Reflections on Baseball’s Transient Culture
This MLB off-season is perhaps one of the most exciting in recent memory. The big question on everyone’s mind is where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign? There’s been some major deals already; the Dodgers sent Alex Wood, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to the Reds for Homer Bailey and two prospects. The Mariners have been busy trading away Robinson Cano (Mets), Edgar Diaz (Mets), Jean Segura (Phillies) and James Paxton (Yankees).
Patrick Corbin signed with Nationals and Daniel Murphy signed with the Rockies. Andrew McCutchen signed with the Phillies and Charlie Morton with the Rays. Andrew Miller signed with the Cardinals and Wilson Ramos with the Mets. Michael Brantley signed with the Astros and Josh Donaldson with the Braves. Remaining on the market are arms like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, and of course, the big two — Harper and Machado.
For the modern baseball fan, the off-season seems to get busier with trades and free agent signings every year. When you combine this with the mid-season trade deadlines, it feels like MLB rosters and farm systems are in constant flux. While this trend does provide for endless analysis and speculation, no one ever seems to ask whether or not this is good for the game.
Prior the mid-1970s most players spent their entire careers with one franchise. Players became icons in their local markets and their names became synonymous with their teams. You could not think of the Boston Red Sox without thinking of Ted Williams or the Detroit Tigers without Al Kaline. You couldn’t think of the Chicago Cubs without Ernie Banks or the St. Louis Cardinals without Stan Musial. In 1975, rule changes began the transformation to the era of free agency. Today, it is difficult to imagine a league without it.
Yet, even 25 years ago, there are plenty of examples of players who spent their entire careers all in one city. Several names that come to mind are Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter. In the case of Ripken and Gwynn, the two even played for their hometowns of Baltimore and San Diego. Today, a player’s loyalty to a a franchise, and conversely, a franchise’s loyalty to a player, is considered a practice from a bygone era.
Recently, Red Sox consultant and sabermetrics guru, Bill James, made a comment that players are easily replaceable, drawing sharpe criticism from the Players Association. His views are likely very common among folks in the front offices, statisticians and (frankly) baseball writers and pundits. In fairness, players play a big role in this trend as well. Players hire big agents to get them big contracts and more often than not, sell their talents to the highest bidder. In most cases, understandably so, as most will not have a baseball career past their early thirties.
These issues are almost entirely ignored by the baseball (and sports) media today. A seemingly endless amount of time is devoted to which player will sign where, what a team needs to shore up their bullpen (or batting order) and whether or not to impose new rules on shifts. But, for most fans who grew up loving baseball it is their connection to their hometown team; the players, the coaches, the ballpark and the announcers that shape their experience. There are, of course, those of us (myself included), who enjoy a team’s rebuilding process. We enjoy seeing which prospects emerge out of the mid-season and off-season trades. Meanwhile, causal fan tends to tune out when they lose familiarity with the players on the field.
There are no rule changes I am proposing. There is also no indication these trends will ever reverse. This has been the case for decades and the era of sabermetrics is cementing baseball’s transient culture. It is important to remember that not every fan that fills up a ballpark on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in July is obsessed with a player’s OPS or a pitcher’s FIP, or what kind of haul of prospects a team can get in return for their favorite player. Fans know that every season is not a winning season and over a 162 game span, they become connected with the players on the field.
As the game changes and evolves over the decades, as new trends emerge and knowledge is acquired, this is a reminder that for all the supposed progress, other important things are lost.