MLB players restless, and a showdown could be looming
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.”
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.
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.