Tuesday, April 16, 2002

2002 Season: First Impressions

Strike Nine!

So it's only two weeks into the season, and already reporters and commentators are playing the "on pace" game. You know the one: Barry Bonds is "on pace" to hit 113 home runs, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson are "on pace" to win 35 games each, and the Detroit Tigers are "on pace" to lose 162. It's all bunk, of course, but this year Johnny Sportswriter may be doing us a service. The way things are going, fantasy projections might be all we have to remember the 2002 season by.

For the first time since 1994, Major League Baseball began the year without a collective bargaining agreement in place. As most of you will recall, 1994 brought a nasty strike that managed to do what the Great Depression, two world wars, and the Loma Prieta earthquake could not: cancel the World Series.

But apart from the duration of the work stoppage, 1994 was a pretty typical year for baseball, in the sense that every labor contract expiration since 1972 has been followed either by a player’s strike or an owners’ lockout. The current total is eight work stoppages.

Plainly, the odds of going a full 162+ games this year are not good. The owners got some good press early on by pledging not to lock players out during the season, but those promises meant essentially nothing. During the season, the players have all the leverage. The owners get almost all their income from putting butts in the stands. They're far more likely to declare an impasse and impose a lockout the day after the World Series ends than any time during the regular season. If there is a work stoppage during the season, it will be a players’ strike designed to keep the owners from unilaterally imposing new work rules after the season ends (which, due to the mind-numbing intricacies of labor law, the owners are allowed to do).

No baseball fan wants to see a strike, but if and when one occurs, don’t buy into the "screw those greedy players" hype that hacks like Mike Lupica like to peddle when talking the business of baseball. Yes, the players make a lot of money, but no one put a gun to Tom Hicks’s head and made him pay A-Rod 250 large. And contrary to conventional wisdom, baseball tickets, concessions, parking, and souvenirs have not become prohibitively expensive because of escalating player salaries. Basic economics tell us that player salaries are high because ticket prices are high, not the other way around. If you flunked basic economics but got a gentleman’s C in statistics, consider that there is absolutely no correlation between where the various teams rank in terms of payroll and ticket price. If you flunked both those subjects, just remember back to your days at Big State University when you used to have to pay pro-level ticket prices to see unpaid athletes.

I could riff all day about the ins and outs of baseball economics, but we’re going to have plenty of time for that when the season comes to a premature end. For the time being, suffice it to say that labor negotiations aren’t simple, and only in the simple mind of guys like Mike Lupica do single issues like player greed adequately describe their dynamics.

Enough of that sad business for now, what else is going on?


The Detroit Tigers fired their manager and general manager a mere week into the season. Though no one who knows anything would suggest that it was a bad move to let Phil Garner and Randy Smith go, it's hard not to question the timing. Presumably, five or six months ago, Tiger honcho Dave Dombrowski thought that Garner and Smith were the right men for their jobs. Otherwise else he would have fired them back in November or December. But now, a mere six games into the season, they’re suddenly wrong?

Dombrowski may have done the right thing getting rid of Smith and Garner, but he gets a half-point deduction for style. If he would have cleaned house before the season, he would have sent Tiger fans a clear message that he was assuming responsibility for changing Detroit’s losing ways. Having waited to move until the Tigers had posted an 0-6 start, Dombrowski will now no doubt spend the next six months laying all the blame for the wretched season (did you hear that the Tigers are on pace to lose 162 games?) on the Garner and Smith-led slow start. Just watch, next winter, Dombrowski will be telling the Detroit Free Press how the 2003 season is really his first crack at making the Tigers into a winner.

Addition by Subtraction

In 1998, the Seattle Mariners had Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez on their roster. All four were clearly the best players at their respective positions at the time, and both Griffey and Rodriguez could reasonably claim to be the best player in all of baseball. The 1998 Mariners were less than the sum of their parts, however, and finished with a dismal 76-85 record.

Each of the following three seasons, the Mariners shed one of their marquee players, with Johnson and Griffey leaving by trade, and Rodriguez via free agency. The Mariners improved slightly in 1999 after losing Johnson, dramatically after Griffey’s departure in 2000, and went off the charts (116 wins) in 2001 after saying good bye to A-Rod. No one expected the Mariners to recover from any of these defections, let alone thrive, but thrive they have.

Last week the last of Seattle’s four stars -- Martinez – went down with a torn hamstring. I hereby predict that they will not lose a game for the rest of the season.

Anarchy Watch: The Texas Rangers

Before Opening Day I suggested that the Rangers were flirting with disaster by signing John Rocker, Carl Everett and a handful of other notable malcontents. Two weeks out of the chute, it looks like the great chemistry experiment is coming along quite nicely. In keeping with today’s other predictions and projections, I’m setting May 17th as the before/after line for a full blown Ranger implosion. I’m not exactly sure how the inevitable chaos will usher itself in, but I wouldn’t rule out fisticuffs, a clubhouse coup, or multiple superstar trade demands.