In “North Dallas Forty” — a movie about professional football — a player confronts a member of management and says: “Every time I call it a game, you say it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you call it a game.”
So what’s major-league baseball; a game or a business?
We sometimes forget we’re watching professional athletes (which I’m pretty sure means people who play sports for money) and to be honest, major league baseball wants us to forget that fact. Every night, when the players run out on the field to start the game, the PA announcer booms out: “Here they are, your Kansas City Royals!”
Well, they’re only our Kansas City Royals until they get traded or sign a deal with a new team and then they’re somebody else’s Colorado Rockies or Chicago White Sox. This isn’t high school and the players aren’t playing for the greater glory of Kansas City. We’ve hired professional mercenaries to represent our cities and even though fans may forget that, the mercenaries don’t — they can’t afford to.
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When I started this job I wanted every player to run into a wall to try to make catch, be willing to run over a catcher to try to score a run or take a fastball in the ribs to get a free base. After seeing how short most players’ careers are and how teams will discard them when it suits their purpose, now I’m not so sure.
Players get paid for putting up numbers; the guy who gives away an at bat to move a runner, the guy who takes pitches so his pitcher can rest, the guy who gets hurt running into a wall — all of them get punished by the marketplace for being selfless. We say we like team play, but then we punish the team player.
A player puts his team first and sacrifices his numbers and then we want him cut because his numbers aren’t good enough. A player gets hurt trying to make a play and then we want the team to get rid of him because he’s injury prone. We ought to appreciate the team player when we see one, but most of the time we don’t.
Not only do we punish the team player, we reward the selfish player; the guy who puts his own numbers first and his team second. And players are pretty clear about how the system works.
I once thought players put their team first and then — once their team was eliminated from playoff contention — worried about their own numbers. I’ve since learned it often works in the exact opposite manner; many players protect their numbers until they see their team has a chance to do something special and then they might play team baseball.
This doesn’t necessarily make those players jerks; a lot of ballplayers are great guys, but they’re great guys who have a pretty clear idea of what business they’re in.
And make no mistake; it is a business.
A business that wants us to think it’s a game.
Different roles, different goals
We tend to view teams as unified entities; every member pushing for the same thing. Hang around a professional sports team long enough and you realize people have different roles and different goals.
Every owner wants to win, but not every owner is willing to lose money to do so. Being profitable is a goal that can hold a team back when the owner won’t spend the money necessary to bring home a trophy.
General managers can have five to seven year plans, but most field managers have to produce more quickly. That means field managers might not want to give that prospect time to develop in the minors; they might want the prospect brought up now if their job is in danger. Forget his development, save your job.
Players might want to have a 15-year career, but a manager who thinks he’ll be fired if he doesn’t turn the team around by the end of year might ask that player for too many innings; if the player’s knee blows out two years from now, so what? If the manager gets fired this year he won’t be around to see it happen.
Bottom line: when we see someone put the team first — a player who sacrifices his body or numbers for the good of the team, a manager who risks his job by protecting a player’s health, anyone who puts the team first — we ought to appreciate them more than we do.
Major league baseball is not only a business; it can be a brutal one.