a real mustache made of real smelly man-hair, and the setup he had at the old County Stadium involved hurtling down a slide into a giant stein of beer after Brewer homers. He also had a “companion” (the Brewers refused to elaborate on the nature of their relationship), Bonnie Brewer, a real chick who would hit opposing third-base coaches in the ass with a broom. Nobody knew what the hell that meant, which was what made it so funny. After a nine-year exile, fans voted for Bernie’s return in 1993, but what the new management brought back was a scary, fake-ass-looking foam-headed creature with a yellow mustache, a sort of McDonaldland version of a mall pedophile. And instead of sliding into a pool of beer, a ritual that apparently sent a morals-corrupting message (in Milwaukee! A city that does nothing but make beer!), the mall pedophile now must slide onto…a platform. The sight of the “new” Bernie Brewer standing alone on his high perch, waiting to slide down into a nonpool of nonbeer in a dying rust-belt city, is a sure sign of the decline of the American empire.
6. Expand Rosters
If we can’t get a salary cap and floor, then beefing up rosters from 25 to 26 or even 27 would help to restore at least some competitive balance. Thanks in part to the new SABR-geek pitch-count regimens that push teams to keep more pitchers at the expense of position players, the old-school platoon strategy is basically dead. Which means low-budget teams can’t scrape together a pair of guys with big left-right splits like Matt Diaz and Gerardo Parra to match up with one Jason Bay or Matt Holliday. All teams would benefit from expanded rosters, of course, but the smaller teams slightly more, if only because the big teams are handcuffed by their own superior everyday players — the Yankees and Red Sox would not gain much from taking at-bats away from Mark Teixeira or Victor Martinez. Not only would this change help poorer squads steal a win here and there, but Michael Lewis could write another bestseller about small-market franchises striking gold with undervalued unshaven journeymen. Then again, watching the Mets continually roll out Jeff “6-4-3” Francoeur against righty pitching is one of the more entertaining subplots in baseball, right up there with Theo Epstein’s fetish for acquiring every player in baseball named Ramon Ramirez.
7. Put Foreign Players in the Draft
Baseball’s draft royally screws American-born amateurs who can’t sell themselves to the highest bidder the way foreign players can. Just ask Bud Selig to explain how highly polished Nationals flamethrowing prospect Stephen Strasburg is worth $15 million less than Havana wild thing Aroldis Chapman, who recently signed for $30 million despite an ERA over 4.00 in the Cuban leagues. But that’s not the only change baseball should make to its draft. It also needs a rigid slotting system that mandates compensation levels for all picks. Otherwise, richer teams can steal top prospects such as Rick Porcello and Casey Kelly from wuss-bunny teams like the Royals and Padres who pass on them because of their big bonus demands. And perhaps most critical, the baseball draft needs its own Mel Kiper Jr. to hype it on TV, and for that to happen, the leading candidate, Baseball America draft guru Jim Callis, is going to need a Heidi Pratt–level plastic-surgery regime, including the insertion of a diesel-powered titanium jaw and a hair transplant from a Japanese macaque.
8. Save the Whales
Now that the steroid era is supposedly over and second basemen no longer have to look like Siberian cage fighters, can we please bring back really gross fat guys with bad facial hair? The best we’ve got now are Prince Fielder, Boof Bonser, and maybe Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton (whose biggest competitive advantage is that he looks like he’s carrying a humongous dump in his pants), but David “Boomer” Wells in his Yankee prime could have eaten all three of those guys for breakfast and taken the rest of the day off for beer and air hockey. Who doesn’t miss the days when you could peek into the Mets dugout between innings and see Mo Vaughn gnawing on a whole bull elk carcass? Or watch Rich “The Beautiful One” Garcés gain three shirt sizes while warming up between innings? With the new emphasis on defensive metrics, baseball is fast losing its great fat tradition. That’s why blossoming fan favorite Pablo Sandoval is so important to the sport — not only is he the only hitter on the Giants who can reach the warning track, but he might be the only guy left in the league who’s at risk of having a meatball fall out of his glove during play. Bring the fun back, baseball! And for you Yankee fans: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the the April 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.