Dispatches from Kansas City: “If this is what we’re doing, then dammit let’s do it with passion”

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HardballTalk’s Drew Silva is filing regular stories from this year’s MLB All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City, Missouri. Part One. Part Two.

I drove out to Kauffman Stadium around 10 a.m. this morning to pick up my press credentials — a badge on a lanyard, basically, with my headshot and “NBC SPORTS” emblazoned across the bottom. “Must be worn at all times,” it states. “No autographs.”

Kauffman is a few miles east of downtown, right along the interstate. It shares a sprawl of asphalt parking lots with Arrowhead Stadium, a cathedral for football fans and home to the beloved Kansas City Chiefs. I’ve been to Arrowhead twice and left without a voice on both occasions. Chiefs fans don’t sit down. The bright red seats are merely noisemakers, and if you’re not screaming your face off you’re the enemy.

I’ve never been inside Kauffman Stadium, not yet at least. The media stuff was handed out at a ticket window.

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FanFest is the first event on MLB’s All-Star schedule. It’s being held over the next four days at the Kansas City Convention Center, a long, modern-looking building adjacent to the Power & Light District — a kind of planned nightlife and entertainment center, the likes of which can be found in most medium-sized towns. A blues band was rocking close by, but the 106-degree heat drove most of today’s attendees indoors.

source:  Admission for adults was $30. Tickets for children were $25. My press pass allowed me to glide through the makeshift turnstiles at no charge.

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I love irrational fandom. You should have a favorite team and you should buy a jersey of your favorite player and you should sit in seats that you can’t really afford and you should get overly optimistic during five-game winning streaks. Because in the grand scheme of things, a professional sport is a pretty silly concept. We should all be out saving the planet.

If this is what we’re doing instead, then dammit let’s do it with passion.

FanFest is a celebration of that irrationality. Adults wait in line in jersey shirts to meet retired players and kids slide onto pads while videos of famous stolen bases play on giant screens. You can test your fastball at radar-ready pitching stations or work on your swing in batting cages.

On a turf field in the middle of the warehouse-like space, former Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney taught a clinic on plate approach to a group of preteens. A kid in a royal blue Mike Moustakas tee listened intently.

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Jack Morris and Jeff Nelson took questions from fans on an MLB.TV broadcast near the back of the Fest. There were sponsored booths from Rawlings, Phiten, Taco Bell and various baseball memorabilia companies. Dave Winfield was inside a fabricated clubhouse by the exit, talking about his upbringing in Minnesota and recalling some memories from his playing days. All-Star Game-themed artwork was on display. There was a stand for ice cream sundaes. The ice cream bowls were plastic Royals helmets.

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Tomorrow is the Futures Game and the Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. I’ll get my first feel for Kauffman Stadium and work for the first time from a big-league press box. Tonight, it’s more Boulevard and barbecue.

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.