When Kyrie Irving walked back his commitment about staying with the Celtics, fans in Boston were apoplectic. Instead of assuaging fears as the rumor mill continued to heat up, Irving told everyone about his future, “Ask me July 1st.”
This certainly wasn’t the answer anyone wanted to hear, but on a macro level, at least there is a date involved. If you are an NBA fan or player, at least you know the signings will be fast and furious come the start of July. Trade specials will dominate NBC Sports Boston, ESPN, etc… and social media will be abuzz with the latest speculation and transactions.
Hey, Major League Baseball -- you might want to re-examine your model.
I love baseball. The sound of a 98-mph fastball hitting the back of a glove is one of the sweetest in sports. But it is getting harder and harder to defend a sport that continually pulls itself from the spotlight.
The winter meetings have become nothing more than a few days at a nice resort for GMs, managers and reporters. I have to google when free agency begins in the majors. Even then, does the date matter? Players don’t sign until the snowbirds are making their way back north.
While the other leagues have made their sports year-round, baseball is retreating to the background as quickly as the confetti is cleared from Copley Square.
The hot stove is ice cold and baseball is not a trending topic. Literally. According to Twitter’s analytics, not a single baseball player was in the top ten trends in 2018. Seven of the ten athletes were in the NBA, two were in the NFL (including Tom Brady) and one was Serena Williams.
Twitter is certainly not the end all, be all, but it gives us an idea of what is driving the conversation. Spoiler alert: It’s not baseball.
As I sit at my computer on Thursday, February 14th, there are nearly 100 free agents without contracts in baseball. And we aren’t only talking about middle relievers and utility players. Some of the game’s biggest names are sitting at home taking BP or throwing bullpens at makeshift camps.
Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzales, and Mike Mustakas are all players waiting by the phone for an offer.
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And, of course, Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned, a case which is a hot topic in Ft. Myers.
The closer is still available and while anything can change, Dave Dombrowski reiterated on Wednesday, he’s not at the top of the Red Sox bullpen list.
“I think most of the guys we would talk to would be big league invites, minor league contracts. The depth we have in our bullpen, we like.”
Kimbrel was reportedly looking for a six-year deal in the ballpark of $100 million. Subsequent reports suggested he backed off the years and nine-figure demands, but he would still like a multi-year deal.
So he sits and waits and while his former teammates are mired in the sunny monotony of PFP drills.
Chris Sale, who himself will become a free agent at the conclusion of the 2019 season, was careful with his words but still managed to express his displeasure.
Sale told reporters on Wednesday, “I don’t want to get too far into it with the politics of baseball and all that stuff, but [Kimbrel’s] as good as it gets. He 100 percent makes any team better that he plays for, right? And it’s crazy to think that there really hasn’t been a whole lot of traction with him.”
Unfortunately for baseball and its fans, this isn’t an isolated incident. Last season we also saw a lull in free agency.
The trend in 2018 was enough to worry Red Sox starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, who knew he didn’t want the stress of waiting around.
“It’s tough. You don’t know what team you’re going to be helping, what your role is going to be and you know it makes it hard. I didn’t want to deal with that.”
Which is why Eovaldi told his representation to get a deal done and fast. Eovaldi said on Wednesday, “I told my agency, even if its not the best deal I want to sign early. Because anything to me is going to be better than where I was at. I didn’t want to have that pressure coming into spring training.”
How nice for ownership.
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Listen, I understand there isn’t going to be a lot of sympathy for guys who get paid millions of dollars to play baseball. But the teams are pulling in truckloads of cash and in some instances appear to not be reinvesting that money on the field.
Last year MLB saw record gross revenues, pulling in $10.3 billion. According to Forbes magazine, Major League Baseball has experienced record growth for 16 consecutive seasons and overall revenue growth of 377% since 1992.
On the flip side, during the 2018 season players saw a dip in average salaries for the first time since 2004. In a report released by the Players' Association, league salaries have stagnated after years of gains.
The average salary in 2018 was $4,095,686, down $1,436 from $4,097,122 during the 2017 season.
I know, I know the world’s smallest violin. But stay with me here.
Last season 14 of the 30 teams in baseball finished under .500. And while the NL Central and the NL West both needed a Game 163 to determine playoff seeding, the other four divisions were won by at least a six-game margin.
Three teams (the Royals, White Sox and Orioles) finished with more than 100 losses and five other teams finished with 95 losses or more. It is the first time in MLB history eight teams have finished with 95-plus in the loss column.
Winning teams continue to invest, while losing teams, despite revenue sharing designed to help parity in the sport, seem happy to go on vacation October 1st.
It is causing enough concern that the MLBPA notified the commissioner’s office in January about matters involving the Marlins and Pirates.
This is what worries Rick Porcello. The Red Sox right-handed pitcher is thinking about the welfare of the game and its fans.
“Guys are going to make money, guys are going to get paid but it’s about the game, keeping the fans engaged, keeping them interested and basically giving them what they want and should have as a die-hard baseball fan.”
His teammate Chris Sale echoed those concerns saying, "I think, obviously, with half the league just showing up for checks, it doesn’t help. Not trying to win, those kinds of things, so obviously your market kind of goes down a little bit.”
Players I spoke with were reluctant to make harsh accusations about the current state of business affairs, but the past two years mean their eyes are wide open. Porcello told me, “There’s definitely some concern, but trying to look at it from a neutral, objective standpoint you have to let the whole process play out and wait and see.”
The question is, can baseball afford to take a wait-and-see approach?
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Last season league attendance was down 4% from 2017. It is said poor weather in the spring contributed to smaller crowds, but it was also the first time in 17 years average game attendance slipped below 30,000.
There is a laundry list of things the league could do to make things better. Pace of play is obviously a huge issue, as is the marketing of star players. It would also help to hold “tanking” teams accountable.
But players are the ones who make a team what it is. If they’re not on the field, they can’t help a franchise win.
As much as we all root for our home teams, we rally behind the guys who wear the uniform. No one steps to the plate as a kid pretending to be a generic Red Sox, we imagine ourselves as David Ortiz or Mookie Betts or Pedro Martinez.
Players ARE the game. If they’re not on the field, what is baseball left with? Nothing but the sounds of silence.
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