THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
When I wrote in April about the deal between the Major League Baseball owners and the Players Association, it seemed a positive step toward a quick start of the 2020 season when such a thing became medically feasible. Six weeks later, it seems I may have been over optimistic.
On May 12th, the owners approved a plan to launch an abbreviated 82 game season on the Fourth of July, without fans if needs be, but on a beautifully fitting day. With basically half the season gone, there would be a short spring training in June, playoffs expanded to 14 teams, rosters expanded and an adoption of the designated hitter rule in the National League. Neutral sites would be considered, especially in the case of the Blue Jays. Should Canada's distancing rules make play impossible in Toronto, they would likely stage their games at their spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida. So far, so relatively good.
On March 26th, the players had agreed to accept a prorated salary based on the actual number of games played, in exchange for a modest monthly stipend and a pledge to count 2020 as a year of service even if the season were not played (service time being the basis of free agency). But what the owners now proposed was a salary not just prorated, but also based on a revenue-sharing plan of roughly 50/50, to allow for lost revenue. They claim the March deal was contingent on the season starting with no restrictions (such as empty stadia, which obviously lowers local revenue) but the players say that was never part of the agreement. The sticking point is that a revenue share, which is the basis for the NFL, NHL and NBA basic agreements, assumes a de facto salary cap, and a salary cap is something the MLBPA has always refused to accept. That was the cause of the 1994 strike, and now they see the owners using the pandemic to try and sneak a cap past them, especially if they can be portrayed as the villains.
The 'millionaire vs billionaire' cliché will lead most of the reports you read, and like most clichés, its shorthand does not reflect reality. Yes, it is the wealthiest players who gain most from not having a salary cap. But the players already saved the owners over $1billion in salaries in the first deal, and lots more money by agreeing to let the league cut the amateur draft to just five rounds, rather than 40, with a maximum bonus of $20,000 for any player not drafted. Given that 24 round six draftees last year received $200,000 or more, and one got over $900,000, this not only saves money, but probably aids MLB in its efforts to save cash by shrinking its minor league system.
Having worked for MLB, I know how strong the level of the players' distrust of the owners can be, and this latest move will rekindle it and possibly wipe out the good that was done back in March. Should that happen, I can offer a solution. Bring back Home Run Derby!
Home runs are the things everyone thinks attract the fans, to the point that teams have shrunk their stadia and MLB has been accused of 'juicing' the balls to facilitate more taters.
The Home Run Derby is a key part of the All Star Game festivities, but I am lucky enough to be able to remember the original Home Run Derby, a syndicated TV show airing from January through July in 1960. You can find episodes in all their black and white glory on YouTube, and they are fun to watch. It was filmed at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles; that's right, LA. Bill Wrigley built the stadium for his team in the Pacific Coast League, the Angels, and it was actually the home field for the MLB Angels in their first season, 1961. It had the advantage of being almost perfectly symmetrical, giving no huge advantage to leftie or rightie hitters. The pitchers were trying to groove the ball for the hitters, they were supposedly paid a bonus for allowing more home runs. I worked with Steve 'Home Run' Baker, who pitched for the Tigers, when I was at MLB... Steve missed his chance! An umpire could call strikes on pitches not swung at, each strike counting as one of the batter's three outs per inning, as did any non-home run. While one guy batted, the other would chat with announcer Mark Scott, and some of those interviews are funny.
It would be perfect for our socially isolated times. The only people who get near each other are the batter, catcher and umpire, and the latter two could wear surgical masks underneath their protective masks. Otherwise, apart from the interviews, which would be easy enough to distance with wireless mics, there's no need for anyone to risk infection. And if we are talking social distancing, who put more distance on the ball than these sluggers?
More to the point, there was cash at stake. Each week's winner got, wait for it, TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS! The loser took home a grand. Three straight homers got you a bonus of $500. A fourth another $500, and any further consecutive homers were worth $1,000 each. The winner came back to defend in the next show, and both players were handed checks at the end of the programme. Real checks: someone wrote them out on the spot.
Henry Aaron had the most appearances, seven, with a 6-1 record. He hit 34 home runs, and beat Duke Snider in one show where he hit only three, but Snider managed only one. Aaron took home the most prize money, a massive $13,500. Mickey Mantle hit the most taters, 44, going 4-1 in five appearances, and batting exclusively right handed. He beat Willie Mays 9-8 in the very first programme. Jackie Jensen hit the most in a single show, 14, but beat Ernie Banks, who hit 11, by only three. 25 was the most of any show, and Jensen the only player to hit four, and then five, in a row. Snider was joined in single-shot futility by Al Kaline and Gus Triandos, who lost 7-1 to Dick 'Dr Strangeglove' Stuart.
There was never a second season of the Derby. Scott died in July 1961, aged 45, and the show's director, Ben Stoloff passed away in September that year. It is a shame, but I consider myself lucky that, at just the age when baseball players were a boy's true heroes, everyday men with an almost-hidden super power, I got a chance to see them at their most everyday, and most heroic. I still see guys like Bob Allison, Rocky Colavito, Eddie Mathews and Wally Post (who handed Aaron his only loss) as clearly in my mind's eye as if I had an inner YouTube. I wonder how modern players would fare under the same adulation, if that is even possible in today's high-powered media money world.
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