Much as I would enjoy seeing my hometown team win the World Series every 100 years or so, I understand that every sport is a zero-sum game. No matter who wins, millions of fans will be very happy no matter which city raises a banner.
So for the past 15 months I’ve been worried about baseball. After 25 years of labor peace, the game seemed to be running toward a cliff. Last week, smart, reasonable men such as Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman were calmly but adamantly annoyed that something was wrong with free agency, that owners were systematically jobbing them and that a crisis was over the horizon.
Then, on Sunday, I talked with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, whom I have known for years, and much as he tried to stay calm when talking about players’ union leader Tony Clark, he just couldn’t manage it. That’s too close to the tone I’ve heard from commissioners directed at union heads Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr.
What could, at least temporarily, fix this problem and let a bit of healing begin? What could send a message that the inevitable wrangling over money would not capsize the game again? Would there be a sign that the game’s economic system, while far from perfect, was also far from broken or unfair?
What would do the trick?
On Tuesday, we found out: a 10-year, $300 million contract for Manny Machado to play for the San Diego Padres, a small-market, low-spending team that lost 96 games last season and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2006.
The Machado contract isn’t “too high.” It is the highest price ever paid for a free agent in any American sport. (That record was set by Alex Rodriguez in 2007, so it was bound to fall.) But the Machado deal isn’t “too low,” either. It does not smell one bit like a sport in which owners are colluding. If they were a gang in cahoots, all they needed to do was inform the Padres to get back in line and stop their bidding at $250 million for eight years, the terms at which front-office folks in Florida last week said the Chicago White Sox had staked as a beachhead.
Thanks to Machado’s deal, MLB’s free agency salary structure seems finally to have gone through a reasonable, and probably much-needed, “market correction” after a 40-year boom, but the lull was not the equivalent of a market crash. Machado and Bryce Harper, who probably will get more than Machado because of his off-field appeal, probably will end up getting deals for 15 to 20 percent less than was expected two years ago. So what? They’ll just have to make do on enough income to feed 5,000 families in the United States, where the median income is $59,039.
The final major free agents of this offseason, pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, also will do just fine, but not set records, when they sign.
Players have said, with justification, that too many teams were “tanking,” not trying, just going along for the profitable ride, collecting their share from vast streams of new money flowing into the game and being shared 30 ways.
“Every time you look around, more money is pouring into the game from some new source,” Zimmerman said last week. “And a lot of owners seem to be keeping it, putting it in their pockets and not trying to win. We players all try to win.”
The Padres were assumed to be one of those teams. Not anymore. San Diego built the top-ranked farm system in MLB, then spent the highest price of last offseason to sign Eric Hosmer for $18 million per year. Now the Padres have paid top dollar for Machado. They still have such a low payroll that they could sign Harper, too, and still be more than $60 million under the luxury tax threshold.
Fans in Washington are in a state of high anxiety that Harper will sign with the Phillies, whose owner has bragged that he would spend “stupid” money to land a big free agent. Yet, step back. The Phillies are one of the game’s great traditional franchises, yet they have gone from year-after-year sellouts to sad scenes in recent years of an almost empty Citizens Bank Park in September. For the past six years, the Phillies have averaged 91 losses. Unless you’re a fan of the Braves, Nats or Mets, what’s wrong with a Philadelphia resurgence?
There will be joy in Philly if Harper signs there. There will be numb silence if he picks the West Coast — either the Padres or the Giants, both rebuilding. What a slap in the face. And all of MLB will faint, then get up and have a good forehead-slapping laugh, if the Nats’ Ted Lerner decides to blow his team’s future budgets to the sky so he can re-sign Harper and, because he’s 93, presumably add a lot of it’s-my-damn-money fun to his nonagenarian years.
Whatever happens with Harper, his contract and Machado’s will blow a large hole — below the water line — in the good ship “Owners Are Colluding” as well as the pirate vessel “Baseball Is in Trouble.”
The day that Machado signed is also the day when, finally, baseball fans could say, “Our game is back!” And stop worrying, at least for now, that the sport had found a way to maim itself. As soon as Harper, Keuchel and Kimbrel sign, we can get back to what spring training is supposed to be about: arguing with each other about which teams were brilliant and which were idiots, and which soon will regret what they just did — whatever it was.
And, of course, who’s going to win it all this year.