Revolution, Revisited (Part 4)
[Note: This is the fourth and final part of the series. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.]
I can anticipate some common questions and criticisms about an "open" major league baseball system. In this post I'll try to set them out and respond.
1. More teams would dilute the quality of play among the "major" leagues.
There's no reason to believe that the clubs in the top league won't be able to attract and buy the best players. It hasn't hurt the Premiership in England. In fact it may be the case that an open system would allow talent to flow more efficiently to the top league, through both promotion and more free transfers of players from the minors, rather than be funneled through farm systems that may be managed poorly. Note also that in England it is possible for good players to negotiate a "relegation-release" clause in their contracts, so that if their club drops, they become free agents available to other top tier teams. These help ensure that the best talent remains in the top.
2. The rich teams would dominate even more than they do now in a "more free" market.
This is the competitive balance issue I touched on in earlier posts. With promotion and relegation, those rich successful teams don't get to beat up on the Royals and Pirates every year, but must face new competition that would dearly love to unseat them and prove their worth in the top league.
3. It would diminish the value and excitement of the playoffs.
If this turns out to be a problem, you could grant the World Series winner one year of being protected from relegation. Winning in the playoffs would, as it does now, make your club more attractive to everyone, players, fans, advertisers, so there are natural incentives to succeed there. Plus you are adding excitement of the relegation competition at the end of every year, which would keep interest in many more teams down the stretch.
4. The players would suffer, and they are the ones who make the game great.
I am not one to begrudge players a large, even obscene, income -- they undertake a demanding job which lasts only a short time, under intense scrutiny and pressure -- and among those involved in baseball they should receive a healthy portion of the revenues generated from the game. However, to the extent those profits are borne of monopoly power and anti-competitive behavior, they don't deserve them any more than the owners. Jim Bouton said a lot when he noted that the 1994 strike was the "first labor dispute in history to pit billionaires against millionaires." There is no doubt that the owners for decades kept the players from getting a fair share of the spoils, which in large part they created. But the MLBPA has only succeed in broadening the privileged class to include the players -- like many labor unions, it is not primarily concerned with free and open competition. The experience of European soccer demonstrates that player salaries do not suffer from open league structures, so in the end I doubt the players will suffer, and might even make out better, and more players will have a chance at success. Most importantly, we would end the pointless death struggles we've seen every few years between two monopolists trying to divy up billions of dollars.
5. It would destroy the beloved minor league system! What would happen to player development?
There would still be a fair amount of player development in the minor leagues, it just wouldn't be directly tied to a major league franchise. Again, we have examples from English soccer, where clubs in the lower division often develop players with an eye towards selling them to higher division clubs for profit. As Bill James points out, this happened as a matter of course in the early days of baseball, until the majors got control over it to lower their player acquisition costs. But each club would face the business choice of deciding whether it wanted to retain players and make a push for the championship and promotion, or sell them off to reinvest in new young players, much like the major league clubs decide today.
Also, there would not be any prohibition on clubs developing their own youth and reserve programs to develop new talent as well. A high school player would face a choice of signing with the Yankees youth program, presumably for less money but better experience and teaching, or striking out with a lower division club, presumably for more money and a chance at playing competitive ball earlier. Also, players from major league clubs could be loaned to minor league clubs to give them playing time and experience in competition -- David Beckham on Manchester United was loaned to Preston North End early in his career, where his talent quickly revealed itself. There would not be any prohibition on big league and minor league clubs creating such arrangements, so long as they were not exclusive.
Be sure to check out the comments to part 2 from Will on this point, they are excellent.
6. It's an idea from Europe!
Yes, my jingoistic American pride is wounded a bit by citing a European model that is more faithful to the free market than ours. (Especially when countries like Germany prevent Lands' End from doing business there because they offer unconditional money back guarantees to their customers.) But the experience from Europe, particularly England, shows that such a system does accomplish important goals of increasing economic welfare for the fans by making on-field success and failure more relevant to the overall success/failure of the clubs. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we have. As Bill James noted, this is a problem of comparing reality to a possible world, and it's hard to fully grasp that what we have now and are used to is not the only possible world, and not the best one.
7. You might end up with a World Series between Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Chyenne, Wyoming. Who wants that?
What are you, a network TV executive? Yes, there is that possibility, after years of promotion and relegation to allow clubs in such cities to have that success. But keep in mind, Mr. TV guy, that you likely would also have more than 2 clubs in NYC, LA and Chicago, which increases the chance of a high demographic market being involved in the post-season. So I think you might have more, not fewer, TV-friendly matchups under this system. You also have more potential geographic rivalries that baseball seems to love so much.
8. It would ruin baseball's tradition!
I would give this argument credence -- if it were 1959. But the tradition many people love to trot out has been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by expansion, television, the designated hitter, divisional playoffs, free agency, player strikes, lockouts, wild card teams, astro-turf, inter-league play, revenue sharing, luxury taxes, baby-blue double-knits, steroids, air travel, and on and on. And I see this system as return to a more longstanding American tradition -- open and fair competition that provides opportunity and incentive for everyone, not just a privileged few.
As Bill James said in 1988, "Hey, buddy, I love tradition too."
9. The current owners would never allow it, and the Congress/Administration would never impose it on them.
The best objection yet. All true, and, apart from the steroids issue, the current state of baseball does not cry out for reform -- it has solved the "Montreal problem" (to our benefit, yay!) , no labor crisis is imminent, attention to the sport from the public seems relatively healthy. So it is not the most opportune political time to expect any reform like the one proposed here. Hell, Bill James's ideas have been around for nearly 20 years through 3 labor disputes, a missed World Series, the threat of contraction and other controversy, and never received much serious attention. But I wanted to lay it out here because it has helped me understand some of my frustration with the sport, and to help you think more about possible worlds, rather than just the one we know. And it's a lot more fun than watching Joey Eischen pitch.