When John Spano purchased the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders in 1996, the franchise’s future was hanging in the balance–the once-dynastic team was a decade and a half removed from its glory years, and with teams occupying the same metropolitan area, the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers, having won a Stanley Cup one and two years prior, the oft-neglected Islanders were subject to relocation rumors. After Spano purchased the team, loudly vowing loyalty to Long Island, the team signed a franchise-saving television deal with Fox Sports New York. One could argue that the Spano era could have been even more glorious had he succeeded in his rumored coup against former coach (whom Spano displaced) and then-current general manager Mike Milbury, whose track record of awful trades–he once traded a #2 overall pick and future Hall of Fame defenseman Zdeno Chára for aging, expensive center Alexei Yashin, and sold off a future Hall of Fame goaltender, Roberto Luongo, in order to make room for decidedly not-Hall of Famer Rick DiPietro–would make any MLB general manager blush.
John Spano, however, is not regarded as an all-time great owner in sports for one minor reason–he kind of lied about having the money to buy the team. Spano, who had agreed to buy the Islanders for $165 million, turned out to have a net worth of $5 million, and while that isn’t nothing, it is not in the stratosphere of major sports franchise ownership. Spano was eventually found out, was arrested and forced to pay restitution to those he had swindled, and is now a punchline in NHL circles.
I have no emotional attachment in any direction towards the New York Islanders, so I tend to regard John Spano as a joke. But if I were an Islanders fan, I would have no choice but to view Spano as a lifesaver. It is very likely that had Spano not “bought” the team, Atlanta or Houston or another hockey-less city would have made a bid and my Islanders would be relegated to history. To be clear, Spano is not a noble man–he did this because he wanted to feel powerful (the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about him is aptly titled Big Shot) and not out of a sense of moral righteousness. But if I were a fan, would I care? Why should I?
There is a tendency in baseball analysis to commodify players–there has been a backlash against such practices, and I do think there is something to, say, not dehumanizing people by referring to them as “assets”, a reflection solely of their professional abilities, no matter what field they are in. But on the other hand I do understand it–most baseball fans don’t really care about the people on the field in a true and unreserved sense. Is Paul Goldschmidt a more or less virtuous rooting interest than Joey Votto? Is Tyler O’Neill a better person than Christian Yelich? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, and as a person, like most people, whose fandom is strongly colored by, if not entirely informed by, arbitrary tribal loyalties which date back to my childhood, I don’t really want to know the answers.
But if some moderate dehumanization of Major League Baseball players is acceptable, so long as it doesn’t cross the lines into, say, straight up wishing off-field harm against your rivals, this should certainly be the case with Major League Baseball owners. George Steinbrenner was, by most objective measures, not somebody I would have liked–he made illegal donations to Richard Nixon’s 1972 Committee for the Re-Election of the President that got him suspended by Major League Baseball, he insistituted an arcane and arbitrary facial hair policy with the New York Yankees, and he was permanently banned from day-to-day management of the Yankees for hiring a mob associate to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. And yet Steinbrenner is almost universally revered among Yankees fans despite the indefensibility of much of his public life for one simple reason–he spent a ton of money on the team. And I get it–if it turned out the best player on your favorite sports team had political and/or social views at odds with yours (out of fairness to Steinbrenner’s end of the metaphor, let’s say he hasn’t committed any physical violence), would you hate him, or would you still root for him because he is serving your interests as a fan? For most people, while this may complicate your fandom somewhat, the answer is far closer to the latter.
Occasionally, sports media pundits of a fairly centrist worldview will note, when discussing collective bargaining-related labor issues in professional sports, most relevantly right now the current Major League Baseball lockout, that fans do not have a seat at the table. And while this is true, this hardly makes negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA unique–ownership of a Big Three automobile does not mean that you get a seat at United Auto Workers collective bargaining negotiations, after all. But there is also no question that what transpires at these meetings does have an impact, even if indirectly, on the fan experience. And while fans do not have a seat at the table in anything approaching a literal sense, that does not mean that they will not be impacted by what happens.
Anybody who has read my writing thusfar on the lockout knows that I am firmly on the side of the players–make of that bias what you will. But I am also fully cognizant of why, in a dispute between billionaires and guys who make a minimum salary of over half a million dollars a year, many people choose not to spend their emotional capital on advocacy for one-percenters. I don’t understand why anyone expects players to care more about their personal entertainment than the wellbeing of the players, barring an unbearable level of narcissism, but believing that, ultimately, both owners and players will be broadly speaking okay and only wanting personal satisfaction for one’s self is not an indefensible position.
But the interest of players overwhelmingly aligns with the interest of fans, and not merely in a “labor strength in one of the country’s highest-profile unions will have an impact on the perception of the value of all laborers” way. What players want will make the quality of the thing I like watching better, even though this is largely by accident.
The most obvious way in which players and fans are aligned in this particular work stoppage is that the lockout, the thing which definitionally will postpone at least some Spring Training games and which very well may lead to the cancellation of regular season games, was initiated by the owners. Even if the owners were on the side of moral righteousness, and that players were making unreasonable demands and that instituting a lockout was the only leverage that they had to prevent the sport going into financial ruin, this would not change the fact that in a lockout, players are prohibited from playing.
One of the major areas of contention between the players and the owners is that despite record franchise values (not to mention inflation), the average MLB player salary has decreased, down 4.8% since 2019. The primary driver of this is not that teams will not fork over money for high-end free agents–Max Scherzer signed a contract with the highest average annual value in MLB history the day before the lockout began–but rather the deterioration of the middle class of free agents (to circle back to the St. Louis Cardinals, consider good-but-not-elite former second baseman Kolten Wong, allowed to walk at a reasonable price to the team’s biggest current division rival because the team had a cheaper, reasonable facsimile in Tommy Edman, who is paid an artificially low salary and would easily command a salary in the millions if he were permitted to do so) and the increasing pervasiveness of teams that do not even pretend to be competitive. Three teams–the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, and Cleveland Guardians–have a combined payroll of under $100 million.
The incentive of players to change this situation is obvious, but it should be just as obvious for fans. Fans of the Pirates, Orioles, and Guardians are looking at a bleak 2022 season, but these will also likely be unpleasant teams to watch play. Sure, a team has to be the worst team in baseball by definition, but these teams aren’t even entering the season with a glimmer of hope (it’s one thing if a team that has fallen out of the race tries to sell off pending free agents in hopes to improve the team’s long-term outlook–it’s another for the Orioles to keep Adley Rutschman, the top prospect in baseball, in the minor leagues just so they can keep him from making his true worth in free agency).
Veteran free agents are increasingly being squeezed out of making the money that they were promised down the road in favor of new generations of young players–it is in the best interest of fans as a whole to see the very best players possible on Major League fields. An increase in the league minimum salary would not only benefit the players earning such salaries, but it would benefit a guy who wants, say, $4 million a year, because the gap between his demand and the league minimum would be that much smaller.
Whenever I launch a new game of Out of the Park Baseball, one thing I like to do (feel free to call me an unethical player–it’s not like I’m playing against others) is edit my team’s owner settings to maximize owner generosity–I figure if I’m going to participate in the fantasy of being a MLB team general manager, I might as well make myself the owner too. The results don’t get too outlandish–I am currently playing as the Milwaukee Brewers and my team payroll is ranked 12th, so slightly above league-average as opposed to their current standing of slightly below league-average. What I don’t do is adjust for player temperament–players already do the thing that I, as a fan, want. Players devote themselves aggressively to winning. Players aspire to a version of baseball which is hyper-competitive and interesting, one which may be unrealistic to the extent the players aspire for it, but one which can serve as a template for realistic, incremental improvement. Meanwhile, I literally have to cheat at the game to get owners to prioritize winning over short-term profits.
I do not want MLB owners to lose money–say what you will about the existence of billionaires, but barring some sort of radical (and frankly unrealistic) upheaval of American capitalism, it really helps to have them around in baseball. But owners, by all objective accounts, are not losing money–while Rob Manfred has claimed that team ownership is less lucrative than investing in the stock market, he is ignoring that, unlike investing in The Next Apple or The Next Amazon, baseball teams are virtually guaranteed to increase in value. If Major League Baseball broke even, neither profiting nor losing money, for a year, it would still be a worthy investment for owners because team values would continue to increase (perhaps at an even greater rate, since it’s hard to imagine the quality of the product wouldn’t improve at least somewhat). I am not rooting against owners, except in situations in which they are adversarial to my best interests. And they are the ones who voted, unanimously, to make this lockout happen.