If you didn’t notice by now, MLB is a business, just like the NFL, NBA and any other organized sport. As a fan, one easily forgets that behind the home runs, strikeouts, and statistical milestones, there is a constant struggle between the owners and the players, mere employees. The struggle, of course, is over money, power, and control. The owners know that without players, there would be no fans lining up and paying for tickets, jerseys, hot dogs and cotton candy to the tune of $9 billion last year. Although the owners write the paychecks, the players have quite a lot of opportunity for leverage against the owners.
Yet unlike the NBA, where players use their leverage in contract negotiations and merchandizing sponsorships (the biggest in all of sports), MLB, much like the NFL, has done a very good job at building team brands and coercing loyalty to these brands at the expense of the players. In a sense, when a player puts on the uniform of the Dodgers or Yankees, their individuality melts away under the guise of team spirit and allegiance. The owners command this loyalty.
And as the owners count their stacks of coins, they look for modern ways to keep salaries down such as signing young, talented players early to long term deals. Even the signing of Giancarlo Stanton, a modern record, is very team friendly with many opt-out clauses as well as eventual annual salaries that may not be out of line 10 years down the road. The initial opposition to free agency and the continuing disdain for the rise in player salaries by the owners proves team loyalty resides in profits and not the players.
The loyalty the owners in MLB demand from the players is also coerced from the fans. And it seems to have worked, after years and years of baseball tradition. The fans don’t follow players, like they would, say, a Lebron James. Instead, they live and die by the team. (It’s even much easier in the NFL to be team oriented, as the players are hidden behind their pads and helmets.)
Last week, the Dodgers traded away infielder Juan Uribe, a beloved fan and clubhouse favorite. Upon hearing the news, it was reported that Uribe began to tear up. The loyalty that Uribe had to the organization was obvious, but unfortunately the business of baseball dictated that his $6.5 million contract didn’t make sense for a team with the highest payroll in the majors. The loyalty that Uribe showed to the Dodgers was not reciprocated.
What happened to Uribe was not unusual. His sentimentality might be. But tears or not, fans for the most part will always welcome back the traded player, especially if he was liked and seen as team-first. It wouldn’t be bizarre for Dodger fans to cheer on Uribe the next time he’s in Los Angeles with a visiting team.
Yet something happened during the Dodgers-Padres series two weekends ago in Los Angeles that was unanticipated. I found myself among a stadium full of fans booing Matt Kemp, who was traded during the off season from the Dodgers to the Padres. It was not two years ago that I heard chants of “M-V-P” in Dodgers Stadium for the right fielder. What was going on? I turned and asked those around me if people were really booing the former Dodger hero. The classic response was “Kemp is a traitor.”
Somehow the Dodgers organization had convinced its fans of this sentiment. Yes, there were reports that Kemp had been upset with playing time and where he played in the outfield after the team acquired Yasiel Puig. But was that enough to boo him and call him a traitor? Obviously the trade was based around money, as the Dodgers rid themselves of Kemp’s contract and gained a new cheap, everyday catcher, Yasmani Grandal. Kemp was no more a traitor than Uribe was.
The Kemp example made me realize that MLB and its organizations have another, very important tool to use in their struggle against the players: the media. Marketing the team image through the use of media can potentially manipulate the fan base to whatever point of view the owners want. At worst the media can be used to tarnish a player and his career as one single player is powerless against an entire organization.
I’m tired of these smear campaigns that owners wage against players. The Angels did it to Josh Hamilton and the Yankees continue to do it to Alex Rodriguez. In both instances, the smear tactics arose out of contract disputes and were nothing more than power plays to sway public opinion and, more importantly, the opinion of the fans. Yet we have to remember as fans that we don’t go to baseball games to see all the Morenos and Steinbrenners. We go to see the players, and we should always be on their side. Yes, not every player can be as likeable as Uribe. But the players, not the owners, hit the home runs.
Featured Image: Via flipboard.com