Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Seeds of Their Own Demise

Cornelius McGillicuddy was an unfailingly polite gentleman, who also happened to have had an extremely long career in the world of baseball.  After a long career as a catcher at the then-major league level prior to 1900, he went on to become the owner of the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League, the team that, after a decade or two in Kansas City, moved to Oakland and became the Oakland Athletics.

When I say that he was the "owner", I mean that he was among the longest-tenured owners in the history of the game, having increased his part-ownership stake in 1913 to become majority owner, and not selling out until 1955, shortly before his death at 93.  He also managed the team for fifty years, by far the longest managerial run in history.

We know him, of course as "Connie Mack", Hall of Famer and brilliant tactician, who built successions of Athletics teams over the decades despite perpetual financial issues plaguing his operation.

I mention Connie Mack because of a comment of his.  Mack's first truly great team peaked in 1914, only to be steamrolled in the World Series by the "Miracle" Boston Braves, whereupon he dissolved the team.  Stating that "Every great team bears the seeds of its own demise", he sold off the stars of that 1914 team, and began a long rebuilding process that would take 15 years, before he was able to produce the championship 1929 team of Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove (and Bevo LeBourveau, but I digress).

"Every great team bears the seeds of its own demise."

And now we wonder about that notion.  Major League Baseball has 30 teams, of which ten -- five in each league (the division champions and two wild cards) -- will make the playoffs.  Theoretically, that means that each team has a one-in-three chance of making the playoffs and having a shot at the World Series, but that is far from the case.

Baseball does not have a salary cap that is meant to equalize the amount that each team can spend on player salaries.  It has a "luxury tax", a set of levels of team salaries above which teams get fined a percentage of their pay above the threshold, serving as a sort of brake on excessive hoarding of expensive players.  But the same teams end up leading the league in payroll each year.

So there are effectively the haves and have-nots -- over a ten-year period, assuming competent management, the haves can compete 9-10 of those ten years, and the have-nots can compete maybe two of those ten years.  When Kansas City wins a championship, as they did in 2015, Baseball trumpets how wonderful that a "poorer" team can win but, unable to afford to keep all their stars due to noncompetitive revenues compared to teams in New York, LA and Boston, the Royals are now a brutally bad team instead of a perennial competitor, exactly like the Marlins after winning in 1997 and again in 2003, breaking up both teams and stinking thereafter.

Today, a few higher-revenue teams are steaming through the season with projections of well over 100 wins, a huge number.  Many others are simply selling off their stars, or planning to, and on pace to lose over 60% of their games as they do so.  The difference between those teams that can sustain excellence and the rest of the league is immense.

This is what I mean by "seeds of its own demise."  Baseball is wildly successful -- mostly.  But Tampa Bay and Oakland cannot draw flies, because they cannot sustain a winning program long enough to build a really large, loyal fan base and get an attractive stadium to replace the dumps they each play in.  Texas is awful, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cincinnati, San Diego -- terrible years and revenues that couldn't sustain excellence if they could even produce it for a year.

How long can this last?  At what point do the fans of 20 of the 30 teams get tired of the same teams buying up all the best players and dominating?  How is it fair to have a luxury tax threshold as high as, say, $190 million of team salary, when 14 out of 30 teams couldn't even afford salaries above $125 million last year?

The NFL is going through an analogous situation.  After getting golden eggs from the golden goose for years, and dominating the "favorite sport" polls in recent years, the NFL has been plagued by the outcroppings of too much success -- scandals from the concussion cover-ups to bad on-field and off-field behavior by players, to the regrettable anthem-kneeling issue that immediately cost millions of fans, including this author.  The seeds of its own demise.

And that, friends, applies to the USA.

I tend to think that the nation is going through a lot of that itself.  Infected by a leftist minority that has tried to make us think that nothing is really right or wrong, we have allowed political expression to turn into violence without any sensible heads on the left to say "stop."

Our freedoms came at a price.  With freedom comes responsibility to manage being free, and unless we recognize that managing freedom means having defined wrongs as part of the legal framework, this nation could collapse because of our greatest virtue.

I hope you will think about these things.  Sports is often a metaphor for society and life in general, and if baseball loses its grip because it cannot control the greed of its participants, I fear the nation will not be far behind.

I'm serious.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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  1. Good article,Ben Franklin wondered if we could keep it. I wonder myself.

  2. What's worse is that I had already referenced the Connie Mack quote in a piece last September -- just realized it -- on a related topic. I'm repeating myself apparently, or I only know a finite number of good quotes.