Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics - Game Five

A baseball player making a lot of money is not an indictment of the American financial system


I’m the last person who will tell someone to keep their politics out of baseball, but if you’re gonna do it, make sure your politics aren’t plum dumb stupid.

Sadly, Slate’s Edward McClelland couldn’t get that second part right, as he dedicates a column to saying he can’t enjoy following the Tigers anymore because Justin Verlander makes too much money. Because that’s allegedly representative of the problem with growing income inequality in this country and that’s bad:

Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that formerSlate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars:the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1 … I’m singling out professional athletes for my class envy because they’re the highest-profile beneficiaries of changes that have enriched those at the top of the economic order while impoverishing those at the bottom.

Growing income inequality in society is not concerning due to some people having a lot and some not having a lot in and of themselves. It’s concerning because a lot of these people are making money that is in no way connected to the value or income they generate. It’s concerning because it creates separate classes of people who are increasingly stuck in their lot with no chance to move up. Extreme income stratification has been shown to hinder overall economic mobility. The idea: if Class A gets rich and Class B does not, Class A’s kids are increasingly privy to advantages (private schools, opportunities luxuries, etc.) that serve to keep them in their class while excluding the Class B kids.

It’s not entirely clear how that all works on a micro-level, but the upshot is that the very promise of the American Dream — that a poor kid can make good one day — is much, much harder today than it was yesterday because the gulf he or she has to leap is much, much larger. It’s a complex socioeconomic thing that is not simply about someone having money while someone else does not and which is not solvable by some single policy or tax code change or whatever.

What it is certainly not about is some ballplayer or entertainer or musician — who, as McClelland freely admits has extremely specialized and valuable skills — making millions. Indeed, a poor kid flinging a baseball and turning that into $80 million or whatever is the ultimate inequality hack. It takes that poor kid out of the dilemma he’s so concerned about in the first place.  And unlike that CEO or executive class about which we should be somewhat concerned, at least baseball players’ salaries correlate pretty nicely with the value they’re creating for the business. Baseball’s receipts have exploded at just as high if not a higher rate than salaries have, and ballplayers are the reason for it. They’re creating value in terms of butts in seats, so why shouldn’t they be paid for it?

And even if none of that stuff was true, the explosion of baseball salaries involves so few people — a few dozen get those giant contracts, a few hundred get what most of us would call “rich” — that it is less than a drop in a drop in a bucket of the problem.  Concerned about inequality? Look at the thousands of kids of corporate CEOS and executives who are taking up spots in good colleges due to their dad’s donations when those seats used to go to kids on minority or Appalachian scholarships or something.

But I get the sense that McClelland knows all of this on some level. Partially because he’s writing for Slate and their M.O. is often contrary silliness for its own sake. But it’s mostly because McClelland tips his hand:

As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.

If that kind of thing is keeping you from enjoying the damn game, you probably weren’t appreciating the damn game all that much to begin with. And you probably need to work on your own issues and insecurities before pointing out the alleged problems with baseball.

The international draft is all about MLB making money and the union selling out non-members

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 13:  A fan flies the Dominican Republic flag during the game against Cuba during Round 2 of the World Baseball Classic on March 13, 2006 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Getty Images

On Monday we passed along a report that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA are negotiating over an international draft. That report — from ESPN’s Buster Olney — cited competitive balance and the well-being of international free agents as the reasons why they’re pushing for the draft.

We have long doubted those stated motivations and said so again in our post on Monday. But we’re just armchair skeptics when it comes to this. Ben Badler of Baseball America is an expert. Perhaps the foremost expert on international baseball, international signings and the like. Today he writes about a would-be international draft and he tears MLB, the MLBPA and their surrogates in the media to shreds with respect to their talking points.

Of course Badler is a nice guy so “tearing to shreds” is probably putting it too harshly. Maybe it’s better to say that he systematically dismantles the stated rationale for the international draft and makes plan what’s really going on: MLB is looking to save money and the players are looking to sell out non-union members to further their own bargaining position:

Major League Baseball has long wanted an international draft. The driving force behind implementing an international draft is for owners to control their labor costs by paying less money to international amateur players, allowing owners to keep more of that money . . . the players’ association doesn’t care about international amateur players as anything more than a bargaining chip. It’s nothing discriminatory against foreign players, it’s just that the union looks out for players on 40-man rosters. So international players, draft picks in the United States and minor leaguers who make less than $10,000 in annual salary get their rights sold out by the union, which in exchange can negotiate items like a higher major league minimum salary, adjustments to the Super 2 rules or modifying draft pick compensation attached to free agent signings.

Badler then walks through the process of how players are discovered, scouted and signed in Latin America and explains, quite convincingly, how MLB’s international draft and, indeed, its fundamental approach to amateurs in Latin America is lacking.

Read this. Then, every time a U.S.-based writer with MLB sources talks about the international draft, ask whether they know something Ben Badler doesn’t or, alternatively, whether they’re carrying water for either the league or the union.

President Bill Murray speaks about the Cubs from the White House

CHICAGO - APRIL 12:  Celebrity Bill Murray clowns around with Chicago media before the opening day game between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 12, 2004 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Pirates defeated the Cubs 13-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images

I don’t know why Bill Murray is in Washington today. I don’t know why he’s at the White House. But I do know that he was there in Chicago Cubs gear, standing at the lectern in the press briefing room, voicing his full confidence in the Cubs prevailing in the NLCS, despite the fact that Clayton Kershaw is going for the Dodgers tomorrow night.

“Too many sticks,” president Murray said of the Cubs lineup. And something about better trees in Illinois.

Four. More. Years.