The Problem with Baseball, 2022

Major League Baseball kicks off the 2022 season tomorrow. After the offseason lockout by the owners threatened to truncate this season — even if the prospect of a cancelled season always felt like a hollow threat — I suppose the MLB owners and the player’s union are expecting longtime fans like me to simply be thankful that our beloved game has returned, albeit a week later than scheduled. Sure, I’m glad there’s going to be MLB baseball this spring. In 2020, I learned how much I appreciate baseball as a seven-month entertainment option. Those mind-numbing days of lockdown were made even more interminably boring without my favorite sport as a distraction.

But, I’m sorry: the lockout has seriously cooled my jets for the major league version of our game. Thanks to COVID, inflation, Russia invading Ukraine and the local-level crises my friends and church members are facing, I’m having a harder time overlooking the optical problem of billionaire owners locking out their millionaire employees. I know the situation is a bit more complex than this generalization — and, to be fair, I sided with the players from the beginning of this spat — but still. For the past ten days, it seems as if everyone has been offering up their opinion on Will Smith and Chris Rock and “the slap heard ’round the world.” And with the world on fire, I just can’t muster up the energy to care about some contrived Hollywood “controversy.” And that’s pretty much how I feel about baseball right now, too.

Some of the game’s other issues are well documented. MLB has tried to do a better job of marketing some of the more exciting younger players in the game, but the league still has a long way to go on this front. Game length is another huge problem. Most postseason games end so late that the youngest generations never have the opportunity to watch the most meaningful games of the year. And then there’s the aesthetic of the big league game: home runs, walks, and strikeouts. It seems that the game is more and more a game of “three true outcomes.”

Of course, the game continues to thrive at the amateur level. Go watch your local high school or college team play and you’re liable to see baseball played as it once was: stolen bases, hit and run plays, sacrifice bunts. My son’s high school coach preaches the philosophy of “Get ’em over; get ’em in” baseball. Pitchers (like my son) are taught to hit their spots and pitch to contact. Sure, there are still plenty of strikeouts, but the game moves at an enjoyable pace because there’s consistent action on the basepaths and in the field. Batters put the ball in play. Fielders are engaged because they expect the ball to be hit. From a viewing perspective, it’s a much more enjoyable game. And, I might add, at a fraction of the cost of an MLB ticket.

But perhaps the most notable problem with the MLB game today has nothing to do with what takes place between the lines. Instead, it’s an ownership problem. Half the teams in the league aren’t even trying to win right now. Hope springs eternal? Not for fans in Cincinnati or Baltimore.

According to spotrac, four teams will boast 2022 payrolls under $40 million (Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland). For some perspective, those teams are spending less on their Opening Day 26-man roster than the Mets will pay Max Scherzer, whose $43 million salary is the highest in the league. I’m not saying these teams should have been bidding on Scherzer’s services this offseason. But it’s clear that these teams aren’t even attempting to field competitive teams this season. Instead, their ownership groups are content to let the team operate as an investment, knowing that revenue sharing and ticket sales and concessions will still allow these terrible teams to turn a profit.

I’m as much of a capitalism as much as any American, but this is a huge problem for a game predicated on competition. The disparity between those trying to win and those who aren’t has never been greater. The Dodgers will operate with a payroll that is double the league average while the A’s and O’s are operating at $100 million BELOW league average. If the new playoff format had been used for the 2021 season, the Reds would have been a playoff team. Yet, their M.O. this offseason was to shed payroll as quickly as possible.

There will be some fun teams to watch this year. The Dodgers juggernaut should continue to roll. The Blue Jays look to be the most formidable team in the American League. The Braves lineup is as deep as ever and that bullpen is sick. The White Sox are built to win now, if they can withstand the loss of Lance Lynn for a month. I don’t know if the Angels will contend, but it will be fun to see if Shohei Ohtani can replicate what he did last season. I’m not a believer in the Mets or the Phillies, but at least they’re trying. Same for San Diego and Houston. But overall, it’s bad for the game when so many teams are clearly not even trying to be competitive.

For half the league, the only thing that springs eternal seems to be ownership greed.

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