The State of the Game

The State of the Game

Speech given to Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, November 21, 2002
by Gene Elston

Gene Elston
"The Voice of the Astros"
Red flag number one

I think it is imperative to call everyone’s attention to the phenomena we, as baseball people, have in recent months been exposed to in some of our stadiums across the country. This alert is especially directed not only to the fans, who participate, and I presume will continue to do so, but the owners of these stadia as well.

If you haven’t heard, please pardon the pun, but it has been labeled the Thunderstix. Remember the wave? The wave finally met its demise and I for one was happy for its disappearance. Let us hope the thunderstix go the same route.

These hand-held objects, the thunderstix, should have a warning label posted on them: THIS PRODUCT CAN BE DETRIMENTAL TO YOUR HEALTH. There are 54 bones in your hands and wrists, and repeated use of these bones can cause carpel tunnel. Also, the noise factor may damage the two smallest bones in your body –- the stirrup bones in your ears. Just imagine how many over-zealous lawyers in our already over-sued society are currently working up briefs in anticipation of another class-action suit.

At the same time I caution club owners and their concessionaires to think deeply into the pluses and minuses before allowing these irritating noise makers on their premises. Put yourself in the fans’ place – here you are beating two thunderstix into submission and suddenly the problem presents itself - how can my customers beat two sticks together and at the same time purchase the many delicious and over-priced necessities offered in my ball park (especially for eating and drinking), and still sustain the revenue I have enjoyed in the past.

Before I continue this serious talk on the subject of the State of the Game, I must give the following disclaimer: The fact that I have been associated with baseball for some 50-years certainly does not qualify me as being an expert. Being a broadcaster does not place me anywhere near being in a position to know the inside of the operational facets of the game.

Therefore, if some of my thoughts might be construed as critical -- and some will be -- from this point on consider me a mere lover of the game, and exercising my right as a fan to do a little second-guessing. So, these thoughts will be my thoughts on the State of the Game, and coming from the heart and mind of a baseball traditionalist and purist.

Baseball has been our National Pastime for decades. It has grown over the years merely because it is such a great game. Its popularity is simple: it is a simple game, easy to understand and, yet it offers its fans the opportunity to delve as deeply into its complexities as one sees fit. In other words, a person can understand the game in its mere simplicity – throw the ball, hit the ball, run around the bases and try to make it home. Or, the more you become involved in the game you begin to understand its nuances and the more complicated and interesting features, of which there are many.

Some of those complicated features are out of the reach of the average fan. These are the features (behind the scenes) that we can only read or hear about, then are discussed and digested by each of us, and that allows each of us to agree or disagree.

We all know what has happened to the game beginning in the 1960s – all of the family ownerships are gone. The Stonehams, Yawkeys, Wrigleys, Griffiths, the Carpenters and the last two -- the Autrys in 1996 and the O’Malleys in 1997. Dodger president Peter O’Malley put the exclamation point on long-time family ownership when he signed off with this statement on January 5, 1997, “Family ownership is probably a dying breed –- a high risk business –- with groups and corporations the wave of the future.”

Over the past four-plus decades Major League Baseball has expanded too many times. The early expansions in 1961 and 1962 were necessary considering the growth of the nation and the move of the Giants and Dodgers to the West Coast. However, continued expansion led to over-spending and the beginning of the economic downturn.

Red flag number two

Regardless of continued hammering and hammering by various sources to catch the ears of the owners they continue to ignore fiscal responsibility. They continue to over-spend on free agents, multi-year contracts and bonuses.

When I was growing up in the 1930s I remember jumping up and down on the bed with my brother while we listened to the radio, or from a record on our phonograph, to a song. I don’t remember the title of the song but I still recall one line, "Money is the root of all evil, of strife and upheaval." At 10 years, or so, old, I didn’t really comprehend the meaning but I have learned that meaning many times over in my association with baseball.

One thing we know – baseball’s economy is in a serious state and the outlook is that it will remain weak for some time to come, and perhaps become even more critical unless ownership becomes more realistic with the funds at their disposal. It is essential for the owners to become more responsible for the bottom line in each of their own situations. I stress, each in there own situations. But, from what I have seen so far, they remain in the same mode – spend, spend and spend in complete disregard of the bottom line.

Going into the 2002 season (the last figures I have obtained) major league teams had salary obligations through 2011 that totaled a staggering $3.7 billion. These numbers included 247 multiyear contracts (an average of eight per club. These figures do not include deferred payments. (Source – April 13, 2001 USA Today.)

From top to bottom, each club had at least four players in this category, the Detroit Tigers ($43,925,000) and Kansas City Royals ($14,400,000). The Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays had a high of 14 players with debt through 2011. Arizona ($129,726,679) and Toronto ($141,691,666). Others clubs with double figure players in this category were the New York Mets (13), Cleveland Indians (12), the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and St.Louis Cardinals (11), Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants (10). However, also with 10 players in this group were the Colorado Rockies with an overall lead in salary debt of $388,796,415. Once again the major league total was $3.7 billion.

At the same time union Chief, Don Fehr, was saying owners wouldn’t approve salaries they couldn’t afford and was quoted, “We [the union] believe, and we’ve always believed, that when an owner signs a player, he makes a judgment on the contract that he and the industry can afford.”

In referring to the debt build-up by the owners, general manager John Hart was quoted as saying, “Nobody’s happy about it. It’s insane.” I may be mistaken, but I believe it was he who started the trend of jumping over salary arbitration and free agency by signing players to multi-year contracts. This whole situation has thrown many teams into the possibility of bankruptcy.

When did the warning signs of over-spending begin? Let’s go back in history to the end of the 1980 season when then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn warned the club owners that they faced heavy financial losses if salaries continued to escalate. In 1980 (22-years ago) the average major league salary was $143,756. This warning shot across the bow of the owners was simply ignored. In Kuhn’s final year as commissioner four years later (1984), the average had risen to $329,408. That’s a gain of $185,652.

But, before I continue in this vein, let’s go back further in baseball history with this observation... Quote: “Salaries must come down or the interest of the public must be increased in some way. If one or the other does not happen, backruptcy stares every team in the face.” That quote was by National League player/manager Albert Spalding in 1881.

Kuhn’s replacement was Peter Ueberroth. He assumed the commissioner’s post on March 31, 1984 and almost from the moment he took office he minced no words when speaking of the owners’ failure to recognize the definition of fiscal responsibility. It was not uncommon for Ueberroth to refer to the owners as “stupid’ and “dumb.”

In October 1985, the commissioner was addressing club owners during the World Series in St. Louis. Ueberroth let the owners have all barrels. Among many other quotes he said: “Look in the mirror and go out and spend big if you want, but don’t go out there whining that someone made you do it.” But, the owners were over-galvanized. Lawyers had warned them they needed to make their own individual decisions to get to fiscal responsibility, but they were carried to extremes. Too much talking to each other and too many paper trails being shared between clubs using identical language in dealing with agents and players – the owners themselves had opened a can of worms and they paid the price.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal on May 20, 1991 writer John Helyer said “At one meeting, soon after taking office, Mr. Ueberroth announced he’s figured out what is wrong with the economics of baseball, Ueberroth said: ‘Let’s say I sat each of you down in front of a red button and black button, push the red button and you’d win the World Series, push the black button and you’d make $4 million and finish somewhere in the middle. Ueberroth looked around, and continued, ‘The problem is most of you would push the red button.'”

In today’s system the owners really control the salary of a player’s contract for only the first three years in the majors. At this point the owners face the rule of salary arbitration followed by free agency. This has been the key for the lavish salaries handed out to the athletes –- all in hopes that somewhere down the line club owners will reach the World Series. Since salary arbitration was agreed upon in the 1973 Basic Agreement the record shows the clubs lead the players 254 to 192. That record should read in reality - Players 446 – Owners Nothing.

I really don’t know the answer to this problem for the owners but, at the very least, these owners must make an attempt to rectify the situation that is now completely unbalanced and unfair. Somewhere there must be an answer to make the process at least a “toss-up” going into these one-sided hearings. Should the union not cooperate I suggest it be put on the agenda for discussion in the next basic agreement, that failing, the owners could use the union’s old standby –- file for arbitration.

Baseball has now grown to 30 teams –- an addition of 14 since each league expanded in 1961 and 1962 –- or to put it bluntly, just think about it, every time you expand you not only add two more clubs, you add two more losers. The whole system is too unwieldy and has led to the League Championship Series in 1969, then to the Divisional Playoffs, and then what I call gimmicks –- the Wild Card in 1995 and Inter-league play in 1997 –- all of which was dreamed up solely for the idea of increasing revenues! This whole system is also playing havoc with the record books.

The quality of the pitching suddenly dropped from 177 total pitchers used in 1960 to 585 in the first season of 30 teams –- that is a total rise of 468 throwers. In 1960 the original 16 franchises each used an average of 11 pitchers per season and that average now is at, or more than, 20 pitchers per club. In the same time-frame, 2,128 homers were hit by the 16 teams - and in 1998 the 30 clubs hit 5,062, that’s more than an additional 3,000 homers a season (an average of 133 per team in 1960 – and an average of 169 per team in 1998) an overwhelming number that has blown home run records off the charts. Not only have the high record number of home runs (that number in the 70’s) has made news, but the absence of the number of players who are now hitting 30-40-50 a season has for most part been ignored in comparison to pre-expansion years. In 2002 13 players in the American League and 15 in the National League -- a total of 28 players -- reached the 30-plus category.

Henry Aaron, speaking recently with fellow Hall of Fame slugger Willie Mays said, “Willie if you and I were playing today we would be scrub players. We hit only 40 home runs, these guys today are hitting 75, 80 home runs.”

In the just-ended World Series the Giants hit a record 12 home runs and the two teams combined to hit 21, more than in any other series. The other end of that home run barrage was pitching – in the last five World Series’ there has been just one complete game – Game Two of the 2001 Series by Randy Johnson.

Some time back, former owner Bill Veeck, commenting on the thinned out talent base said, “It isn’t really the stars that are expensive. It’s the high cost of mediocrity.”

Red flag number three

When Marvin Miller came upon the scene in 1966 the union began to hum. His first stroke of genius was to make public the salaries of all players, thus creating the system whereby each player could be compared in performance and tenure to that of any other player in the same category. This would lead to salary arbitration which we have already discussed and was agreed upon by the owners and placed in the basic agreement, and has haunted them ever since. In the 1973 labor talks the owners had finally proposed a plan to accept free agency, but Miller agreed to pass on free agency and traded off salary arbitration. A year later, Oakland owner Charlie Finley screwed up Catfish Hunter’s contract and he became a free agent and that was followed by Miller’s suggesting Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith play a year without a contract and bingo, the union had both free agency and salary arbitration.

History may be boring to some, but some things in the past are worth noting. Free agency was originally suggested to the National League in 1896 when Brooklyn owner Ferdinand H. Abel proposed to make all players free agents between January 1st and March 1st –- this would allow the teams to bid on them subject to a salary limit. The proposal was studied and ignored. And, in 1914 the three-man National Commission, ruling baseball at the time, instituted free agency after a player reached ten years of service.

Over the years the union has sucked just about all of the blood that’s left out the owners –- the union has wriggled its way into, in my opinion, a point of actually becoming part of ownership. My question, and tell me if I’m wrong, is how the union became involved in the owner’s luxury tax and revenue sharing? I know these items are in the Basic Agreement, but how did they get there in the first place? Am I wrong to believe that each owner or owners own their own franchise in which they have a substantial investment, have control of 40 players’ contracts and pay their agreed-upon salaries, their expenses on the road, own these contracts which they can sell or trade and are also responsible for their minor league system. On top of all that, other expenses they may incur in doing their day-to-day business, including the responsibility in paying a high number of their many non-uniformed employees.

Has the union contributed in any way financially in running the operations of the before-mentioned owners and would they now like to aid in any way to escape the team’s indebtedness’? I think not. Their latest involvement came when the union once again filed for arbitration making another attempt to sink their fangs into what should only be the owners business -- controlling their own property and the dispersal of the players they own when baseball made an attempt to contract two teams. It seems whenever the owners make a move –- the union is there with their old standby –- arbitration.

Bill Veeck, while owner of the Chicago White, summed up this situation very succinctly when he said, “We’re going at this whole thing backward. Attorneys should wear numbers on their backs, and box scores should have entries for writs, depositions and appeals.”

I have a feeling things are beginning to turn between the union and the players. No need here for me to enumerate what the union has done for the players over the last 30-plus years, but I believe something happened when the union announced a strike date in August. The announcement was a 100 percent public relations blunder and I believe the players sensed that. I think the players decided on their own that a strike would be another blow to the game and the time had come for the rank and file to begin speaking up to Don Fehr and his leaders. I believe a big groundswell developed among the players, and they said “enough is enough” and called for an end to the continual pushing and pressure by labor lawyers that could eventually lead to chaos. It is my opinion the players alone made the decision not to strike.

In July I posted a suggestion on my website: Attention to all major league baseball players. You have nothing to fear except Fehr himself.

A July USA Today Baseball Weekly published a survey and 2,044 responded. In the poll the first three questions were: 1) compared with last year are you attending less major league games 2) watching less major league games on TV and 3) is your overall interest less in the major leagues. The fourth question asked was: if you answered less on all three questions, what reason is responsible for your decrease in interest? Fans listed eleven different categories. And the category most mentioned was labor. Baseball has just wrapped up its 133rd season since the Cincinnati Redlegs became the first professional team in 1869. Ten years later – 1879 – the hometown newspaper –- the Cincinnati Gazette screamed a three line headline across one of its pages: The baseball mania has run its course, it has no future as a professional endeavor. We all now agree that with 133 years in the rear view mirror (and still going strong but economically weak), the industry has proved the Cincinnati Gazette, to be totally wrong!

Of course problems will continue to haunt baseball, but we all know it is a game that will never die. There has been one constant of our National Pastime and that has been the professionalism of those who participate on the field. Just think: there has been so many talented players that have displayed their skills in this complex game over the years. I am totally amazed from game to game exactly how they can perform so expertly in such a difficult endeavor.

However, as I look back through the years, modern-day players are not keeping up with their counterparts in one important facet of the game. Each player must promise to energize himself, in his own way and remind themselves that the fans are one of the three necessities of our National Pastime. The owners are the third. Owners, Players, and Fans.

The game cannot exist without all three. The owners must see the light and begin operating on the bottom line, and the players need to ingratiate themselves to the fans –- especially the youngsters -= signing more autographs, rubbing elbows and chatting, with those who worship them (our Number One national treasure, the kids). This should be an individual as well as a group promise for the coming season. And, one added note: the athletes must show how much they love the game with more hustle -– running out ground balls and hustling in and out of the dugout between innings. But above all, be more "fan friendly,” especially with the kids.

And, speaking of the fans: baseball has lost many of their ardent followers since the shutting down of the game in 1994. Some of those have returned and some of those who returned were ready to bolt again following the union’s setting another strike date in August. Over the years of over-spending by the owners since the late 1970s, the fans have been subjected to continual rising prices for tickets, refreshments and novelties, yet the majority of them keep coming back –- but for how long?

The fan base for baseball consists of a tremendous group of loyal people. They are one of the reasons the game will never go away. Yes, sometimes they are a fickle group. But, being fickle is part of being a fan. I remember the reaction of some fans when it was the general practice to bad-mouth the players because they were making such outlandish salaries. You rarely hear that today from the fans. By some fans, yes, but now the cry is against the owners for not holding on to their top free agents, urging the owners to pay more to keep their prize possessions. Fickle, yes, but also loyal. Over this past summer I have attended numerous baseball-related events and have spent hours discussing all facets of the game with them. Having talked to these unseen people for many years via the radio and now meeting so many of them face-to-face was very uplifting for me. Some were very unhappy about the events of the past few years, but many still had that look in their eyes that they haven’t completely given up on the game. These are baseball fans in every meaning of the word. I call it an undying passion for the game. Meeting so many of these people eye-to-eye made me very confident that most of them will always hold up their end of the big three of this game. Owners, players, and fans.

Before winding up this session I’d like to list a few bullets on what I would like to see in the future:

After thinking long and hard and looking back on this year’s "MasterCard’s Top 10 Major League Baseball Memorable Moments", I finally decided on my own. It happened on Labor Day 1953 when I walked through the press gate at Wrigley Field and into the Cubs' broadcast booth and announced my first major league baseball game. I ask you, can there be anything more memorable for a young man after spending his first eight years in the minors?

I think not.