The Ball and The (Ever Moving) Stick

What do we root for, when winning means different things to different people?

(Ed’s note: WordPress is not cooperating but we would like to note that this piece is co-authored by Nathan Bishop and Matt Ellis)

During last Sunday’s Super Bowl, we were fortunate enough to share company with many old and dear friends. One of those friends brought a baseball, for reasons he could not explain when pressed. As has been the case our entire life when occupying space in close proximity to a baseball, we held it in our hand. We did so for long enough that others felt compelled to press us on why, and we confess it was for reasons that, we too, could not explain.

For every baseball player, we imagine it is variations on similar themes: At some point, somewhere as a small child a parent, sibling, friend, or relative put a ball of some kind in that child’s hand, took five or six steps back, and told them to throw. Most probably, without knowing how they knew how to do it, wound back and threw that ball with a kind of innate force and velocity that belies all instruction and training. After that, maybe it was a stick swung at a softly lobbed rolled up pair of socks. Or a toy truck at a balloon. From that tiny genesis springs forth the game’s rivers of life: Little League, travel teams, youth showcases, scholarships, academies, weighted ball training, and professional careers that earn wealth the likes of which has ruined the lives of many a Mega Millions winner.

At the beginning, though, we believe it is important to remember it was just a kid, throwing a ball, and swinging a stick.

*****

We have some thoughts on billionaires, and while we understand you probably don’t want to hear them, we hope that you will extend us that same fair share of understanding when we say we don’t really care. So here:

We do not begrudge anyone on this planet whatever form of wealth or plenty they manage to acquire during their short time in this dimension. What we do believe is that the mindset, and the actions that spring out of it, that leads to the acquisition of the kind of wealth of, say, a Carl Pohlad are almost universally not only not aligned with the fundamental, collective good of our fellow man, but diametrically opposed to it.

We believe that the primary skill of a billionaire lies in one of two areas:

  1. The exploitation of one of the great flaws of our modern age, and that is that there is more profit in the acquisition and marketing of greatness than there is in simply performing greatly.
  2. Being the child of a billionaire.

We believe that many billionaires do not think of themselves as evil, and often legitimately do not understand why the 99.9% of this world’s population’s increasing dependence on their altruism for things like health care, space exploration, and clean water is viewed as a bad thing by many. We believe Mariners’ owner John Stanton had a childhood dream of playing in the major leagues, just as we believe he truly thinks living somewhere where you run into Jeff Bezos at the grocery store, and see the founders of Microsoft playing tennis qualifies as “a fairly normal life.”

We believe that John Stanton believes this, because we believe almost all people believe themselves to be good, even if that illusion requires the insulation of gated communities, security forces, and the support of your fellow twenty-nine baseball owners as you drive your team, no, the community’s team that you profit off of, to what may very well be their seventeenth straight season without a postseason appearance.

We have many more things we believe about billionaires. We originally were going to list all of them through this section, but there is no point. The views you share on wealth and whether or not the vast preponderance of it being held by a comically small few qualifies as proof of liberty and opportunity or a hollow pyramid scheme with those same words functioning as nothing but good #branding will not be changed in any meaningful way by what we say here.

This is, largely, how we got here in the first place.

*****

In short: in an attempt to understand, and critique, the current wave of labor disputes in the MLB, it might be time to look beyond the language of “collusion.” This is not to say the owners have not engaged, or are currently not in any way engaging in collusion. The so-called Gentleman’s Agreement for one, was quite literally the definition of collusion, and the concept has been frequently invoked by the MLBPA since its founding in 1966. Clearly, it retains some analytic precision for those actually materially invested in labor struggles (i.e. those of us whose role in Major League Baseball encompasses more than swigging beer on the couch while yelling at Danny Valencia Ryon Healy).

The image of a smoke filled room inhabited by anthropomorphic pigs in top hats and monocles laughing as they devise a secret plan might have worked for early Soviet agitprop propaganda, as they traveled the post-revolutionary countryside in an attempt to distill the essence of global capitalism to the rural, heavily illiterate peasantry. But there are a number of problems with this: first, there is the fact that large swaths of the rural peasantry already kind of implicitly understood that they were being screwed, and second, that this simple yet effective image reduces the complexities of global capitalism into a problem with a clearly attainable solution: just get the dang pig and his stupid top hat!

Marx–whatever you think of him–understood capitalism to be something much more complicated: a machine, globalized. A period in material history undergoing continuous development, one which does not rely on the inherent “human nature” of agents and actors but rather through the machinations of the gears and levers which delimit all that it can, and will be able to, do.* In the first of his three-volume, ten-bazillion-page study on capitalism, Marx outlines his reading of the labor theory of value, which stands effectively in contrast to other theories of value which might sound familiar to our popular American understanding of economics.

It gets way more complicated when you bring in value in use and value in exchange, and I realize this is a baseball blog, after all so I’ll keep this brief. In short, we are fooled when we look at something we want to purchase–say a fancy, shiny car or a game-used replica Dustin Ackley jersey at the Mariners team store–and think wow that looks amazing it must be so expensive. You put a down payment on a home for the lamborghini, and shell out hundreds on the jersey because that’s just what those things are worth. But why is a game-used Dustin Ackley jersey $300 dollars? (spoiler: it isn’t).

To Marx, the value in a given commodity is indexed to the labor required for its production, including the labor required to produce the conditions under which that commodity was able to be produced in the first place (the factory where they individually packaged Northwest-Green replica #13 jerseys to sit unpurchased on the shelf, or if we will, Safeco Field itself). You can see where I’m going with this.

If we take the labor theory of value at its face, and argue that we fundamentally ignore its discovery in place of other theories of value focused on the lure of the object itself, then the historical development of contemporary market capitalism is fundamentally the reason why this labor crisis is happening. The owners don’t need to collude if the market rewards them for shedding payroll. As millionaires, Major League baseball players may be miles away from the economic realities you and I inhabit, but they nevertheless are key laborers in the production of Major League Baseball’s commodities. And not just major leaguers–the entire labor force that actually produces value for the league and owners here encompasses the minor leaguers subsiding on Top Ramen and the Robinson Canós of the world.

But a refrain of this sort has started to emerge in recent discourses about our perplexingly slow 2018 offseason. In one sense, we would argue well-meaning critiques of the league do a disservice to the real struggle which needs to be fought for the future of the game and the players which produce its value. Some have argued a player strike would damage the public face of the fight, while others have rightfully critiqued the MLBPA for its relative silence on the plight of minor leaguers. But we are lying to ourselves if we think that dealing with a class of owners who seek first and foremost to maximize profit and “balance” spreadsheets (an obvious echo here to politicians bemoaning the spiraling deficit while public institutions are rapidly privatized–one which we mostly see through arguably because baseball is more fun than congress) is one in which we can de-link the brutal exploitation of minor leaguers and the Major Leaguers whose value is being siphoned upwards more and more as this CBA marches towards its inevitable explosion in 2020. You can’t: for the death of what little power labor currently has–power which needs to grow and expand downwards to cover the minor leaguerswill irrevocably be eroded once we start calling for players to make “the right grievances,” or to stop “complaining” about arbitration. They may be millionaires, but whose interest would such tactics truly serve?

Indeed, the structure of baseball since the institutionalization of its current form around the turn of the century is one in which the labor of the players versus the interests of the owners has constantly been in struggle. And while it is true that players today, thanks to the Marvin Millers and Curt Floods in history, have been able to regain some ground in this struggle of appropriation–the market is changing itself in response to the growing threat of labor power in much the same ways political theorists such as David Harvey have noted the entire global market began changing in the 1970s when faced with similar paradigm shifts.

No, rather than conceive of this large free agent class two days before pitchers and catchers report as the result of a backroom poker game between Thomas Ricketts and Arte Moreno, we should instead look to a number of historical, economic, and indeed on-field events as key constitutive factors in producing this backlog. We all praise Billy Beane and watched the movie, perhaps even read the book. We watched as Jack Zduriencik abandoned spreadsheets with disagreeable fonts and chased right-handed power hitters, and we begged for the man to look at the new data that was frustratingly available to seemingly half the league. Hell, we all did.

At the time, the stats revolution seemed like a positive development for fringe players possessing skills that the system had deemed useless, or at the very least, inefficient. But while the popular myth of moneyball narrativizes the fight of the tight-pocketed owner versus the #disruptor GM of #innovation, we should look back on this period of history with one single, operative question: whose interest did this revolution truly serve? Indeed: moneyball emerged in part as a response to a constitutive problem of an owner refusing to give his GM more money to field a winning team. It was, in effect, a capitulation that sought band-aids rather than antibiotics.

So while we can laugh at the absurdity of Albert Pujols being paid a quarter-of-a-billion dollars to be the worst player in baseball (and to be clear, it is funny), we should also remember he was being paid $200,000 in a season in which he earned 7.1 fWAR for the St. Louis Cardinals in a decade in which he was, arguably, one of the two best baseball players on the planet. The next season, Billy Beane infamously signed Scott Hatteberg and his fucked-up elbow for $950,000 and he immediately put up a season that ranks right up with the best of Pujols’ entire tenure with the Angels. We can point to this division, and we should also ask what it means that we fans can seemingly only conceive of “value” as a metric of on-field performance in the aggregate, rather than the amount of profit each player produces for the league, their teams, and the requisite owners.

But most of all we should remember that all three of these men–Albert Pujols, Scott Hatteberg, and John Stanton–arguably spent long periods of their childhood holding baseballs like the rest of us, dreaming first as fans, tossing them back and forth into makeshift gloves with glee, or swinging sticks in the air. All three of them, arguably, love the game and each want to “win” in their own way, and each feels they have (or had) something useful to contribute to the process. But “winning,” arguably, means something very different to two of these men than the other.

The Mariners want to win. But ask yourself what that word really means.

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“But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.” from “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” in Marx, Karl. Capital Vol 1, pp. 799.

 

4 thoughts on “The Ball and The (Ever Moving) Stick”

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