Localizing a Pastime

02/22/2017 03:13 pm ET Updated Mar 03, 2017

“What do they mean, ‘where have I gone’?” Joe DiMaggio is said to have asked when he first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” Reading the post-election reckonings with how we got here has been like this, like being asked where you’ve been when as far as you can tell you’ve been here all along. But as post-election days fade and things go from worse to worst, you find yourself reckoning just the same . . . You recall an opinion article you submitted to your hometown newspaper round about 1980. The article didn’t run. You were sixteen and lacked command of the idiom— you lacked command in general. Also, the newspaper was big, competition stiff, and your idea out of left field . . . But here you are half a lifetime later reckoning like everyone else with fear for the republic, and you recall the idea. You want to try again, to turn the clock back and forward at once and restate your case. Left field may be shallower now.

Five years earlier, in 1975, the sports page had gotten harder for an eleven-year-old. Charlie O. Finley’s Oakland A’s were found to have violated provisions of their contract with their $100,000-a-year pitching ace Catfish Hunter. Now a free agent, Hunter signed with the Yankees for $3.75 million over five years. That Christmastime, in a case brought by the Players Association on behalf of Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith, an arbiter nullified a standard feature of major league players’ contracts, the “reserve clause,” which allowed owners to renew contracts without a player’s consent. The owners lost their appeal, and players with expired contracts were free to sell their services to the highest bidder. When the first big stories of the 1976 season had the owners locking the players out of spring training and the Atlanta Braves making Messersmith another millionaire, money-consciousness became an unavoidable part of major-league baseball fandom.

Notorious for venality and bigotry, major league baseball before free agency was also exploitative, as readers of Curt Flood’s The Way It Is and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four know. But the system that has replaced it, in which players earn what the market will bear and owners do everything to expand that market, exploits a different constituency. Contemporary professional sporting events are a mass of common people paying handsomely for the privilege of observing the actions of a few very rich ones, a phenomenon which mimics the current social order and reflects the inequality that marks it instead of offering a diversion from it. Of course, this description isn’t quite accurate: common people can hardly afford the price of tickets.

Free agency has had other consequences: It has reduced competition, despite recent revenue-sharing agreements designed to give small-market teams a chance to keep their best players. It has turned spectatorship, whether in person or remote, into an advertisement and merchandising endurance test. It has led to frequent personnel changes and so to a depletion of team identities. These are supposed to reside in the team’s local affiliation. But what does this amount to when players come and go and the names of stadiums have been sold to multinationals?

And in bestowing its munificence on star players, free agency has commodified the player-fan relationship. The fan, aware of the terms of the player’s contract, considers the player’s performance in relation to his place on the payroll. Appreciation becomes assessment. In the definitive baseball story of our time, Moneyball, the hero is the general manager.

Here’s a remedy, a nonstarter 35 years ago re-proposed in the hope that left field now has a shorter porch: Give professional sports teams to the localities they purport to represent. Put them in the public domain. Pay the players well, half million or a million, and give them pensions. Just don’t pay them 20 million and turn them into tycoons in livery. Then take the surplus and lower ticket prices, banish the $12 beer and the $8 pretzel from the concession stand, and put the broadcast revenue and the millions that now go into tax breaks for ownership and write-offs for corporate patrons into parks, schools, libraries, hospitals . . .

All well and good, you say, but when ownership would resist an eminent domain claim for all it’s worth, how? By a withholding of popular support, is how. Professional sports franchises rely on the indulgence of public policy, on local land and building subsidies and tax exemptions that allow businesses to write off ticket subscriptions and sponsorship and marketing costs. When cities resist a professional team’s demands for special treatment, team management typically looks for a more accommodating city to threaten to move the team to. But if there were nowhere to go because the sentiment was general, if citizens everywhere saw when team owners tried to play cities off against one another that they were being had? The owners might think of folding their tents. Not going to happen, you reply, and I can disagree only so far as to note that in this populist moment, stranger things have already happened.

And if this less strange thing were to come to pass, mightn’t stars leave for countries where they’d be able to earn more, Japan or maybe . . . Cuba(!)? What if they did? The difference between a 95-mph fastball and an 85 is barely perceptible to the batter, let alone the viewer. Besides, dominant players often make team sports less, not more, interesting, highlight footage notwithstanding. How many would pass up the chance to play before the nation’s lonely eyes and for a home team we can root for with our better angels? Donald Trump is the George Steinbrenner of presidents. Where is the Bernie Sanders of commissioners?

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