I imagine most people reading this have a favorite team. And over time, you’ve likely had numerous players on that team whom you particularly enjoyed watching play. But when push comes to shove, who receives your greatest loyalty, the team or the players?
I’m a Cardinals fan, and I greatly enjoyed Albert Pujols‘ contributions to the Redbirds’ success during his 11 years wearing the birds on the bat. Since he’s left St. Louis? Sure, I’ve been happy for him when he’s done well — getting his 3,000th hit as well as his 500th and 600th home runs — but it’s not the same. He’s an Angel now, not a Cardinal, so I’m simply not as invested in his accomplishments.
This stance is probably understandably similar for most of you. Teams are (mostly) eternal, while players are ephemeral. Can I name the starting eight position players for the 2011 Cardinals? Probably not, but I still know they won the World Series that year.
When it gets flipped, however, is when we go off the playing field and into the negotiating room. When the owners and players are battling over matters of the game — particularly the divvying up of the loot — I largely stand behind the players. The owners become the faceless, monolithic corporations that extort billion-dollar ballparks from their communities and work extremely hard to give the players as small a portion of the pot as possible, while the players have short careers and are positioning themselves to take care of their families as much as possible before their careers end.
Of course, it’s not that cut-and-dried. Both sides have their virtuous and unseemly characteristics. Each group is willing to put their interests before others.
But regardless of who sticks it to whom for their own benefit, it’s largely the players who suffer the vitriol of the fans and media when the two sides clash. The question is, why is that? The answers actually make a lot of sense — even if they really don’t.
Rooting for Laundry
Jerry Seinfeld famously said it better than I attempted to above when he proposed the idea that fans root for a certain set of clothing moreso than the players wearing those clothes. The St. Louis Cardinals franchise is older than every single person on the planet. Sure, there are a few current major leaguers who started playing before the last team relocation (when the Montreal Expos morphed into the defending-World-Series-champion Washington Nationals). But overall, your team is your team from the time you first become invested in sports until either your passion or your body ceases.
Nolan Ryan holds the modern-day record with 27 seasons under his belt, which is inconceivable. It’s also not even a quarter of the time since the National and American Leagues first agreed to square off in October to crown a single champion. And Ryan played for four different franchise in his career, so it’s difficult to associate him with a single team.
Players don’t outlive their teams. And because of that, we naturally root for our team, because the team — even if the colors and logos are sometimes updated — is constant. While my dad could tell me about Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, and we enjoyed the magic of Ozzie Smith and Pujols together, my father is no longer here, so we can’t witness the joy Jack Flaherty’s excellence together, and we won’t be able to discuss whether Dylan Carlson is going to be a star. What we did share was an affinity for our team, regardless of which players comprised the roster in a given season.
This inclination towards team affiliation builds a certain loyalty. And free agency has made the distinction between a team and its players even more pronounced. Fifty years ago, Pujols would have been another Cardinals lifer like Musial. Now his career is going to be almost evenly split between eastern Missouri and southern California. Those two fan bases have little else in common.
So when there is strife between teams and players, most fans tend to side with the entity that has captured their hearts and minds for multiple decades. Fans want to see their teams play, knowing full well the superstar they’re watching today will be, at best, someone who eventually is honored during Old-Timers’ Day or, at worst, in the uniform of their most heated rival tomorrow.
It’s the laundry that matters most. Right or wrong, that’s where the fans’ loyalties lie.
Playing a Kids’ Game
Who wants to hear players whine about their situation when they’re rich, famous, physical specimens who got to where they are simply by doing what we all did as kids? Never mind that they’ve worked extremely hard from the time they were little, through high school, possibly college, and a few years enduring the drudgery of the minor league grind to finally get a crack at the big leagues — and the big money.
“I’d play the game for free!” you hear many fans lament. But would they, really? How many fans would be willing to put in all that work and tolerate the low pay, bad food, and long bus rides in the bush leagues, just to have a tiny chance at earning a big league salary? Very few, most likely.
But when many fans see players throwing, hitting, and catching a ball, it’s relatable to the extent we’ve all done this ourselves. How hard can it be, and why should someone get millions of dollars to do it? My dad was stunned when the first players started earning $3 million per season. I can guess how he would receive the news that several players now take in more than ten times that amount.
So when millionaire ballplayers have issues with billionaire owners trying to capture more of the MLB pie, fans have little sympathy. They largely expect the players to quit complaining and get out on the field and play. After all, who wouldn’t give anything to be that lucky — regardless of the reality behind that “luck?”
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
How many players could you identify from a photograph? A few dozen? A few hundred? How many baseball cards did you have when you were growing up? Thousands? Each with a picture of a given player. Players are literally the face of the game.
Now, how many owners’ faces can you bring to mind? Maybe George Steinbrenner. Former owner Marge Schott, perhaps. And commissioners? You may know what Rob Manfred looks like, and probably his long-tenured predecessor, Bud Selig, too. Members of team management? Theo Epstein, maybe? A few others, perhaps.
Generally, when people envision major league baseball, they think of the players, not the owners. So when fans hear about baseball’s labor problems, they picture Mike Trout, Gerrit Cole, Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich — the superstars of the game, the same guys who also happen to have massive bank accounts.
When you think of Liberty Media, corporate owner of the Atlanta Braves, does any individual come to mind? How about the Ricketts family that owns the Cubs? Some of Chicago’s Northsiders might recognize one or two family members, but in general, ownership is faceless.
And it’s easier to identify a villain when you know what he looks like.
Controlling the Message
Owners know they have the above advantages, and they press their edge by acting first to get the public on their side. The most recent example is ownership’s claim of $4 billion in losses this year if games are played without fans. Four. Billion. Dollars. That strikes a nerve with all of us, because that’s a massive claim.
Is it real? Well, the $1.35 billion in national television revenue wasn’t considered. The hundreds of millions of dollars in amateur signing money that’s being deferred until 2021 and ’22 was all lumped into this current season’s claimed losses. Manipulations of local broadcast income through regional sports networks — along with any number of other accounting tricks — were certainly applied to make the owners’ situation appear as dire as possible.
Meanwhile, the players have been inadvertently — and much to their misfortune — represented by Blake Snell, who went on a social media rant to say, among other things, “I got to get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK? That’s just the way it is for me… the money I’m making is way lower.” Snell’s 2020 contract originally was set to pay him $7.6 million, with another $40.8 million in future earnings locked in — barring a reduction in games played in future seasons. Poor guy, right?
The oft-contentious Bryce Harper supported Snell, saying, “He ain’t lying. He’s speaking the truth, bro. I ain’t mad at him. Somebody’s gotta say it, at least he manned up and said it.” The more level-headed Nolan Arenado concurred, saying, “(Snell) made a lot of good points.” Of course, Arenado also acknowledged, “Trying to get the public to understand us, it’s not going to work very well in our favor.”
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark is typically perceived as being in over his head, usually responding to management’s message with a milquetoast demeanor that never seems willing to fight. And then when super-agent Scott Boras chimes in, well, you know fans aren’t likely to respond well. His bombastic style and clear financial focus almost always rub fans the wrong way.
The owners frequently go on the offensive, setting the baseline in the court of public opinion and putting the players on their heels, forcing them to argue from a defensive position. This has been the pattern for decades, and the MLBPA seems ill-equipped to change its behavior.
As usual, negotiations between owners and players will play out both behind closed doors and in public. Load pronouncements and purposeful leaks of information will inform fans of the state of debate.
Everyone wants baseball to resume. It’s the how that has to be worked out. And once again, if there’s a hangup — another delay to the start of the season, or worse yet, a full cancellation — it will be the players who will be burdened with the majority of the blame. Will that be fair? Probably not, but it’s understandable why fairness won’t matter and responsibility will be assigned largely to them.
Greg has been a writer and editor for The Hardball Times since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.