MLB play­ers rest­less, and a show­down could be loom­ing

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY MICHAEL POW­ELL

I walked into the spring train­ing locker room of the Hous­ton Astros with a ques­tion for the as­sem­bled play­ers. What is go­ing on with the slow pace of free-agent con­tracts this win­ter?

Alex Breg­man, the Astros’ star third base­man, had just fin­ished tak­ing his morn­ing hacks on the field and is likely to be a fu­ture oc­cu­pant of base­ball’s pent­house. He could earn a mu­nif­i­cent con­tract of the sort handed out to Bryce Harper ($330 mil­lion) and Manny Machado ($300 mil­lion) these past two weeks. But he sees many dozens of ballplay­ers who have fallen short of star­dom with­out con­tracts, and that angers him.

Worse, he sees teams con­tent with medi­ocrity: Fewer clubs are com­pet­ing to sign the stars. “A lot of teams seem fine with los­ing and get­ting TV money and mak­ing no at­tempt to sign play­ers,” he said. “That is bad for the game.”

I wan­dered over to Josh Red­dick’s locker. Lithe and a free spirit, he’s a good right fielder and a care­ful ob­server of the game. He sug­gested that per­haps base­ball play­ers should fol­low the lead of NBA play­ers and speak out.

“A lot of guys are pissed off,” he said. “There are a lot of guys who should have jobs who are just hang­ing there. If it takes an­other bad strike to change this, then that’s what we need to do.”

We have ar­rived at a hinge point in sports. From an­gry base­ball play­ers talk­ing strike to quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick to run­ning back Le’Veon Bell to the NBA play­ers LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, pro­fes­sional ath­letes are splen­didly out­spo­ken. They opine on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and pop­u­lar cul­ture and their sport’s eco­nom­ics, and it is in­dis­putably stir­ring to see young men and women look­ing beyond the hori­zon of wins and losses.

Yet politi­ciza­tion plays out in rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ways and not in­vari­ably to the ben­e­fit of ath­letes. Base­ball grooves on and is con­strained by its tra­di­tions. It has a pow­er­ful union, the strong­est in pro sports, and that co­ex­ists with the sense that in­di­vid­u­al­ity is sus­pect and no player is as big as the sport it­self.

So base­ball play­ers sail to­ward a pos­si­ble con­fronta­tion with the own­ers with­out lead­ers who pos­sess the tran­scen­dent cul­tural ca­chet and busi­ness power of, say, a LeBron James.

“It feels like base­ball lives in the past, and that un­der­cuts player power,” said Adrian Bur­gos, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois and ed­i­tor of La Vida Base­ball, which stud­ies the Latino in­flu­ence on base­ball. “Whereas the NBA imag­ines it­self as the fu­ture, and it has to cre­ate a world in which play­ers have more power.”

The NBA, play­ers in many sports will tell you, stands as the zeit­geist pro­to­type, the most free-spir­ited of the leagues and with the youngest fan base – the av­er­age age of an NBA viewer is 37, com­pared with 55 in base­ball. Its stars have be­come hy­brids: play­ers, power bro­kers and globe-span­ning busi­ness­men.

So James, who signed with the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers with an eye to­ward build­ing an en­ter­tain­ment em­pire, spent much of Feb­ru­ary try­ing to force the New Or­leans Pel­i­cans to trade its star cen­ter, An­thony Davis, to the Lak­ers. James’ heist failed amid com­plaints that he had stepped out of his player’s lane and tam­pered with an­other team’s star.

Suf­fice to say James did not ap­pear chas­tened, and Davis could try to force a trade this sum­mer. James has a tele­vi­sion show, “The Shop,” on HBO, and guess who was one of his sched­uled guests on the Sea­son 2 pre­miere on Fri­day night?

Yes, the same A. Davis. The

NBA life is noth­ing if not an in­ter­sec­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.

Base­ball and foot­ball are more tightly bound by their cul­tures and his­tory. The NFL long ago went all in on Death Star dom­i­nance, sated on money and nose wrin­kled in dis­taste for dis­sent. The own­ers cut a pre­sum­ably very large check to Kaeper­nick, who al­most cer­tainly was black­balled for tak­ing a dig­ni­fied knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them. There is no as­sur­ance he will again run out onto an NFL field.

Player sol­i­dar­ity in foot­ball is a barely flick­er­ing lamp. When Bell re­fused to re­port to the Steel­ers’ train­ing camp last fall, The Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette re­ported that team­mates re­moved his name plate and plun­dered his locker of shoes. Bell de­cided to sit out the 2018 sea­son rather than ac­cept a con­strain­ing fran­chise­tag deal.

“The NFL has cap­i­tal­ized in post-9/11 pa­tri­o­tism and the sense that its shield is big­ger than play­ers, and that in­fects the sport,” David Leonard, a pro­fes­sor who teaches about the in­ter­sec­tion of race, cul­ture and sports at Wash­ing­ton State, Pull­man, said.

The NBA is the an­tithe­sis of this. Player and even coach­ing per­sonas – see Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich’s scathing takes on Trump – have be­come cen­tral to its mar­ket­ing ap­peal, a Twit­ter, What­sApp, In­sta­grammed world of hoop­ing and opin­ing. Adam Sil­ver, the com­mis­sioner of the NBA, may not groove on ath­letes’ de­sire to bend teams to their will, but that is wo­ven into the league’s DNA.

Bill Rus­sell, the 85year-old bas­ket­ball leg­end who took a photo of him­self wear­ing a T-shirt with the words, “I’m with Kap,” and tweeted it out, serves as a re­minder, too, that its ath­letes have been out­spo­ken for gen­er­a­tions.

“NBA play­ers are tak­ing a role in their own mar­ket­ing and their own fu­tures,” Leonard said. “You see a con­certed ef­fort not only to wield power but to cre­ate power.”

This has not es­caped the no­tice of base­ball play­ers. In their world, too much in­di­vid­u­al­ity, wear­ing a hat back­ward or toss­ing a bat like a ba­ton af­ter a home run, can draw a roll of eyes.

Red­dick, the Astros’ right fielder, has watched NBA play­ers with ad­mi­ra­tion. “Bas­ket­ball play­ers are very out­spo­ken about their opin­ions,” he said. “Base­ball has al­ways been about giv­ing the generic cliché an­swer that keeps you guess­ing. Bas­ket­ball play­ers are much more out­spo­ken and go into it with a lot of depth.”

An­a­lyt­ics bor­der on holy writ in base­ball front of­fices and for many sports writ­ers, and this too acts to strangely di­min­ish stars even in their mo­ment of glory. So we’re told that Harper, an in­tense and seem­ingly tran­scen­dent young star, is less than he ap­pears be­cause his WAR rat­ing last year (wins above re­place­ment, a rather sub­jec­tive statis­tic) was low. There is the im­plicit sug­ges­tion that play­ers and fans would do well to yield to nu­mer­acy tri­umphal­ism.

That in­sis­tence acts as oil poured on the bon­fire of player dis­con­tent. Stars to the side, more than 70 ma­jor lea­guers re­main with­out con­tracts, and rank-and-file sorts have signed mi­nor league con­tracts in hopes they might clam­ber onto a ma­jor league ros­ter with a good spring. The play­ers note – how to say this sweetly? – the co­in­ci­dence that team com­puter pro­grams seem to kick out con­tract of­fers that oc­cupy the same nar­row band­width.

In the 1980s, such co­in­ci­dence went by the name of col­lu­sion; to­day, it’s ap­par­ently just ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence do­ing what it does.

Zack Brit­ton, a fine re­lief pitcher, signed a three-year, $39 mil­lion con­tract this win­ter with the New York Yan­kees, and counted him­self lucky. “These clubs are all con­trolled by Ma­jor League Base­ball,” he said. “And they are sub­mit­ting al­most the same of­fers, which is kind of weird, right?”

Red­dick has walked this mod­ern base­ball world. He played four years for the Oak­land Ath­let­ics and loved his man­ager and the bleacher bums with whom he par­tied and the Bay Area. When he reached free agency and wanted his compensati­on, well: Hasta la vista, baby.

The Ath­let­ics pull off this tight­wad act with ex­ceed­ingly bright man­age­ment, but it is an ex­cep­tion.

“Un­less you’re a diehard fan and you’ve got a date or you just want to get ham­mered on $9 beers, it’s hard to see why you’d keep go­ing to the games of some teams,” Red­dick said. “It’s a bum­mer be­cause you are sup­posed to want to win games.”

The union-man­age­ment agree­ment ex­pires in two years. In this age of the out­spo­ken ath­lete, the cen­ter may no longer hold. “In 2021,” Red­dick pre­dicted, “a lot of stuff could hit the fan.”

JEFF ROBER­SON AP

Hous­ton Astros’ Josh Red­dick says MLB play­ers should fol­low the NBA play­ers’ lead and speak out against in­equities and own­er­ship. “If it takes an­other bad strike to change this, then that’s what we need to do,” he said.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ AP

Pro­fes­sional ath­letes across many sports say the NBA, with power play­ers like LeBron James, ex­cels at look­ing to­ward the fu­ture rather than be­ing mired in the past.

Josh Red­dick

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