Class WAR, Or Towards Communist Baseball

Baseball's economics are insane in basically every way, but there's one simple way to start fixing that: get rid of the owners.
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Ian Kennedy should’ve gotten $170 million. Or $170,000. Anyway, $70 million is just unfair and absurd.

We’ll get back to that in a bit, but first, pop on your synthrock-chic They Live sunglasses and join me in a look at MLB ownership. To the naked eye, MLB’s ownership class looks like a bunch of clean-shaven pink men in oxford shirts; through those They Live lenses, though, MLB ownership is revealed as a giant, bulbous leech latched onto the crown of your skull, telling you that your hair looks perfect.

Or something like that. The point is that MLB owners are and have always been both unnecessary and vampiric. They siphon the proceeds from a very lucrative system to which they contribute very little beyond hustling subsidies from the public for elaborate and easily marketable stadia; beyond that, their main purposes appear to be holding up championship trophies on television before the players can get their sweaty fingerprints all over them and allowing broadcasters an opportunity to genuflect before rich men. Somehow, owners have managed to convince us that they deserve to exist. They are not unlike many of capitalism’s other apex rentiers in that sense. None of this is news to anyone who cares to notice it. Baseball owners are one of the worst parts of the game, and yet I rise, here, to make a point with which they probably agree: players make too much money.

It sounds myopic and backwards without context, but it’s true—in no way do current player salaries represent anything close to proper compensation for the skills even the best players possess. Do I think watching Clayton Kershaw throw curveballs is the baseball version of reading the episodes of Ulysses—or one of the episodes I understand, anyway—or listening to a Rachmaninov concerto? Yes. I do think that. I love baseball. There’s almost nothing I’d rather do than watch Clayton Kershaw throw pitches.

But does that mean Kershaw should be rewarded with surreal amounts of money and resources to hoard while others — in baseball’s economy and beyond — struggle to get by despite being more empirically useful members of society? There’s something about Clayton Kershaw’s talent making him rich that makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s just. He makes too much. So does Anthony Rizzo. Mike Trout, too. Even Salvador Perez — who is criminally underpaid relative to his production within the scope of the garish MLB marketplace — is overcompensated if you consider the fact that his most impresive skills would only otherwise be useful in a postapocalyptic hunting-irradiated-rabbits-with-rocks scenario.

Even in the microeconomics of professional baseball, minor leaguers receive shockingly paltry compensation despite their pivotal roles in the MLB superstructure. In Latin America, impoverished countries act as low-overhead human commodity factories; the Mexican baseball league is shockingly feudal; the one-sided posting systems MLB employs against the Nippon Professional Baseball League and the Korean Baseball Organization punish players and reward owners in a way that serves virtually no one. The MLB Players Union is forced to remain so steadfast in their battle with the game’s perpetually radicalized management—and represents players so accustomed to being so rich—that it cannot even consider a scenario in which the players would take less.

The crushing logic of greed does a good deal to explain all this—the MLB is not a free market, but what rules the market rules here, too. At the most basic level, there is something inescapably ludicrous about profound fortunes being laid at the feet of guys who are good at running around in costumes. And yet at least the players actually contribute something special; it’s not any more just to take the absurd surpluses given to players and pass them on to the even more absurdly-compensated owners. This brings us back to Ian Kennedy.

Obviously, Kennedy contributes something special, if not a great deal of it. He might seem to be a boring, slightly above-average starter who just scored a huge free agent deal because of a massive influx of profit into the league and what are projected to be a few years of pitching-weak free agent classes; he pretty much is all that. But, it’s worth remembering that Kennedy is only average relative to his peers, and is also one of the 150 or so best starting pitchers presently walking the earth.

Still, fans seem to agree, Kennedy is definitely overpaid. His five-year, $70 million deal with the Royals was met with awed disapproval pretty much across the board. There is not a lot of unanimity to go around in baseball, but almost no one in the baseball world thinks Kennedy is being underpaid . Which makes sense, because he just signed a contract that will reward him like a pharaoh for being pretty good—not great, but pretty good—at throwing a ball. Perhaps the only thing less valuable  than that,  in terms of real-life social utility,  is arbitrarily claiming ownership of someone else’s ability to throw a ball. Naturally, the people doing that are doing even better than Kennedy is.

It goes without saying, but the idea, here, is that a massive tax on massive salaries would not be exclusive to baseball players. Given their narrow earning window, it’s quite a bit easier to sympathize with a baseball player making $4 million a year than it is to sympathize with an investment banker earning the same amount. Either way, a lofty tax on obscene salaries like those could do a lot to correct a market that is severely flawed in terms of balance and proportion. Taking a hands-off approach and allowing the market to run free without any corrective discipline is… well, we’re trying that now, throughout our culture, and you can see how well it’s working. The unfettered market ,  in baseball and beyond , does not bring us justice or equality or anything else we claim to want. It hasn’t even given us a competitive American League Central.

If the Green Bay Packers have taught us anything about the sports business, it’s that ownership is unnecessary in both a financial sense   and a competitive one. If anything, ownership hinders competitiveness—owners represent a drain on resources, a meddlesome complicating factor in personnel decisions, and are kind of a bummer besides. As a nonprofit organization, the Packers are free from the burden of lining a billionaire’s pockets while also attempting to put their available resources toward winning, and they win. In an article on the Packers’ pseudo-utopian ownerlessness — they were grandfathered into the NFL, and such an arrangement would be spurned by owners today — Dave Zirin elaborates on the Packers model:

The shareholders elect a board of directors and a seven-member executive committee to stand in at NFL owners meetings. But football decisions are made by General Manager Ted Thompson, perhaps the luckiest and happiest GM in sports. This structure allows Thompson to execute decisions, even unpopular ones, without an impatient, jittery billionaire breathing down his neck.

Owners get around 62 percent of MLB profits. The average player salary has risen from about $50,000 (roughly $206,000 today*) when free agency began in 1976 to over $4 million 40 years later. That looks like a massive increase, but based on percentages, the players have seen a sharp decrease in their share of the profits.

Player salaries could (theoretically) more than double if ownership was somehow subtracted from the equation. That would be better, or at least more fair, and then — and probably only then — could the issue of absurdly outsized player compensation be addressed. Once those theoretically inconstant dominoes fell, some of those no-longer-hoarded profits would need to be reinvested; a shareholder-elected committee of moderately-salaried, well-educated decision makers would be much more likely to make decisions based on winning pennants than would an unconstrained owner looking to secure a fortune for himself.

This is, obviously, all theoretical. The owners have too much money and too much influence to let any of it go without a fight. This is more easily agreed upon in the abstract. The best we can hope for is that players will be able to parlay the beanstalk revenues they’ve created into something close to an even split of profits in the CBA negotiations that will follow this season, and that some percentage of the taxes collected on those salaries will go to fix public schools instead of buying bombs or renaming post offices after Ayn Rand protagonists.

The choice between supporting players over owners is an easy one, but that it is not a solution in the way that eliminating ownership would be. Perhaps a significant league tax — something around 90 percent would put the league minimum at around the average American’s salary — on player salaries could create a pool of resources that the league could then pour back into the communities that support and subsidize the league. That money could be used for initiatives like the Rebuilding Baseball In Inner Cities initiative—a successful program that could be expanded for players of all backgrounds and places of origin—or other programs that could make baseball more accessible for everyone; as Michael Baumann recently wrote for Baseball Prospectus, that isn’t the case. Wouldn’t a baseline of opportunity cause the game to flourish?

While we’re spitballing, all that recovered owner profit and the pool of money from significantly-taxed player salaries could also be used to pay minor leaguers — including all persons that advance the purpose of baeball academies in Latin America and elsewhere — a living wage. Future signees and minor leaguers need to play against someone, after all, and they also need to eat. It could also be used to increase budgets for scouting and analytical departments pay the best players more money. After all, the point is to win, and there are some things the free market does pretty well.

But we are a long way from home, here, and a long way from any reality that does not proceed from the dissolution of parasitic ownership and the redirection of the vast majority of player salaries into the communities that have supported and enabled baseball for so long. Let’s start the revolution there. Once we handle all that, we can talk.

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