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The Thing about that Level Playing Field

December 11, 2008
Don't worry, KC. We've got a plan. And here it is. *cough*

Don't worry, KC. We've got a plan. And here it is. *cough*

So the Yankees sign C.C. and could very well sign A.J., the Mets sign Francisco Jose Rodriguez (for info on boycotts of bad nicknames, read this), and the Red Sox could sign Big Tex. Much is written every winter about how lavish splashy contracts don’t mean anything come baseball season – look at the Rays last year, the Twins for much of the decade, and, conversely, the Yankees’ repeated failures in the last handful of autumns.

Well, duh. Signing Jason Giambi, Ol’ Whistlin’ Bat, Trainwreck Pavano, and the Big Unit didn’t do anything for a Bronx World Series drought. Small market (this is a misnomer – let’s say small owner) teams have been doing quite well in the won-lost column, thank you – the Marlins beating up on the Bombers in ’03, the Brewers nabbing a wild card berth over the Mets’ CollapseTM v2.0 in ’08, etc. So, yeah, for the Fall Classic, landing Johan Santana or Manny Ramirez in January is rarely the definitive solution.

But here’s what a big splashy contract can do: Keep fans engaged.

Baseball, like all sports, is an entertainment, a diversion. (Except for this guy.)  Plenty of fans attend games for the thrill of the immediate nine-inning drama, or because it’s a fun family excursion, not for the season writ large. But even for small owner teams, as long as we still live in an age of taxpayer-subsidized ballparks, a front office owes the fanbase its vision for success. Or if not success, at least a good show at the ballpark. After all, without a successful team, attendances could suffer, and a vicious cycle of budgetary restrictions could ensue.

And let me now kind of disprove what I just said with some numbers:

Marlins 1997 September last homestand (9/12-9/22): average attendance was 28,971.

Marlins 1998 April first homestand (3/31-4/6): average attendance was 23,668.

This came after the Marlins won the World Series and then famously gutted its team (Moises Alou, Al Leiter, Robb Nen, Jeff Conine, and Kevin Brown), leading to media and public excoriation. Their attendance dropped from the last week of the playoff berth season to the first week of the new season by 18%. Horrible! Ridiculous! Cat-gnawingly mind-boggling!

Athletics 2004 September last homestand (9/27-10/3): average attendance: 29,585.

The A’s lost the division to the Angels in that final week of the season, but still finished with 91 wins. Then in the offseason, the A’s traded Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, moves that, again, were excoriated by the average fan (but praised in, uh, smarter circles). At the very least, it ought to have hurt the attendance:

Athletics 2005 April first homestand (4/11-4/17): 25,939.

An average loss of 12%.

Yankees 2000 September last long homestand (9/11-9/18): average attendance was 39,981.

The Yanks won the World Series in five games over the crosstown Mets, I was at the final heroic Al Leiter game at Shea surrounded by Yankee fans, on the verge of punching the quiet, meek Met fans around me who seemed unperturbed by the goings-on on the field. Anyhoo, the Yanks won and then signed Mike Mussina in the offseason. Yanks were still a favorite for postseason in 2001.

Yankees 2001 April first homestand (4/2-4/8): average attendance was 33,512.

So their attendance…dropped by 16%. Whoops.

Ok, there are a lot of factors here (quality of opponent, cold weather in April, small sample sizes, pennant races are more exciting than spring ball, etc). And this is a very long passage simply to disprove something I conjectured. Really, I’ve proven nothing but that September baseball is more exciting than April baseball. So, broader:

2004 A’s: 2.20 million

2005 A’s: 2.11 million (following postseason campaign, down 4%)

 

1997 Marlins: 2.36 million

1998 Marlins: 1.73 million (following postseason campaign, down 26.7%)

 

2000 Yanks: 3.06 million

2001 Yanks: 3.26 million (following postseason campaign, up 6.5%)

Well, okay, but the 2003 Marlins were a similar case to ’97 – winning the WS, then trading off Derrek Lee, Juan Encarnacion, and Mark Redman, and letting Ivan Rodriguez and Oogie Urbina jump ship. So:

2003 Marlins: 1.30 million

2004 Marlins: 1.72 million

I can’t understand attendances at all now. Except that there isn’t much of a demand for baseball in southern Florida. And I would really like to track the rise of a club’s record with the rise of attendance, but I don’t think that that’s a simple correlated ratio.

Theoretically, it would be nice to say that big free agent signing/marquee player arrival has a lot to do with attendance. And in the very short run a midseason acquisition might – the Mike Piazza signing in May 1998 briefly drove Shea population up from the middling averages they were receiving, and I’m sure merch sales had a quick spike. But the impact of an offseason signing is hard to calculate because of all the mitigating factors that come with the beginning of the season (see above).

What I do know is that there isn’t much excitement at all right now in SD, where the team “had” to trade Khalil Greene and has to trade Jake Peavy because they’re shedding payroll. And their minor league system – beyond, say, Kyle Blanks and Cedric Hunter – isn’t anything special.

Nor is there excitement in Milwaukee, whose run at the Series just waddled and limped out the door. As for Washington, I’m amazed that the Nationals are floating a $160 million offer to Big Tex. Guess it puts the botched negotiations with first-rounder Aaron Crow in a new light, as well as their oath to go aggressively after Stephen Strasburg. Even more surprising would be if Teixiera signs with them. Two years in, he could be begging, a la Paparazzi Alex, to play for a contender. After all, Washington has no groundplan to speak of, and their latest trade – Jon Rauch for Emilio Bonifacio – hurts to think about.

Point is, it’s not hard to keep, say, Red Sox fans interested in the offseason: Success last year, rosy 2009, good prospects in the system, and the strong possibility of landing a great new player in January. Not every team can be that confident, and again, note to Washington, dishing out mega-contracts aren’t a sure bet for the World Series. Building blueprints for a franchise’s success is. Sure, Brian Cashman and Omar Minaya don’t have to think outside the box; they are the box. But other front offices can be less opaque in their strategies to field a good team. Oakland’s fans grumble, even though Billy Beane, aware that he’s on an uneven playing field, has continued to make wise personnel moves; Tampa fans didn’t show up for much of the 2008 campaign, but it was clear for the last four years that something big was in the works.

So the difficulty is letting those fans – and Teixeira, if he signs with the Nats – know that a plan is in the works. What I’d be doing if I worked in San Diego or Milwaukee or KC, I’d be promoting the crap out of the positives and explaining how the team is going to get better. “Hey Padres fans, this is the deal. We’re strapped for cash right now, and we know you guys are upset at the thought of losing our Cy Young winner, but lookit. We’re going to get some golden boys in exchange for him.” “Hey Kansas City! We’re going to ride our youth movement, starting with Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and the soon-to-come Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer to victory!”

And so forth.

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