Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Dilemma For Baseball That I Invented In My Head

Major League Baseball could be in big trouble. A series of events are falling into place that could result in a massive loss of its casual fan base. I’m not talking about the impending results of the Mitchell Investigation, although that could have catastrophic effects. After the strike in 1994 interest in baseball took a sharp decline. Stadiums were half empty. Fans left in droves, frustrated with both players and owners. Two events brought the fans back, and baseball back from it’s near death (maybe not death, but perhaps becoming less popular than soccer, I’m not sure which is worse).

The first was Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played streak in 1995. Now that’s something Americans can get behind, a record based on going to work everyday. Trust me I know, I have several perfect attendance awards from elementary school, and people loved me for it. The second event of course was the home run chase in 1998. Fans were riveted by nightly updates of Sammy Sosa’s and Mark McGuire’s assault on Roger Maris’ single season home run record. They both ended up breaking the mark and baseball was back to being America’s pastime.

Those two things brought the casual fan back into the game, but Ripken’s streak ended in 1998 and he retired in 2001. The home run record has not only already been broken, but it’s all been tainted by the cloud of steroids. So what has kept the casual fan interested? Why is the popularity of baseball still high? Many reasons of course, but I think there is one unifying element among the majority of average fans that keeps them watching every night: hating the New York Yankees. Obviously there are millions of diehards who love the game as it is and root for they’re favorite team no matter what. But these are the people who never left, the strike might have left a stain on the game but they were still fans. On the other hand there are an equal number of people who would tell you they like baseball but don’t know much about the game other than what they see on ESPN occasionally. These are the people who needed to be told who Matt Holliday was during the World Series this year. They couldn’t tell you the third starter on their favorite team is, but the do know one thing. Namely they hate the Yankees because they “buy” championships.

Herein lies the problem for MLB. The Yankees are falling apart at the seams. Alex Rodriguez is gone. Joe Torre is gone. Any Pettitte opted out of his contract today and may choose to retire. Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada are free agents. It’s not a great offseason to be a Yankee fan, but this could be bad for baseball as well. Hypothetically let’s say the team does lose all of those players to free agency; that is close to $70 million in payroll subtracted from last season. Add to it Roger Clemens and his $16 million retiring and the Yankees could potentially have only the fifth or sixth highest payroll coming into the season. What will people have to latch onto as a reason to hate them? Because that’s the thing, somewhere along the line it became more fun for the average fan to root against other teams than it did to root for their own. What happens when the evil empire is no longer evil? By June your standard Orioles fan, for example, has given up on the season, they’re no longer interested in watching the fate of their own team. All they have left is hoping the Yankees and their enormous payroll underachieve in the playoffs again. They revel in it, as do many other fans of many other teams. Well there is a chance the Yankees will start the season with a payroll similar to the O’s and expectations not much higher. If that’s the case then by June when they don’t care about their team anymore they have nothing else to care about. They’ll just quit on baseball altogether and this can’t be a scenario that makes MLB happy.

Here’s the kicker, the thing that will make people heads explode: the Yankees, instead of underachieving with a huge payroll like they have the last few years, could just as easily overachieve with a reasonable payroll next year. Then people really wouldn’t know what to do. Who hates the underdog? All of those players leaving in free agency leave gaping holes in the lineup and rotation but it doesn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare. There is still plenty of talent. Instead of being the odds on favorite to win it all they would be a team with a ton of question marks who could surprise some people come September and October. What if Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Jason Giambi stay healthy all year? Add in Jeter, Cano, Abreu, and Cabrera and that’s still a formidable lineup. They might be starting the season with three rookie or second year guysin the starting rotation. But between Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy if two of those three guys live up to even 80% of there potential then combined with Wang that would be a fairly solid rotation. These are all big ifs, but there not that unlikely. Do I think the Yankees have a shot at the World Series? Probably not. Can they surprise a lot people? Absolutely, and that is the last thing a lot of people want to see. They’ll hate that they can’t hate it. Ever Yankee basher has a standard set of arguments that they rarely deviate from but they wouldn’t be able to use any of them anymore.

Every story needs a villain. MLB needs that to be the Yankees. People are celebrating their demise now, but they’ll get bored. And eventually they’ll get bored with baseball altogether if they don’t have the Yankees to root against.

Of course there is always the new Yankees: the Boston Red Sox.


Arjewtino said...

Go Dodgers.

inowpronounceyou said...

I said awhile back that the Sox would turn all of that good karma promptly around by being asshats in victory and the Yankees would become fan favorites. Now, with the Pats becoming a hated but wildly successful team, the Celtics looking really good, and even the Bruins bieng decent?

The plan for pure evil is falling in to place.

Oh, and I'm a Yankees fan. Great post.

Eric said...

arjewtino - What do you think Scott Proctor reaction to the hiring of Joe Torre was? I bet his shoulder cried.

INPY - I don't if the Yankees will be fan favorites, but it's definitely only a matter of time before people hate the Red Sox way more than them. It's going to be great.

Baha said...

2130, not 2030

Matthew said...

Don't shortchange the idea of Red Sox as the new evil empire. Most casual fans don't know how bad JD Drew's and Julio Lugo's contracts are. But the casual fan does know that the Sox spent over $100 mil on some Japanese guy. That makes the Red Sox "big spenders" just like the Yankees were.

Meanwhile, they're winning. But unlike the Yankees, they're not doing it with class and dignity. I'm certain that Papelbon's antics would never have been tolerated in Joe Torre's stay-classy clubhouse. Jeter's head would explode if he had to play with Manny's indifference to everything except hitting a baseball. And Curt Schilling is no less of a loud mouth than the guy NY got rid of last year (Gary Sheffield).

I always said about the late 90's Yankees that I didn't hate their players (except for Paul O'Niel). I always hated the obnoxious Yankee fans. Well, I've heard several people in my office express dislike for various members of the Red Sox, and we all know how obnoxious the Boston fans can be.

When they win in '08, the tide will turn against them.

But I don't think that the Yankees will ever be anyone's darling. They're still excercising $16 mil options on guys like Bobby Abreu, so they're not going to be confused with Marlins anytime soon.

mike said...

Eric, I still hate the Yankees and I always will. Also, despite being a knowledgeable, hardcore fan of the game, that hatred is almost always irrational. I hope that make you feel better about where baseball stands.

Matthew, if I may make a few counter points. First, while I completely agree with you on Schilling's overuse of his mouth and pen, he plays the game the right way while on the field. You could argue that guys like him and Tek are the anti-Mannys that keep that team focussed. Second, excuse Papelbon for enjoying himself a little, geez. Aren't sports about playing games? Just cuz a guy likes fun and dancing doesn't mean he is deplorable. During the game he is focussed, it's not until after games that he'll fist pump a few times. It's only after milestone wins that does a jig. And who doesn't celebrate after those things? The Yankees don't do that because their whole organization is a bunch of tight asses. The Red Sox are still allowed to be the "idiots" if they choose which allows them to stay loose and should actually endear them to fans. People who are really big on rules might not understand that.

As for Manny, I don't really have a good defense for a majority of his actions. His indifference and homerun poses can be very frustrating when you live and die with the Sox (especially when things aren't going well). The flip side, however, is that when he is hitting I find him incredibly fun(ny) to watch, but I can see why other fans (including members of the Nation*) have little patience for him.

*You know you are getting close to Evil Empire status when your fanbase is commonly referred to as "the Nation". I'm embracing it. I want to root for a winning baseball team and if that means people have to hate them and me then so be it. What is really annoying is the people who jumped on the bandwagon beginning in 04 that are relishing this. You shouldn't be allowed this pleasure unless you lived through the tough times or were born recently.

I need my own blog.

Los said...

I think MLB is doing a better job of promoting the game to the kids again ... they tended to ignore them for a long while ... can they do more? Sure they can, but hey, it's a start.

Brian said...

i disagree with your first thing that could be bad for baseball. you talked about the yankees actually playing well-

A team with Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Jeter, Cano, Abreu, and Cabrera are not going to be an underdog. Sure, they may lose some of the other big name (and salaried) players, but you are just being absolutely rediculous if you think that team would have similar expectations as the Orioles.

Eric said...

Saying their expectations would be similar to the Orioles was an exageration, but people seem to take everything to extremes with the Yankees whether on the high side or the low side. Losing Torre, ARod, and Pettitte allow will have almost every prognosticator saying that the Yankees at best are looking up at the Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Tigers, and Mariners. And there will be people putting teams like the Blue Jays and Twins ahead of them also. That would, according to them, put the Yankees in the middle to bottom half of the American League, which would make them underdogs to make the playoffs.