Thursday, December 6, 2007

Saving the BBWAA from Themselves

I was a big professional wrestling fan back in the 80s. Even though I knew it was all fake, I still bought those silly kayfabe wrestling magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated, The Wrestler, and the like. Don't judge me. If you knew a better way to find out about the deepest thoughts in Pistol Pez Whatley's head, I would like to have heard it.

Anyway, one of the articles I remember most from those days was a supposedly in-depth interview of Ric Flair by PWI's fictitious gonzo journalist Matt Brock. I'm sure the whole thing was fake, having been conceived and written in Bill Apter's apartment one gray afternoon, but it was a hell of a piece. The setup: Flair invites Brock to his stately manse to give the PWI readers a day-in-the-life flavor of the Nature Boy. My memory of the specifics is a bit fuzzy, but the piece unfolded much like that Simpsons' episode where Mr. Burns is showing Homer around his mansion in an effort to impress and intimidate ("Look Homer, it's the world's largest television set . . .a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters," etc.).

The part I do remember was the end. Flair takes Brock out to the garage and shows him something like a dozen luxury cars he owns, among which I'm sure were some Delorians and V-12 Jags. Flair tells Brock that he's free to take one of them for himself. Any one he wants, because the Nature Boy is nothing if not generous. Brock stops and considers the offer, then turns on Flair and tells him that even if his journalistic ethics didn't prevent him from doing that -- which they most certainly did -- Matt Fuckin' Brock was not for sale, not even to the NWA Champ. Brock closes the piece by harrumphing his way off Flair's property, while the Nature Boy screams something about how important he is or Space Mountain or beating the man to be the man or somesuch.

I hadn't given a moment's thought to that story for over twenty years. But then yesterday, the BBWAA announced that they had voted to exclude from MVP, Cy Young, and ROY award ballots any players whose contracts call for bonuses based on their placement in the voting. This was done in large part because of Curt Schilling's latest contract which calls for him to receive a million bucks for a single writer's Cy Young vote. More to the point, it was done because Schilling, like others, made a kickback joke about it on his blog. Posnanski went nuts.

As I was chewing on this development on my way to work this morning, I became increasingly annoyed. Why should one dumb provision -- the only one I know of to ever turn on a single award vote -- effectively scuttle an entire category of contract incentives? Incentives, it appears, that both ownership and the players liked. These kinds of incentives often work to bridge the gap in negotiations. They also do a lot to solve the fundamental problem of guaranteed player contracts in that they attempt to compensate future as opposed to past performance.

There are two basic reasons for this move: (1) to eliminate the whole "appearance of impropriety" thing that stems from writers' votes working to financially benefit players (as Posnanski put it, "I could not vote on something where my signature may or may not earn Curt Schilling $1 million); and (2) to prevent a writer from actually voting in order to get a kickback.

As a lawyer I'm awful sensitive to "appearance of impropriety" arguments, but when it comes to the BBWAA, the horse is already out of the barn. Incentive clauses or not, awards like the MVP and Cy Young already directly enrich the players who receive them in the form of larger contracts and endorsements. So to do years of good press, as teams often go the extra mile to sign or retain perceived good citizens and stand-up guys, with such reputations often turning on the very words written by BBWAA members over the course of a few seasons. The writers are uncomfortable with being perceived as impacting player compensation? Don't vote on the awards, period.

As for the latter problem -- preventing actual impropriety -- one has to think that there exists a less obtrusive means of preventing it. Someone shoots Schilling a Cy Young vote for an 8-16 4.84 ERA season? Pull the writers' BBWAA card. If it's a closer call, convene a conclave and require the writer to justify their vote (actually, maybe this should be done regardless).

In other words, police yourselves, baseball writers. Don't force teams and players to suffer a substantial inconvenience in order to save you from your own self-doubts and lack of willpower. If Matt Brock was fully capable of doing it, I'm sure you can too.


Pete Toms said...

This move by the BBWAA is baseball's chattering classes at it' worst. What a bunch of self important BS.

I feel smug today about not following Hall of Fame debates because this points out how pompous and arrogant this group of men ( are there any women in it? ) can be. As somebody said, it's not the players Hall of Fame, it's the writers'.

Anonymous said...

Why is contract information always public knowledge, anyway? I don't know what everyone else in my office makes. Why is sports different? Why can't it just be "Andruw Jones signed with the Dodgers today. The details of the contract were not released?"

Shyster said...

That's a good question, actually. There may be some simple reason for it we're not aware of. Maybe it's in the CBA or something. Pete -- you tend to know about this stuff. Any ideas?

Otherwise, I can see both managment and players having a general incentive to make things public, with each side thinking that public knowledge of deals will help their bretheren in future negotiations. In reality of course it would be a case-by-case thing in which public knowledge of below market deals helps owners and top of market deals helping players.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm all for incentive clauses if players make certain performance levels.

But, by the same reasoning, why can't the owners dock players salaries for failing to make certain perfromance levels.

If Alex Rodgriguez get a bonus for winning the MVP (does he really win it, or is he just honored with it), then someone like Andruw Jones should get penalized for a
.315 OBP.

Yeah, I know it will never happen. But it seems to me fair is fair.