“Baseball is the greatest game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man.”
Bob Ryan, Boston Globe Correspondent
The MLB season opened during what is arguably the greatest time of the year for sports fans. March Madness culminates with the Final Four for men and women and the Frozen Four will soon follow; the NBA and NHL are wrapping up their regular seasons with multiple playoff spots still at stake; and the NFL is immersed in free agency and endless discussions on the upcoming draft.
But baseball, the game with the greatest parity of any sport, is the annual harbinger of spring and a reminder of what’s right with the world, despite the constant barrage of negative news that dominates the headlines. Hope—the sine qua non of sport fans—is at its peak. Every team has a chance to make the playoffs and win the World Series. Baseball also generates the most controversies and this year is no exception. Here are several storylines to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
The Angels and MLB publicly voiced their displeasure last week after an arbitrator announced that the league will not be allowed to discipline Angels’ outfielder Josh Hamilton for using cocaine and alcohol. Hamilton is one of the greatest five-tool players of the modern era, but he has been beset with addiction problems which began shortly after he was chosen first in the 1999 draft by Tampa Bay. He has been suspended numerous times, including for the entire ‘04 and ’05 seasons. He has continued to battle his demons since his last reinstatement in 2006. Hamilton’s latest misstep was a violation of the conditions of that reinstatement and MLB’s drug policy.
If MLB had been allowed to suspend Hamilton the Angels would have received a measure of relief from the financial burden of the $83 million remaining on the five-year, $125 million free-agent contract he signed prior to the 2013 season. But the arbitrator ruled that Hamilton did not violate his treatment program because he self-reported his actions. MLB said it will seek to address what it perceives as deficiencies in the drug program through the collective bargaining process.
The MLBPA was likewise upset because Hamilton’s confession was leaked to the media, most likely by either MLB or the Angels. If true, it constitutes a clear violation of the confidentiality provision in the drug treatment program.
Another controversy involves Cubs prospect Kris Bryant. The third baseman clubbed 43 homers in the Minors last year and continued his torrid pace with nine homers during spring training, the most in baseball. But the Cubs nonetheless sent him back to the Minors. Whether you believe the team that the move was a baseball decision designed to give Bryant time to refine certain aspects of his game, or his agent Scott Boras’ claim that it was motivated by a desire to preserve service time—if Bryant spends two weeks in the minors the Cubs will control his services for an additional year—depends on where you sit. The union was sharply critical of the team, vowing to seek redress in litigation. Good luck with that. The Cubs availed themselves of an option the union agreed to. Like MLB’s position regarding the drug treatment program, the union should seek to amend the CBA through negotiation, rather than resort to the courts.
Perhaps the issue with the greatest potential impact on the game is the overall percentage of revenue going to the players. MLB is the only Major League team sport without a salary cap, thanks to the staunch objection of the union. Over time, the percentage of league revenue earned by the players has trended downward and today that figure hovers around 40%, approximately 10% less than sports with a salary cap. While the average MLB salary will exceed $4 million this season, that’s still a million less than it would be if the players received the same percentage of revenue as their counterparts in other sports.
The CBA won’t expire until after the 2016 season, so for now the parties will be forced to live with the terms they have previously agreed to. Fans can choose to ignore the sniping and just enjoy the games. Of course, not everyone agrees with Ryan, but I certainly do!
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)