There is a fine line between understanding the business of baseball and the fact that baseball itself is not a business but a sport that people play or watch for their enjoyment. Although reporters often cross over that line and confuse the two, owners tend to forget completely that THEIR business is of no concern to the people who play or watch the game. Owners confuse the fact that because people care what their teams do, it makes what owners say important.
“Anytime who tells you baseball is ‘basically a business’ is basically an idiot. And you can tell him I said so.”Bill James
This is no more obvious than in times of crisis when the goodwill of fans can be challenged by extraordinary forces. In these times, owners can show what they are made of and whether they truly understand that the true bottom line of the baseball business is not budgets, payroll, stadium rent and travel expenses, but the willingness of people to engage with their product.
The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us again that Japanese pro baseball owners think that fans will believe whatever comes out of their mouths as if it were the word of God. This year’s example comes from the decision to switch Opening Day, first to April 10, then to April 24.
And while the world is now beginning to grasp the consequences of poor preparation for the pandemic, owners picked those dates, not because of any understanding that the public health crisis would be manageable by then, but rather that those dates allowed them to play a full 143-game schedule.
Only the owners’ arrogance led them to believe anyone – excepting those calculating team budgets on spreadsheets or ass-kissing media types – would buy the rubbish the teams are peddling.
It was this arrogance that led to Japan’s first work stoppage in 2004, and to a longer-than-necessary delay to the season in 2011 following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
2004: Go suck eggs
In 2004 when the Kintetsu Railroad wanted to liquidate its team, the Buffaloes, and get out of baseball, owners told the fans and players, “We’re reducing from 12 teams to 11 and if you don’t like it, suck eggs. We care about the fans and the players, but you can still suck eggs because baseball is a business that we understand and you don’t.”
That led to an embarrassing defeat for the owners, who did not bargain in good faith with the players on the assumption the courts would deny them the right to strike. Instead, the courts sided with the players and admonished the owners in public.
Then the owners editorialized about how the players were betraying the fans, who would never forgive a work stoppage and breaking a sacred trust. That was the gist of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s morning edition editorial of Sept. 19 – written before fans flocked to ballparks the day before to get ticket refunds from the canceled games.
But when the strike happened, the customers did what they had done throughout that contentious summer. They stood by those who cared about the product and turned their backs on the owners, whose only rationale was their businesses’ bottom line.
At Yokohama Stadium, the Carp and BayStars practiced – without coaches – but did not play. When the BayStars players came out of the stadium to the ticket plaza they got a warm reception from the fans waiting there, while the player reps, Daisuke Miura and Takanori Suzuki got thunderous applause.
In the end, it worked out great for everybody. The owners’ defeat meant an expansion team for Sendai and interleague play – something the Central League hated. Like free agency in the majors, the defeat of the owners, who ostensibly KNEW about baseball business, has led to a more vibrant baseball scene in Japan with attendance rising every year and vastly more effort to market their product.
2011: Disaster strikes
In 2011, when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami meant the two Pacific League parks in Sendai and Chiba were unready for Opening Day. It also meant thousands were dead or missing, and many thousands more had lost their homes and jobs, while a nuclear disaster halfway between Tokyo and Sendai left the nation anxious and short of energy.
But because the CL owners KNEW baseball was a business, they insisted on plowing ahead with Opening Day on March 25 as scheduled because, after all, business is business. The PL wanted a delay until April 12, probably less out of consideration of the fans and more for the two damaged stadiums.
After the players union met with the Minister of Education and Sports, the government ridiculed the CL’s plan, and out of consideration of the energy shortage ordered all the games in eastern Japan through April to be played during the day.
In response, the CL announced a four-day delay to Opening Day, which didn’t satisfy the government, and led to the two leagues both opening on April 12. Lotte Marines veteran Tomoya Satozaki said at the time the clubs could easily have begun play around the first of April, but the Central League owners truculence just aggravated the situation.
Eight years later and we’re on the same kind of threshold.
Pandemics? We’ve got a business to run
Faced with a crisis of enormous proportions, the owners’ first response has been “business as usual.” There has been no talk about supporting the vendors and stadium staff who lost wages for preseason games behind closed doors and no talk about a threshold at which inviting large crowds to ballparks would not endanger public health.
Instead, everything has been about how best to play 143 games – as if a single fan in the country actually cared. You’d think the owners would have learned, but apparently not.
I mean why should they learn when the media reports whatever they say. Owners’ policies can impact the product fans get, so it can be relevant for them, but nobody cares wants to hear budget issues or service time used as excuses for teams choosing to deliver a weaker product.
This last point is often lost on reporters who understand those constraints and want to explain the rationale to fans. There is nothing wrong with explaining how such things work, but it’s one thing to explain service time as the reason a prospect is being kept in the minors until he works through all his adjustment issues, and another to explain that it is best for teams to do that.
I don’t mean to pick on Buster Olney
That’s what occurred to me when listening to Buster Olney on his Baseball Tonight podcast.
When he argued the Rays SHOULD keep a promising minor league pitcher in Triple-A so the team won’t waste his service time in the majors while he is still learning, I thought, “That’s not what’s best for the player or the game. that’s only what’s best for the owners.”
That’s the equivalent we had in Japan all summer when the president of the Olympic organizing committee and the governor of Tokyo both said, “The Tokyo Olympics will start on July 24. There is no chance of any change to that.” Despite being in a coronavirus pandemic, those words were treated here as if these people were stating facts by reporters, editors, and producers who should have known better.
It is that kind of reporting that encourages owners and teams to think that they can make people care about their profit and loss statements, and that’s a disservice to everyone.