What's the worst thing in baseball history?

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David Laurila of Baseball Prospectus interviews Ken Burns today. It’s a great, wide-ranging interview that should get you primed for the update to Burns’ “Baseball” documentary that will begin airing this week.  This question and answer caught my eye:

DL: From a historical perspective, just how important is the steroid era?

KB: In the scheme of the negatives of baseball it’s maybe two or three in position. I think that the gambling scandal, as epitomized by the Black Sox scandal in 1919, would probably be No. 1. I guess I’d put steroids either No. 2 or No. 3, and if it was No. 3 I’d say that the exclusion of African-Americans for six decades would be No. 2. You could argue that was the worst thing that baseball has ever done. Should there be asterisks next to Babe Ruth’s name because he never had to face Satchel Paige or play against Josh Gibson, who once hit 70 home runs in a season?

It’s a fascinating topic, no?  I think the Black Sox scandal and segregation have to be 1-2, with your particular ordering of those things depending on how much (if any) slack you want to cut baseball for the color line due to the fact that the policy mirrored the larger segregation policies enshrined in law. Though it would have been wonderful if it had, should baseball have been expected to transcend the ugliness afoot in American society much earlier than it did? Does it get credit for doing away with segregation before most of the rest of society did?  These are questions that could get you talking for hours.

One thing that is missing from Burns’ answer, though, is baseball’s cocaine problem in the 70s and 80s. Depending on my mood, I’d slide that ahead of steroids into number three. Unlike steroids, players died as a result of this scourge. Your mileage may vary, but my view is that while steroids made for an unlevel playing field by giving some players advantages over others, cocaine users intentionally disadvantaged the teams they played for, doing just as much of a disservice to their teammates that steroid users did to the opposition, with greater externalities in terms of health, etc.

We missing anything here?  Other things often thought of as negatives — teams moving cities, free agency and other business concerns — tend to have winners and losers and their negativity depends on your point of view.

If we’re leaving something out, though, by all means, let’s talk about it in the comments.  It’s a gloomy Monday in much of the United States, so let’s revel in some negativity, shall we? 

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.