Thank God the South Didn’t Win the Civil War

In 1948, or so the legend has it, the Major League Baseball Winter meetings were held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This was because there were two minor league teams in the community, the Millers in Minneapolis, and the Saints, in St. Paul. The headquarters was the original Radisson Hotel on 7th Street near Hennepin Avenue.

The meeting took place in early December and attracted executives from Major League and Minor League teams who were accompanied by sports writers and other reporters.   As occurs in Minneapolis at that time of the year, a polar vortex did what polar vortexes do, that is dump sub=zero weather on the city. With the morning air a brisk -20, a writer from Georgia stepped out of the hotel onto 7th Street, and, as he gasped for breath after inhaling the arctic blast, was heard to exclaim, “Thank God the South didn’t win the Civil War or we might of had to occupy this place.”  

I heard this story from a fellow who claimed to be right there. 

Observations From Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings

I attended two days of the baseball winter meetings this week. Two days is a lot as it is constant discussions of the state of the game.   All of this took place in the lobby of Disney’s Dolphin Resort Hotel, a 2,000 room hotel sited near its twin, the Swan.  The audience is made up of team executives and a few owners, clouds of agents, and droves of office seekers, the “I won my fantasy league the last two years,” wannabees, who flock to these meetings seeking jobs. The meeting also includes a trade show, which for me this year, became a focus on batting helmets, catcher’s masks and bats. 

The main focus of this meeting, and most of the meetings I’ve attended, is money. As one owner told me early on Wednesday, the income is huge, but the expenses are huge as well. Same game, same story. He and I then discussed the situation that I first pointed out to him when we first met decades ago, is that the labor contract with the players had a built in flaw that forces salaries to rise, predictably and inexorably. The main flaw, and there are several, is that player salaries are based on comparable worth analysis. That means if a pitcher with a 15-15 record makes $10,000,000 per year, then all 15-15 pitchers should make $10,000,000. (That is a simplistic view as other factors like service time also apply, but you get the point.) The flaw is that it only takes one owner (or GM) to upset the system by grossly overpaying in a category. Say these 15-15 pitchers are all making $10,000,000 and suddenly someone pays $15,000,000 for a 15-15 pitcher, and then over the next year or two, all salaries in this category are raised and the salary inflation game is on. This inflationary spiral has been fueled by mistakes by owners for years and will continue, and a system built on errors will ultimately fail. 

So how can this fail if revenues are so huge? It is because long term contracts to players now total $100,000,000 dollars or more and some exceed $200,000,000. The comparable worth analysis suggests the outcome of that. “My guy is not as good as your guy, but he is half as good, so pay him $50,000,000!) This actually goes on. The counter offer is that there is only one star and a thousand average, fungible players. But up go salaries all the time. 

So why doesn’t ownership do something? The answer is fairly easy to understand. First, unlike football with its massive revenue sharing that makes all owners partners in a joint enterprise, baseball has three tiers of owners. The top tier loves the current system where they set salaries and dominate leagues, the middle third tolerates this as the revenue sharing system helps them a little and they can afford more players and compete with the top third on occasion. The bottom third just gets crushed or they operate very well, Oakland and Tampa Bay are in this class. Furthermore, where there is no way a two-thirds majority would vote to change the system, there is no stomach for confrontation with the union on the labor system and “labor peace” is today’s mantra of progressive leadership,

The result of all of this is that teams are now seeing that they can’t afford their players. An example of this is the Prince Fielder trade by the Tigers. Fielder is a large fellow with a long term contract. That means significant liability for the team; add to that  the prospect of Miguel Cabrera’s free agent contract, and Fielder had to go.  The LA Angels are facing the Trout free agent contract and have the horrible Pujols contract to deal with with no ability to trade Pujols. Clearly Trout is better than Pujols and should get paid better, right? Comparable worth analysis says “Yes.” Angels owner Artie Moreno is said to hum the country song with the refrain,”What was I thinking?” to himself as he contemplates his team. But his action makes Oakland viable.  However, the Yankees did call Robinson Cano’s bluff and let him go to Seattle for half of his demand in New York. A smart move by the Yankees, but Seattle?, “What were they thinking?”

My activities with helmets was because of contact I’ve had with a company that makes a “foam” with enormous ability to absorb hits; In batting helmets, this means much better protection, in catcher’s and umpire’s face masks, it means reduced or zero concussions. However, the tech company that developed this product entered into an exclusive, world-wide license agreement with a lower range equipment manufacturer. I asked them “what do you mean by “exclusive.” What does this mean in terms of time, space, categories, etc.?” He said, ‘It’s exclusive world wide.and just started.” So we wait to see what happens.

As to bats, this is a fascinating category and there are more bat manufacturers every year. There is the battle between maple and ash, and the ash guys saying maple splinters too much and is a hazard. This game will go on forever, The “new” technology in the area is the oldest as well as manufacturers are “boning” bats with steel bones to harden the hitting surface. The boning came from the practice of rubbing the bat against a cow’s femur to “tighten” the grain. This also, incidentally, slightly flattened the hitting surface, but just slightly. One bat manufacturer was saying his main competitor’s bats were actually an octagon with eight flat facets, so it wasn’t round as the rule requires.  So the equipment game goes on and will continue as it has for a century.

My final discussion took place at the airport as a GM was lamenting his team’s position in the revenue rankings. He was saying the big markets were raising salaries and it was hard to compete. I suggested that it would continue until his owner put together a coalition of similarly situated owners to take control of the game.  We will probably have the same conversation next year. 

Spring Training is just around the corner.  

Fifth Game Theory

Major League Baseball focuses its rule making on creating a universe where there is competitive balance among the teams. This concept is the ‘agreed to’ holy grail in baseball administration and has been the goal of league executives for decades.  I was once asked to develop a metric for determining whether competitive balance existed.
I only had to look to the standings to develop such a metric. As this is baseball, nothing is perfect, but teams are ranked according to winning percentage. These percentages normally run from just under. 600 to just over. 400. This means that  of every five games played, teams will win two and lose two. This leaves the Fifth Game to determine where a team is ranked.

This game can be recognized by fans as the one where the outcome is in doubt until late in the game, which is determined by a clutch hit, an error, or some sort of event that determines the outcome. A properly designed roster has late inning specialists such as defensive players, pinch hitters, set up men and closers. Of course, a basestealer is today a luxury because of expanded pitching staffs.
The Twins/White Sox game June 18, 2013 was a Fifth Game. The White Sox tied the game at 5 in the top of the 8th but failed to get the hit that would put them ahead. The Twins, aided by a lead off walk, scored two in the bottom of the 8th on a clutch hit. The game could have gone either way.
Teams keep track of series won and lost and this is in recognition of Fifth Game Theory. Keep this is mind while you are watching your next game and figure out if you are lucky to be watching a Fifth Game or not. They’re the ones that keep my attention.

Major League Baseball, Attendance and Competitive Balance.

Major League Baseball is my first interest each morning. World news can wait as I peruse the sports section, especially MLB standings and box scores.There is a lot of information there and I find something of note every day.

Today, what captured my eye was MLB attendance levels at the ten games played Monday.  This is an era of intense media coverage and modern stadiums that has pushed average attendance at MLB games to rise to over 30,000 per game. Yesterday, however, the attendance figures were more typical of the 1970’s. In those days, for example, the only video available of live action, was a 10 second shot of something that happened in the first five innings of the local game that was shown in the 10 O’clock news on one  of the four channels available.. It was hard to generate excitement with this limited exposure. Today, fans see all the great plays that occur each day, on multiple cable channels, and that drives interest and attendance.

Last night, however, attendance was 17,653 in Kansas City, where the Royals extended its winning streak to 6, 15,514 in Baltimore, where the Orioles beat the Angels 4-3, 15,447 in Tampa, where the Red Sox won in 14 innings, 18,126 in Chicago, where the White Sox won , 12,811 in Seattle where the Mariners won 3-2, 13,259 in Miami, where the Brewers beat the Marlins, and 21, 192 in San Diego where the Padres beat the Braves 7-6. Texas and the Dodgers both drew over 30,000 for their games. 

I am always concerned by low attendance as that is the first measure of public appeal. The games were well played, five were decided on one run, one was extra innings. MLB is a very competitive business and teams rely on attendance for revenue to pay for players who are more expensive every year. Reduced attendance has an effect on competitive balance, and competitive balance is what it is all about.

The next topic that captured by attention this June morning, was the intense competition in divisions where three teams are within four games of the lead. In the AL East, Boston, New York and Baltimore are within 3.5 games, even the fourth team, Tampa Bay is over .500. In the NL West, Arizona, Colorado, and San Francisco are within two games and in the NL Central, St.Louis,the best team overall, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are within four games. The most intense two team race is Texas and Oakland, where one game separates them.

This all means that the championship will be determined by the little things that happen, a ball that bounces erratically, a double play missed, an outfielder that loses the ball in the lights, and the hundred other little events that determine the outcome of a game or two of the 162 played each year. 

This is why we pay attention to the game and these races. There are 100 games to the playoffs, and I am making no predictions other than Detroit will win the AL Central. Then again, I picked Toronto to win, and it is last in its division. The infinite possibilities make this a wonderful game, I just hope attendance reflects that wonder.

How to Manage a Team and Win the Pennant

The Major league season is past the quarter pole and has taken a very interesting turn as teams that were predicted to dominate are disasters.
    In the  AL Central,  Cleveland and Detroit are tied at the top and KC just behind. Detroit will win that one, but Cleveland is good and is playing very well. KC may surprise all of us, but I don’t think they have enough yet to win in the long season.
    In the AL East, the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Rays are all over .500 and only Toronto is failing . Of course, readers of this blog will remember that I predicted the Jays would win it all. That was because, on paper, they had a very good team, but it is playing horribly with key players not performing, see Bautista’s record.  
    In the AL West, the Angels are horrible. With Trout, Pujols, Hamiltom, Trumbo and Hendrick in the batting order, this team should score lots of runs, but it is not and can’t pitch. A real and expensive disaster.
    In the National League Central, the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are within 2.5games. This was predictable, and I have suggested the emergence of the Pirates for two years. This division is the prime example of baseball culture dominating.
    In the NL East, the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies are within 3.5 games. The Phillies are doing it by sheer desire. The Braves and Nationals are wonderful teams, great players, good pitching and both teams drip baseball culture. The Braves have had that feature for decades; the Nats have developed it over two seasons, a tribute to Lerner and company.
    In the West, we find the worst disaster of all time. The D’Backs, Giants, and Rockies are over .500. The Dodgers, the highest salaried team in MLB, is in last place. (See update below!) With good hitting, they are not scoring runs.  Contrasting the Dodgers and Giants is a study of baseball culture being dominant in SF and deteriorating in LA.

     Let’s pretend you are running a team. You will  need to look at what non-uniformed managers can do to keep it going or reverse a slide. I sat with a group of sports executives a few years ago and I asked “what management could do?” “Where could management make a difference beyond the selection of players.” In other words, once your team is selected, what options are there for improving performance?.
    
    Here are some suggestions, listed in no particular order,

Technique. Coaching can improve play through instruction and improved technique, but in the top professional leagues, this is incremental change, only.

Training .Players can be coached to be physically fit for stamina, quickness and speed. This also is an injury prevention and recovery program.

Body knowledge This is training again to have the player aware of his physical strengths and weaknesses and correct through weight lifting and other exercises. This has an injury prevention aspect as well.

Diet. This means eating to stay at the right weight, neither too much or too little. Players do lose weight and strength and this can be monitored and corrected.

Nutrition. This is telling players what to eat, fewer Twinkies, (Yes, they are back) and more protein. This is actually very important and nutritional counseling should be offered at the earliest days of a career.

Equipment: The players simply have to have the correct equipment from shoes to caps, bats, sticks, helmets etc. No secret here
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Drug counseling. This is obvious for two reasons. First, drugs have health risks, and Second, a player that fails drug testing is lost to the team.

Mental training: Here counseling should be offered to keep players balanced during period of stress, like every day. Sports are marked by failure and players have to learn how to handle it. There are more mental casualties than physical career ending events. The simple management technique here is to make sure a player hears three positive comments to each negative one. This is to develop a positive attitude. For example, tell a player who just grounded out that he had a good swing, hit a good pitch and almost got it. This is the difference between missing a put and thinking you almost made a put. The latter attitude will sink the next one. I told Harmon Killebrew that he struck out on a great pitch, he said, “ I just missed it.”

Social style counseling: Part one: This is how to be a good teammate, building cohesion, and supporting others. Part two. Family and friends’ This means be careful of who you hang out with and keep your wife happy. Family peace helps a player and discord has an effect on the field.

    Implementation of these programs gets at developing a baseball culture, which is all about scoring or preventing runs. Nothing else matters. This requires total focus on baseball at every step, from the ushers, the concession workers and vendors to the players, 24/7, as they say. This is what the Nationals, Rangers, Braves, A’s, Cardinals, Reds, Tigers and Giants have, and the Dodgers have just recovered it and are now, August 10, five games ahead of Arizona. It is this culture that wins pennants and that culture is built with focus on the management elements listed above. 

Jackie Robinson’s Contribution to America

This is a speech I gave to a forum of the American Bar Association in 1997, the 50th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues and American History. Baseball had just spent the summer saying “Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball” and my speech corrects that idea and shows that he broke the color barrier in America.

Our subject for this seminar is the role of agents and attorneys in promoting civil rights in sports. I am completely convinced that the agent’s or attorney’s role is the vigorous pursuit of client’s interests. However, I also believe that the role of sports in civil rights has often been ignored, although that role, especially baseball’s, has been very significant.

    The singular event in sports civil rights was the breaking of the color barrier in 1947. We celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of that event this year. I attended such celebrations and was struck by the fact that no one dealt with the significance of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in both its contemporary and historic perspective. I will attempt to do that today. To do so, we must go to the beginning.

    The Constitutional Congress left two major issues unresolved. First, was the issue of federalism and states rights, and, second, was the issue of slavery. Eighty years after the passage of the Constitution, the slavery issue was settled, and the federalism issue partially resolved  in a great Civil War.  The emerging issue of civil rights was dealt with by the passage of the post war reconstruction laws that, unfortunately, failed to heal a torn nation. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the most tragic event in American history if for no other reason than the fact that he had the ability and foresight to heal the country. I have always been struck by the fact that Lincoln took a trip to Richmond within a week of its capture, and, with only a small group of sailors for protection, took a tour of the still smouldering city. Even at that time, with Southern armies still in the field and the battles still to be fought, Lincoln was pacifying Richmond. His death within a week of his visit to Richmond lead to harsh treatment for the South and resentments still felt today.

    Many of the tensions of the post civil war period were due to the laws passed just after the war ended. These reconstruction laws dealt with civil rights, but from our perspective today, they are most noted for the fact that from the time of their passing there were no civil rights laws  passed until the Eisenhower administration. The nation’s method of dealing with civil rights during that period was inaction as parallel universes based on race evolved under the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

    Plessy was decided in 1881, and it was two generations before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers and Brown v. Board of Education reversed it. In those years, our nation developed along the Plessy lines in more ways than education. Our society developed into parallel universes based on race. Of course, this situation could not be sustained because it was horribly unjust, economically stifling, and an unabashed violation of the Constitution. There were many events during the interim period that indicated the proper course, however, all steps forward were matched with steps backward. The step forward that stuck and marked the change from Plessy to Brown, was Jackie Robinson’s playing in the Major Leagues.  To understand this, we must look at the world of 1947.

    America was the leading economic nation and the dominate power on earth. Baseball was the king of the sports world. In this pre-TV time, major and minor league attendance was very high. So too was attendance for the teams of the Negro Leagues, many of whose teams played in Major League parks and out-drew their Major League opposites. I don’t believe that there is any greater example of the parallel universes that existed in America than the two separate major baseball leagues.

    In Griffith Stadium, Washington, the Senators would play a home stand and then the Homestead Grays would move in. The Senators’ owner loved to interact with the Grays’ players. He met with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard in his office and spoke of what magnificent players they were. He talked to them of playing in the Major Leagues, but that he could not do it because one of the effects of that would be to do damage to their league. The system in America was set up to perpetuate the parallel universes. Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers meant that the old system was over. Such was the pent-up energy for change, that Larry Doby signed with the Indians later in that same season and a nation was changed.

    The signing of a baseball player in Brooklyn was the pivotal civil rights event of the era. Its significance, great in its own right, was magnified because it was baseball that did it. This event was followed by the integration of the armed forces a year later.  The parallel universes had ended and it was baseball that broke the color barrier in America, not just in the Major Leagues.  The NBA and NFL, both of much less significance then, had been segregated and integrated off and on for years. It was the baseball event that had the social impact. I think this is because baseball is like life. It is undeniably real. It is played by real people, some of which are 5’6″ and weigh 150 lbs and others are 6″10″. It is played in real time, not by the clock. Its over when its over. It starts in the spring, grows all summer and is harvested in the fall with the most magnificent sports event of all, the World Series. Baseball continues to be our most diverse game, with players of European, Asian, African ancestry, and from all of the Americas, Asia, and Europe represented in the Majors today. Baseball responds quickly to changes in American culture. Today we see Asian players from Japan and Korea and tomorrow we will see Asian players from Topeka and San Jose.

    The significance of this diversity on the base paths is seen when viewed through the eyes of the greatest of the century’s civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “I Have A Dream Speech, ” Dr. King said it was his dream and vision for America to have a society in which a person is not known for the color of his skin but for his character.”

    In baseball, real people are measured by ability without regard for color, religion or national origin. Let us hope that baseball’s leadership for our country in 1947 is also followed in the next century. The question remains, however, as to what the role of the agent and lawyer is in promoting civil rights in sports. I think it may be that we must maintain a vigil to assure that rights are protected, principles are adhered to, and  raise the issue when they are not.

Baseball’s Timeless Appeal

Baseball’s timeless appeal captures the minds of fans who are enthralled by a game that, like the “Odyssey,” tells a story of the human condition, of confronting enemies, helping friends, and, of course,  getting home safely.  This appeal applies to softball and Little League baseball as well as to the Major Leagues. In other games, teams of equal size battle from one end of a court, arena, or field to the other. In these “back and forth games,” success is measured by crossing a line or placing an object in a goal.  Not so in baseball, where the batter competes against nine opponents and success is measured by a player’s ability to overcome the odds by safely moving  from base to base so that he or she gets home safely.
Baseball is played on the largest field in team sports not involving a horse, even larger than cricket. Its field is distinguished from those of the back and forth games, which are all rectangles covered with lines, circles, and dots, by its simplicity, with two lines diverging at 90 degrees from a single point to define both the infield and the outfield. At the point of intersection is home plate, an oddly shaped five-sided figure, smaller than a basketball hoop, where all action begins and ends. The infield is a ninety foot square that is tipped on its end to form a diamond with the outfield beyond. There are three 15 inch bases positioned on the corners of the 90 foot square.  The pitcher’s mound rises 10 inches above the infield, 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.  All infields have this perfect symmetry, while the outfields vary widely.
The story unfolds as the batter stands in the batter’s box facing his nemesis, the pitcher.  The batter is surrounded by seven fielders and the pitcher in front with the catcher behind.  The pitcher starts the action by pitching the ball over or just near home plate.  The ball is leather bound and moves at lethal velocity.  Fear is the first emotion that the player must overcome to play the game well. Many young players drop out when they can hear the ball in flight, are knocked down by an errant fast ball, or fooled by a curve into falling away, swinging weakly– insulted, stripped of all dignity, and humiliated, as courage and skill are shown to be lacking.
The pitcher attempts to put the batter out by using his extensive arsenal of pitches to cause the batter to strike out or hit the ball so it is caught in the air or on the ground to an infielder who throws him out.  The pitchers can use any combination of speed or spin to defeat  the batter, including illegal spit balls that sink precipitously, or scuffed and cut balls that spin viciously.  Pitchers succeed in putting batters out nearly 75% percent of the time.
If the batter hits a fair ball that is not caught, he becomes a runner and begins an odyssey around the bases. This must be done carefully, but speedily, as he moves from the sanctuary of one base to another.  The sanctuary of the base is available to one runner at a time, and a runner is compelled to leave the sanctuary when the batter becomes a runner and there is no empty base between them.  When a runner is forced to leave the base to go to the next base, he can be forced out merely by having a fielder touch the next base while holding the ball.  Otherwise, the runner is safe while touching the base, but is subject to being put out anytime a fielder touches an “off base” runner with the ball.  For Odysseus and his crew, the ship was the base and sanctuary and Odysseus tied  himself to a mast to be safe from the Sirens’ pitch.  Fielders, like Scylla, Cyclops and Circe, can use any form of deception, guile, misdirection, feints, hidden-ball tricks, and pick-off plays, all aimed at putting a vulnerable runner out.  The runner is bound to stay on the straight and narrow base path while his enemies plot his end.  He, like Odysseus, only wants to get home safely, and to do so, he must take risks, and be crafty, careful, and fleet of foot, and he usually needs a little help from his friends.  Like Odysseus, the runner often finds home blocked by the catcher, armored like a Greek warrior in mask, breast plate, and greaves, who is the last barrier to success.
The runner’s fate is determined by umpires, who are the ultimate judges of safe and out, or life and death, which they signal with single swipe of a hand, thumb extended for “out” or both hands outstretched palms down for “safe,” which means “nothing notable happened, let’s keep going.”  The “nothing” that happened  is no out was made and baseball keeps time with outs.
Baseball’s most prestigious feat is the home run. However, it only accounts for one run,  plus one for each runner on base, whereas in cricket a ball hit over the boundary on the fly counts for six runs. The home run derives its prestige from the act of driving the hostile pitch out of the field of play in a showing of complete victory.  It is the ultimate show of dominance, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot. A home run allows the batter to trot regally, with impunity, in an ostentatiously slow, plodding, sometimes taunting pace, while the fielders must stand and watch, incapable of action, mute.
Baseball tells a story that relates to the human condition.  The game requires great physical and mental skill in hitting a pitched ball, fielding, throwing, running, and taking risks to advance through the dangers of the infield.  It is unique in its imagery and its appeal is the story of players alone in the wilderness, relying on friends for help, and being alert to dangers, while focusing on the single goal of reaching home safely. For a baseball player, like the rest of us, this occurs everyday. The story played out is like life itself, and that is the appeal of the game that has enraptured its fans for more than 150 years.
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Clark Griffith is a lawyer and arbitrator in Minneapolis. He grew up with four uncles who played in the Major Leagues, Clark Griffith, for whom he is named, Joe Cronin, Joe Haynes and Sherrard Robertson.  His great uncle Clark and Uncle Joe Cronin are in the Hall of Fame. He learned a lot about baseball from these uncles, but it was his mother, Natalie, who taught him the majesty of the game just as she had learned it from her father.

Mr. Griffith was an executive with the Minnesota Twins, and Chairman of Major League Baseball Properties before becoming a lawyer.  He attends games on a very regular basis and still scouts every game he sees, including amateur and professional games, especially those of the Northern League, where he was Commissioner.    Mr. Griffith grew up in Washington, D.C., mainly at Griffith Stadium, graduated from Dartmouth College and the William Mitchell College of Law. He can be found on Twitter at @ccgpa