Cheap Seats

Greedy baseball owners are willing to take money from fans but not spend it on players

I am as irritated by the high cost of being a fan of a professional sports team as the next guy. But I don’t know if the solution to the problem is Major League Baseball owners picking a labor fight with players. And that certainly seems to be what’s happening as we conclude a second winter of seeing the top free agents in the game being treated like they’ve got the plague.

Are the salaries in MLB absurd? Certainly. But are they the fault of guys like Albert Pujols, who is making $87 million over the next three seasons despite being a shadow of his former self? Or is the fault of guys like Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno, who has spent the past 15 years spending insane amounts of money to one up his billionaire buddies?

One thing is for sure, if ownership got staggering concessions from players that caused the cost of the on-field talent to decrease by 50 percent, do you really think the prices for tickets and beer are going to go down 50 percent? I don’t. In fact, I’d be shocked if that happened if price went down five percent. That’s not the way owners are wired. This isn’t about restoring economic sanity to the system. This is about major league owners making a bold move to increase their already staggering profits.

Teams across baseball have seen their revenue increase dramatically in the last few years thanks to increasing television rights contracts. After an initial salvo of mega contracts like the one Moreno used to lure Pujols away from St. Louis, owners decided it was silly to give all that extra money to players when they could just keep it themselves. Players have seen their salaries flatten out over the past few years — and actually shrink the last two. Have ticket prices and the cost of ballpark goodies gone down? Not one bit. This isn’t by accident.

Owners are playing the victims, taking a bold and heroic stand against paying guys who are well into their thirties for past exploits on the baseball field. But there are two reasons things in baseball are as expensive as they are now, and they’re both the fault of owners. First, every time a guy like Moreno pays a quarter billion dollars for a star player, it sets a precedent. That big payday is now the official going rate for major league muscle. It’s the target the next big name free agent is going to aim for. Second, owners got their way over the years of creating a bargaining system, getting control of players for bargain basement prices until they’re in their late twenties before giving them some cost controlled raises through arbitration and by the time they’re 29, 30, or 31 they can finally become free agents. The unwritten agreement has always been that owners get their part of the deal first, then players get their big payday later. Only now, owners resent that eventual payday and are rebelling against ever having to pay players on the promise of free agency.

Besides players, who gets the shaft out of this deal? It’s the fans in St. Louis who watch Pujols leave because the Cardinals don’t want to pay the cost to keep him. It’s the fans in Pittsburgh who wave goodbye to Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andrew McCutchen and it’s the fans in Miami who basically lose everybody they love sooner or later.

Regardless of the value of a major league player relative to a doctor or a teacher in our society, it’s the players and not the owners who put people in the seats. Cardinals fans love their players. It cheapens the relationship between a team and it’s supporters to think of players as commodities like cattle.

I get so sick of hearing naysayers on social media pages or in the comment sections of their local publication say “who are you to spend the owner’s money?” any time a fan complains about the lack of effort spent on acquiring talent. They wouldn’t have their money if they didn’t have our money. I admit it, I want to see the Cardinals acquire some star power. This team hasn’t really had a superstar since Pujols left seven years ago. Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman were in twilight of their careers when they arrived. Matt Holliday was a darn good player. But he’s the same age as Albert, so while Pujols declined elsewhere, Holliday did it on somewhat more palatable terms in St. Louis.

But this year things had a chance to be different. The Birds had a shot at two legitimate superstars who are only 26. They could have signed them to deals that were the best shielded against the ravages of aging as they could possibly hope to get. But, no thanks. The Cardinals are going to stand on the “principal” of holding on to our cash by providing us with a product that, despite their claims that they are all in for the 2019 season, is projected to win an uninspiring 86 games this season.