Much worse than the nothing that there has been to write about baseball for the last couple months is having to write about the horrible stuff going on now instead of spring training games. With the owner’s lockout still dragging on, the narratives quickly become repetitive. Folks who think that just because the crumbs the owners brush off the table are reasonably-sized that it entitles them to unlimited cake lean on a few quips to back up their flimsy case. One of my least favorite is the one about how owners take all the risk. 

My distaste for this narrative begins with the blatant lies about how little money someone makes by being the owner of a baseball team. We have been fed outright falsehoods from multiple owners as well as ridiculous comments from Manfred about the comparison between the investment in a baseball team and an S&P stock market investment. Not only are they simply lies, but lies told in the assumption that we, the receivers of those lies, are far too stupid to figure out how easily disprovable they are. 

Given how hard they try to convince us how poor they are you’d think they would just offer some shred of proof from their books, but obviously they couldn’t be bothered to do that. Instead they offer as little information as possible about their finances, and all of it untrue. They then encourage salary and payroll info to be as public as possible, to make sure everyone knows just how greedy the players are. They say they are taking the risks, but are they really? If they really are the risk taking barons they claim to be, why was the first thing they did during the pandemic was try to socialize their risk and downside and share it among the players? They cost us 20-ish games that easily could have been played had they not spent so much time trying to thrust their COVID-19 losses in anyone else’s direction but their own. 

The owners tried again to reduce their downside at the expense of the fans in 2021. This time they weren’t so brazen as to try to make the players foot the bill, but they certainly wanted to stick it to us in terms of lost games. Fortunately the players were on our side then, as they are on our side now. I heard a clip from an actual sportswriter who said that he preferred the players’ 12-team playoff plan as opposed to the owners’ 14-team plan from a game aesthetic perspective, but that he hopes the owners get their way because the players have “the wrong reasons” for wanting the 12-team system. What the fuck is wrong with that guy? He’s rooting for the owners to (in his opinion) make a mockery out of the postseason in the interest of lining their pockets because he thinks the players are too greedy? I am not nearly a good enough mental gymnast to get to a place like that. 

Back to the risk factor. Even for the owners who worked for their money, of all the investments they have made along the way, owning a baseball team is among the least-risky if not by far the safest. Of course a lot of owners inherited their teams, and more still inherited the money they used to buy their teams, meaning they didn’t even have to take many risks along the way to owning one of the most downside-proof assets in existence. Simply put, running a regular business and running a baseball team are not comparable activities, because baseball teams are part of a government sponsored monopoly and the massive facilities they require are either subsidized or outright funded by taxpayer dollars. 

Yet still in the thoughts of many, Hal Steinbrenner is taking just as much risk as the guy who pours a $50k life savings into opening a small restaurant. He is not. Even in a catastrophic year like 2020, the downside is relatively small in comparison to the typical annual upside and the difference is made up quickly both in terms of revenue generation as well as asset appreciation. A few people will point at Frank McCourt, the one example ever of a rich person who couldn’t hold on to his baseball team, but the argument is very thin as his trouble wasn’t really with running the team but more with his messy divorce and shady bookkeeping practices. From a pure business perspective there wasn’t really much wrong with the team, as evidenced by the more than $2 billion he sold it for. Considering he bought the team for $450 million in 2004 and made more than $1.5 billion in profit only seven years later I’d say he made out pretty well regardless of how much profit he turned during his years of ownership. 

I think I have proven my point on how little risk is involved with owning a baseball team. Short of some event (hint hint) that makes everyone hate baseball forever, it is impossible to lose money. That should be enough, as the argument here is only about the owners and whether or not they truly have skin in the game or are just sitting back watching the nerds run the show while they collect fat revenue sharing checks. There is however, more to the risk factor of baseball. 

It really irks me that owners get credit for their willingness to “take the risk” of owning an MLB team, and yet players are considered to be living fat on guaranteed contracts. The players are out there on the field every single day playing a game that carries a variety of risks to life and limb. Whether it’s the pitcher who gets hit in the face with a line drive, the batter who takes a fastball to the head, or the outfielder who tears an Achilles or breaks a bone crashing into a wall, there are dozens of ways to get hurt on the baseball field. That’s not even considering the fact that their livelihoods are also tied into their ability to avoid meeting bodily harm off the field, whether a tragic occurrence like Trey Mancini or Jon Lester being diagnosed with cancer or simply an irresponsible action like Trevor Bauer and his drone.

Well, the contract is guaranteed, they say, and I’m sure that fact is of some comfort to a player like Dustin Pedroia whose career was cut short by a dirty slide. He was unable to play for the final four years of his contract, but he surely did get the $56 million that he was owed for those years. Now I’m positive that Mr. Pedroia would have much rather played his heart out to earn those millions, but given the circumstances I’m just as sure that he’d rather have the money than have had his contract voided due to his injury. For most of the league however, there isn’t much of a guarantee. 

With more than 60% of players not yet eligible for arbitration, this represents a big risk for them every time they step on the field. Regardless of if they are a superstar player already counting down the days to a massive free agent payday or a marginal player just hoping to get enough seasons in to make a few million bucks, their livelihoods could be gone in a moment. While it’s pretty unlikely for the theoretical “fastball to the head” to end a career in one swoop, injuries requiring surgery happen all the time, and not every player comes back 100%. 

Take the case of a 27-year-old, second year starting pitcher. He has been training to be a big leaguer since he was a teenager, so he has already invested 13 or so years of his life into honing his craft. Sure, he made $570k last season as a rookie, but his minor league earnings were negligible and he forwent the ability to attend college or otherwise prepare himself to earn a living outside of baseball. So now he’s in year two, and he has himself another $570k guaranteed. He’s a “millionaire” now, but only in lifetime earnings. However, he’s pretty good, and he knows just one more year at $570k, then three years of arbitration where he’ll make a little more, and if he stays good enough he might get an eight-figure free agent deal. Instead he tears his UCL in mid-August. 

Sure, most pitchers come back from Tommy John surgery these days, some come back stronger than ever, and others are able to bounce back after two of them. Let’s just say that the theoretical pitcher we’re discussing isn’t one of them. Say he rehabs and grinds and tries, but he just can’t rediscover his pitch and make it back to the bigs. Yes, in this case, he would have gotten the portion of his contract that was “unearned” at the time of his injury, in this example it would have been $142,000. The owner would have been on the hook for that $142k – but I bet most owners enjoy taking risks bigger than that at the blackjack table.

The pitcher on the other hand would have risked quite a bit more in my opinion. He would be out the 13 years of training, and who knows how many more years of slogging in the minors trying to come back from the surgery and not making it. He would have more than a million dollars in lifetime earnings, and even $142k of it he wouldn’t have even had to pitch for. After paying taxes, union fees, agent fees, and keeping up the lifestyle of a professional athlete it is hardly set-for-life money regardless. The real point is that a typical pitcher on his path might have the opportunity to earn $150 million or so, and he lost his opportunity to do so while risking his health to try to bring home a title for the owner who is supposedly taking a “risk” by owning the team and guaranteeing his one-year league-minimum contract

That pitcher is an unlikely and unlucky case. Lots of pitchers never need TJ surgery, and most of them who do only lose two years of earnings instead of the rest of their career’s worth. A handful of lucky ones are already on long-term contracts when it happens so they don’t miss out on a penny. The point is that career-altering or career-ending injuries happen, and even the unluckiest cases are infinitely more likely than the possibility of a billionaire going broke over his investment in a major league baseball team.

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