Friday, December 28, 2018

everything has a reason: the corporate mind of MLB

This series attempts to illuminate human behavior, while assuming each choice has sufficient rational motivation, if not always (entirely) conscious for the actor.
meet the Mets: Robinson Cano
We don't make mistakes, then: we prioritize one motive over another.  It feels good to vent, but people don't suddenly become lazy-crazy-stupid, and even lust, anger and greed have nuances.

(Note: this post strays from film/TV to baseball, but is worded to include the non-fan.)

The recent New York Mets trade for aging, overpaid Robinson Cano (coming off a suspension for Performance-Enhancing Drugs, or PEDs) is part of a web of decisions sketching the game's prospects (disclosure: I'm a diagnosed Mets fan).  This trade has renewed talk of the Designated Hitter¹ coming to the National League, but is only the latest of such indicators:
  1. baseball's fixation on power (home runs, the strikeouts that go with them)
  2. 1997: the inception of interleague (regular-season) play, breaking a 95-year custom
  3. 1998: the Milwaukee Brewers become a National League team, after 29 years in the AL
  4. 2013: the Houston Astros become an American League team, after 51 years in the NL
  5. beyond Cano, aging sluggers on NL teams include Yoenis Cespedes (Mets), Joey Votto (Reds), Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy (Rockies), Buster Posey (Giants) and Josh Donaldson (Braves)
The Midwest switch (#3 and 4) made little sense: Milwaukee and Houston sit at roughly the same longitude, why not leave it alone?  Like interleague play, however, the switch defrayed league identity, already withering from free-agency and the resulting player mobility.  To put it another way: it adds a major market, Houston, to those with a DH history.  Of the greater metropolitan areas in MLB since 1965, only four have no experience with the DH: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

There's DH resonance, too, in December's surprise Hall of Fame selections (by a Veterans' Committee, the second chance for players overlooked by the Baseball Writers of America).  The belated election of Harold Baines and Lee Smith leverages the need for inclusion (both are African-American) on behalf of marginalized positions: the Designated Hitter (Baines) and the closer (Smith).

Many experts say Baines, especially, isn't a valid Hall of Famer (these include Jon Taylor and Darren Rovell).  Still, his election may've held too many benefits to be denied.  Not least, it suggests the elevation of a dozen-or-so borderline hitters, such as Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Gary Sheffield and Edgar Martinez.  Those admissions would, in turn, provide disarming context in the (likely) event the Baseball Writers, increasingly Generation X and Millennials, anoint their childhood heroes (but PED cheaters) Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez.²

Earl Wilson, A.L. pitcher pre-DH,
hit 35 career home runs
As a fan, I oppose the DH.  I'm reminded of the epigram (credited to Eric Hoffer), "you can never get enough of what you don't need."  The DH makes fans power-addicts, impatient for the next "jack."

Devil's due: MLB is going about it the right way.  Increasingly, MLB acts like a (single) multinational corporation, and if the Cano move is questionable for the Mets, it's perfect for MLB.  It bestows a redemptive halo on a high-profile PED casualty, while giving a major NL-market instant rooting interest in DH-expansion.³  (Cespedes doesn't do that: his contract ends in 2019.)

The DH in the NL fits a larger plan.  According to veteran commentator Mike Francesa (WFAN New York), baseball's owners won't shorten the (bloated) regular-season unless salaries also shrink, a third-rail for the player's union.

Given the above, the likely method to protect the game's Golden Goose, the overworked players, is to lessen the travel schedule.  The evident way to do that is realignment, junking NL and AL for an East-West scheme like basketball and hockey.  (Baseball's league structure dates from the early 20th century, when the westernmost teams were in St. Louis.)

The idea of abolishing the venerated leagues would've been scandalous even 10 or 20 years ago, but at this point, who cares?  MLB has been bumping the heat under the (fan) frog's pot.  All clubs play each other in-season, and conveniently, teams including the Red Sox, White Sox, Giants and Cubs broke their respective (World Series) curses, further acclimating fans to epochal change.  Expect announcements in the next 3-5 years.

1. Since 1973, the Designated Hitter rule has a tenth player take the pitcher's at-bats (pitchers tend to be weak hitters).  Excused from playing defense, the DH can be ideal for an aging slugger.  The National League is the holdout: everywhere else uses the DH 

2. In the name of control, younger writers seem bound for irreparable harm to this revered Hall of Fame.

3. (Edit, 20 Jan.) A boom in aging sluggers helped inspire the DH to begin with.  According to 2004's All Bat, No Glove, by G. Richard McKelvey, players whose careers were lengthened "a few more years" by DH inception include "Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Frank Robinson, and Billy Williams" (p. 87).