The Business of Ball

Our friend John would lean on the butcher block at our family market with his eyes half closed and his hand rolled cigarette two thirds finished and burned out. His drinking was over for the day. When he was feeling better, he would tell us , between wheezes, how he was going to move to Arizona for his asthma. When my youthful exuberance and stubborn good cheer got too annoying for him, he would cough up some phlegm, use some choice foul language and slowly, gasping for air, explain the facts of life for me. At age eleven, I was convinced that professional baseball was the best possible way to escape the drudgery I saw most of the adults I knew going through. You could get paid good money for playing a game. Most of the reading material I was devouring at the time told stories of heroes and good sports who all had the disposition of Stan Musial and thanked God for the honor of representing the good people of (fill in the city, mine was Pittsburgh) by playing this great game of ours.

“No, no. no” John said. “It’s business and it’s just like every other damned thing.” he grumbled . Of course, John was right, and I know that I’m not the only bugger who has been banging his head against the wall all these years wishing that he was wrong. Now, of course, Mr. Nutting and his henchman Mr. Huntington have brought that message home in a very loud and clear manner to the Pittsburgh Pirates followers, who seem to have a strong gathering of angry former loyalists who would like to barbecue the two of them to go with some Iron City suds. First, pitcher Gerrit Cole was shipped out to the world champion Houston Astros. That was tough, although, at 27, Cole had really only had one good season for the Bucs. Then, however, the excrement hit the propeller blade of the Good Ship Buccaneers when Andrew McCutchen, who recently named his first born child Steel, and who became the dreadlocked face of a rejuvenated Pirates team just five years ago, got traded to the San Francisco Giants for a crab sandwich and an espresso.

So yes, we all know it’s a business. Those of us old enough to remember leisure suits will recall that the Giants traded the greatest player of them all. On May 11, 1972, Willie Mays was traded, at age 41, to the New York Mets for Charlie Williams, a pitcher who would need to pay to get into the Hall of Fame. It’s a fact that Willie was, in baseball terms, old. He was batting .184 with one double and three runs batted in for the Giants in 19 games and, yes, the feeling was that maybe he should retire. Willie got somewhat rejuvenated back in New York, where his storied career had begun in 1951. His old foe Gil Hodges had recently died at age 48 and had been replaced by another old foe, Yogi Berra as manager of the Mets. In his first game back in New York, Mays hit a game winning home run to beat the Giants, 5-4. On May 21, he hit another game winner to beat the Phillies, 2-1. That was the Mets’ eleventh straight win and they stayed in first place for a while before finishing third in the division, 13 and a half games behind Pittsburgh. Mays totaled 8 homers and 19 RBI in 69 games for the Mets in that strange season, the first ever marred by a players’ strike. Yeah, strike—business.

Even in the totally business, monetize your grandmother’s diary type world that we live in these days, some guys just shouldn’t be traded. Am I right, Curt Flood? The other player, Evan Longoria, that the Giants recently traded for in their bid to retain season ticket holders, should also never have been traded, although one might say that, if the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays cared at all about baseball or their fans they would never allow anyone to play in that disgusting yard. You build a team around certain great athletes who also happen to be solid citizens if you are thinking for the long term, which, of course, no fool does anymore.

Billions of dollars in gate  recepts, television rights, and “gear” sales add up to millions of dollars in salaries. It could all come crashing down, but that sort of thinking is verboten. As so many things do, it reminds me of a job I once had. It was in a cannery. We did pears, brussels sprouts, and I don’t know what else. My job was to sit on top of a ladder. The cans ran along a fairly complicated metal highway above most of us, and, in a Charlie Chaplin movie sort of way, it was my job to notice when the can traffic became snarled due to a can turning sideways or some other thing that would cause collisions and usually result in spillage, dents, and other forms of chaos. Upon noticing this, my first task would be to yell at the top of my lungs so that a person I never saw would stop the line. My second task would be to unsnarl the traffic and make sure everything was back on line. My third task would be to yell at the top of my lings again so that the unseen person could start the line again. This was seen as a favored job to have and, as a male, it went to me so that all of the women working there could stay “on the line” and get sick from the combination of steam, cold air, and fruit and vegetable odors. If the cannery had not wanted this cheaper alternative, they would have invested in a newer, more efficient set of machinery. At $4.90 an hour, I was kind of the David Freese or John Jaso alternative and they were still making money. Of course, they never won the cannery pennant.

It’s a relative scale but we are talking about the same kind of decision making. Spending large sums of money on talent does not guarantee success or else the Yankees and Dodgers would be in the World Series every year, just like the old days. It’s probably a good thing McCutchen is gone because it is hard to imagine that organization getting lucky again for a while. I could be wrong. Perhaps rather than be spared an Ernie Banks type of career as the Bucs languish, Cutch will miss out on another successful “re-tool”. We shall see. He’s a free agent next year. Just please don’t go to the Yankees or Dodgers, okay, Cutch?

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