It’s Time

We’re a week into pre-season games, and I’ve yet to watch more than a couple of innings. Not by choice, of course. Merely an artifact of MLB’s preference for playing games with no effect on the standings* in the early afternoon. It makes sense from a player preparedness perspective, but it can be aggravating for those of us with other commitments.

* I’m not going to call them “meaningless.” They may not matter to MLB executives, but they’ve got plenty of meaning for fans waking from their winter nightmares of no baseball. One imagines they have at least a little meaning to the players, especially the minor league invitees hoping to score a place on the big league club.

But, barring another rainout, I should be able to catch the whole Mariners/Rangers game today and tomorrow’s Mariners/Indians game as well. That should improve my outlook on life and–given baseball’s usual effect on my writing–speed me through several chapters’ worth of Demirep‘s second draft.

Speaking of the Cleveland Indians, the “Chief Wahoo” logo will no longer appear on their uniforms. As was widely reported last year, the team will continue to sell a limited number of souvenir items bearing the logo in order to maintain control of the trademark. As I said when the move was announced, that’s somewhat inside out and backward, but it’s better than the nothing we continue to see coming out of the Washington D.C. football team.

As for those minor league players I mentioned a moment ago, let’s not forget that they’re playing–and training–without pay. They don’t start earning those spectacular salaries until next this time next month. In case you missed it, “spectacular” should be read as sarcasm. According to MLB’s own figures, the average player at the lowest A level gets $1,300 a month. (Hint: that’s about what I make working part time.) And that’s the average. Unless they’re all getting the same amount–they’re not–that means some players are making less than $250 a week for a more-than-full-time job. It’s a decent rate for a side gig. It’s not enough to live on, much less support a family, in most of the US.

Pay is somewhat better as players move up in the ranks. MLB says the average AAA player makes $10,000 a month. That’s about $60,000 a year (remember, they only get paid for six months). By way of comparison, according to Glassdoor, the average school teacher makes about $48,000 a year. So, yeah, the hypothetical average AAA player is doing slightly better than the person who taught him how to do math.

You can live on 60K, even get married and have a kid. In most of the country, anyway. Again, that’s the average. I’d love to see the distribution–how many players are making more than ten grand, and by how much, and how many are making less.

And, don’t forget, players move up and down the minor league ranks during the course of the season. It’s great to say you’re getting ten thousand a month in AAA, but if you were in AA from March to August, you’re not going to see a heck of a lot of benefit from that princely wage.

I’m not saying that minor league players should be earning six figure salaries. I’m not even suggesting every player should get as much as an elementary school teacher. But MLB’s protests of poverty and the collapse of the game if they paid enough to live on at all levels of the minors rings a bit hollow. After all, the minimum salary for a major league player is about $550,000 a year. That’s a pretty spectacular pay disparity.

If memory serves, the typical major league team has about 250 minor league players on their payroll. A little simple math suggests that putting in a set salary scale starting at, say, thirty thousand a year–five thousand a month during the season–and going up to that sixty thousand dollar level they’re currently paying in AAA wouldn’t cost a team even as much as a single decent free agent.

And with one less thing to worry about, the quality of play in the minors would go up. Better minor league players, better major league players. Simple math.

(This post was edited 3/11/19: Glassdoor asked that I add I link to their salary data.)

That Time of Year

Some of you maybe wondering why I haven’t said anything about baseball for a while.

There’s a very simple explanation for that. Those of you who are fans know we’re currently in the deadest part of the year for baseball. Most teams don’t do anything newsworthy in January, and if something does happen, it’s usually so minor that even the teams’ own fans have trouble getting excited about it.

Most of the news this time of year involves teams bringing in players on minor league contracts: older players or players coming off injuries. They come to Spring Training to show what they can do, and in most cases, unfortunately, that’s not much*. Most of them won’t make the major league club; they’ll either stay with the team’s AAA affiliate and hope that an injury or trade results in an opening with the parent club, or they’ll be released. Even the most passionate fan has trouble getting excited about the competition to be the team’s fourth catcher or tenth outfielder.

* By the standards of major league teams, of course. All but a very few of them play at a level 99% of fans can only dream about reaching themselves.

The other common news item this time of year involves salary arbitration. Arbitration has nothing to do with whether a player will be on the team, or how much playing time they’ll get. It’s strictly about how much they’ll be payed.

As a fan, sure, you want to see your favorites get paid well. If nothing else, you can tell yourself it will improve the odds of them sticking around when they become free agents*. But really, it makes no difference to you. It’s not your money and it says nothing about how good or poor the player’s season will be.

* It doesn’t, but you can tell yourself it does. Why not? You have to do something to keep yourself awake this time of year.

In reality, the best most fans can do this time of year for baseball joy is to keep marking days off the calendar. Players begin reporting to Spring Training on February 19. That’s three weeks from today. The first exhibition games are at 10:05 Pacific Time on March 3. (There are a few games before 3/3, but they feature major league teams–and mostly the players expected to start the season in the minors–against college teams. From the fans’ perspective, that’s the equivalent of getting methadone when you were hoping for heroin*.) Close enough to smell the peanuts and Cracker Jack, but too far away to dig the toy out of the box.

* OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but any fan will tell you that baseball is at least as addictive as heroin.

So we wait. We order tickets, rub oil into our gloves, and stock up on sunscreen. We dig for loose change in the sofa to pay for our MLB.TV subscriptions. We apply for loans to cover the cost of World Series tickets*.

* And airfare and hotels, because, of course, the Series will go to seven games, and we have to attend all of them.

Delayed gratification sucks.

That’s the Way We Do It

I went to a baseball game and no history happened. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

We’ve arrived at the All-Star Break. Last year, I marked the occasion with a pair of posts. I’ll keep it to one this year.

I pointed out that this is the time of year when fans of the under-performing teams begin obsessively watching trade rumors, waiting for the one that will give them hope for next year. What I didn’t mention is that fans of the teams on the edge of making the playoffs are obsessively watching trade rumors, waiting for the one that will give them hope for this year.

So far this year, both groups are still waiting. The only trade with potential major impact was between the As (currently the best record in baseball and the runaway favorite to make the playoffs) and the Cubs (currently the fifth worst record in baseball).* Things should be heating up this week before the frenzy next week leading to the trade deadline.

* Yes, the Cubs are in the first group–under-performing teams–and their fans did get some hope in their acquisition of Addison Russell. However, he’s now their second top prospect at shortstop, a position where they already have a good player. That means if they get a significant boost from Russell, it’s because both of the others flamed out–hardly desirable. More likely, the actual gain will be from a future trade, either of Russell himself, or one of the other two when Russell becomes the full-time shortstop. Either way, there’s a modicum of hope, but it’s a deferred hope, and likely deferred beyond next year.

I also wrote about the joys of the Home Run Derby. It’s not so much the home run hitters, it’s the kids chasing the balls that provide most of the fun and excitement. Last year’s Derby was good in that respect. This year was amusing, but not as good as last year. I think the kids had a touch of World Cup Fever. A lot of flops and slides on the wet-thanks-to-rain grass, but not much “will the ball be caught?” drama.

The Derby isn’t baseball, but it helps get through the lack of meaningful games. The actual All-Star game is tonight. That is baseball. Meaningless, like preseason games, but at least the quality of play is (usually) better than any random preseason game. Tomorrow and Thursday are off days, and the season resumes Friday. So what do we do for baseball Wednesday and Thursday? Well, there are always the minor leagues.

Which brings us back to that baseball game I mentioned in the first paragraph.

The San Jose Giants are, as you could probably have guessed, a minor league team in the San Francisco Giants’ system. They’re a “Class A Advanced” team*, meaning that they’re several steps away from the majors.

* The current classifications are, in descending order of presumed skill and readiness for the majors, Triple-A, Double-A, Class A Advanced, Class A, Class A short season, and Rookie. In the past there were fewer types of “A” teams, and there were “B,” “C”, and “D” leagues. I’ll just note that baseball reflects the society around it, and as such, grade inflation and peer promotion are inescapable.

There is an element of truth in that joke, but it is, as with most of baseball’s long and checkered history, more complicated than that. Maybe I’ll do a post on the Great Minor League Reorganization of ’63 one of these days.

As an A league team, the SJ Giants are not playing in a fancy park like the parent club’s. San Jose Municipal Stadium seats less than 6,000 people, and it looks about half that big. Ignore the small video screen over the right field fence, and it could almost be a small-town stadium from an old movie: small dimensions, painted advertisements on the fences, and an outfield that hasn’t been sculpted to millimetric tolerances.

Since the players are young, the quality of play sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. “Sure” double-play balls aren’t sure at all, flies that look eminently catchable to the eye accustomed to big league play fall untouched, and errant pitches fly past catchers with alarming regularity.

But the teams make up for it in other ways. The small size of the stadium means that even the cheap seats* are closer to the field than 95% of the seats at a major league park.

* And they are cheap. Non-discounted seats for tomorrow’s game start at $11. The major league club changes prices depending on who the opponent is and how far in advance you buy. As of this writing, the cheapest seats for the SF Giants’ first home game after the break are $56.25.

Even in the last row of seats, you’re close enough to really hear the action: the sound of bat hitting ball, ball hitting glove, and–when sufficiently provoked by a bad call–chin hitting ground in disbelief.

And the team takes advantage of the intimate nature of the venue to do things that couldn’t be done at a major league park. In the big leagues, video screens keep attendees occupied between innings by showing “fan cams,” “dot races,” and highlights of other games–sometimes even other sports. The San Jose club is strictly analog in its between-inning distraction. They drive a truck onto the field, and let players throw baseballs at it: any player who breaks a headlight gets $20.00 and a pre-selected fan wins a coupon for auto parts. Four spectators are invited onto the field to play Musical Chairs, with the winner getting movie tickets. A fan throws rolls of toilet paper at the team mascot, who is seated in a Porta-Potty (I never did hear what the fan won).

OK, maybe some of the activities aren’t in the greatest of taste, but they’re still doing better than “Captain Morgan” and a bevy of half-dressed young women throwing T-shirts into the stands while a video urges spectators to drink responsibly. (Yes, this really happened at an As’ game–and, I’ve heard, several other major league parks–a couple of years ago.)

As you move up the ranks from A to AA to AAA, the quality of play improves, and the off-field “product” and ticket prices start to look more like the majors as well. But that just means you can choose your level. There are teams affiliated with one of the MLB clubs in 42 American states (and one in British Columbia: the Vancouver Canadians, a Class A short season affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays). If you need a baseball fix to get you through the next two days, you could do far, far worse than to check out the closest minor league team.

I should note that the game itself, as you might expect, wasn’t a highly-polished performance by either team, but the Giants beat their arch-nemesis*, Stockton, 8-4. The Giants built a 7-0 lead before giving up four runs in the eighth inning: thrills and chills; we wondered if that eighth was ever going to end.

* In Class A, every opposing team is your arch-nemesis, standing between you and the development of the skills you need to move up to the next level.

A good time was had by all. Well, except for Stockton and its supporters, but since they won the other three games that weekend, they can’t complain too much. It was a pleasant evening in the sun with an exciting game. No history was made, but how much history does one need in any given season? Baseball is its own compensation.