For decades the threshold by which an athlete was judged competent to remain in Major League Baseball was determined by what became known as the ‘Mendoza Line’(1). The standard was coined in 1979 by teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte in honor of one Mario (Manny) Mendoza whose defensive skills were such that he played several years in the major leagues despite having a batting average hovering at or about .200. This, the gods of baseball had determined, would be the absolute minimum offensive performance, the point at which one’s defensive skills however formidable could no longer justify one being in the lineup or on a major league roster. As a struggling player’s batting average plummeted ever lower, the approach of the much feared ‘Mendoza Line’ would hang over the hapless ball player like the Grim Reaper waiting for that moment to call him ‘home’ and snatch him back to the corn fields of Iowa or snuff his career altogether. No more.
With the advent of Free Agency and multi-year contracts, Major League Baseball has of late presented us with the proverbial ‘superstar’ free of the constraints of convention and not subject to the long established norms of the game. I give to you as Exhibit One, one Adam Dunn.
Known as the ‘Big Donkey’, Dunn was acquired by the Chicago White Sox as a free agent in the off-season following the 2011 season. Signing for a reported four-year 60 Million dollar contract (of which the Sox reportedly paid out 56 Million) Dunn struggled through the 2012 season hitting a paltry .159 in 496 plate appearances. The following season he struck out a record 222 times in 649 plate appearances raising his average to .204. The “Sporting News”, making a mockery of sporting awards, promptly dubbed the ‘Big Donkey” 2013’s “Comeback Player of the Year”, perplexing future historians of the game as they ponder just how bad you have to be the previous year to win this honor with a batting average .004 points above the “Mendoza Line”. Nevertheless the Texan clogged on. In four years he hit a meager .201 for Chicago, striking out 720 times in 2187 plate appearances, or roughly 1/3 of the time. As for the remainder he would, predictably by always going deep into the count, work a walk (321 of those over nearly 4 seasons); but more often than not hitting directly into a defensive shift as opposing teams would put the third baseman or shortstop over on the right side of the infield. Dunn, always swinging for the fences would, if he got his bat on the ball at all, hit it into the defense or pop it up. Saying that he was paid to hit home runs, he hit 106 of those in 4 years, many—all too many with the bases empty and when the additional run didn’t figure into a win or loss—the big oaf went about making a mockery of the game.
It cost Ozzie Guillen his job as Manager of the Sox. Guillen had led the club to its first World Championship since “Pants” Rowland piloted the franchise in 1917, a feat which should have earned Ozzie a lifetime sinecure. But as the club wound through the 2012 season with Dunn, in the middle of the lineup and striking out at a record pace, Guillen was unable to do anything about it.
You see at a cost of 12 million for the first year of his contract, Dunn was making a bit over $74,000 a game. That’s about $8,250 per inning worked or, since he played mostly as a Designated Hitter, one would more accurately parcel it out by plate appearances or at-bats. Assuming 4.2 plate appearances on average per game every time the ‘Big Donkey’ came up to bat it cost the club $17,619.00. Paying a player this much money means that a manager no longer has the option to bench him, for no owner or General Manager is going to sit idly by and pay out that kind of money for an ‘asset’ that isn’t being used. And so Sox fans had to endure nearly 4 long years of watching the big oaf. By the time he left the team, mercifully traded to Oakland with a couple of months left on his contract, the White Sox had paid between 18 and 20 Million dollars’ worth of strike outs.
Moreover, when he did hit the ball it was predictably to the right side of the infield, weak grounders, pop-ups and fly balls hit right into the shifted defenses. Rarely did he make plate adjustments to hit the ball to the now open left side or into the outfield down the left field line. When he did to it, his average would rise but, after a few games, he would revert to old habits and the same old Dunn would return. When ‘Hawk’ Harrelson, calling a televised game, would announce “Here’s Adam” it would send chills down the spine of any good Sox fan, much like fingernails scraping across a blackboard,
This is the conundrum in which the modern game finds itself. The Atlanta Braves had a similar experience signing Second Baseman Dan Uggla, the Yankees are presently paying Alex Rodriguez tens of millions as he presents the public with a meager .280 batting average. Pitchers now routinely are paid as much as $5,000.00 per pitch! Being a legal monopoly and confronted with ‘free agency’ and player unionization, the owners and players have made their deals with intent on passing the costs on to the consumer, resulting in skyrocketing ticket, parking and concession prices. Meanwhile the quality of play continues to deteriorate as team play unravels, performance slumps, uniforms are worn improperly. Today we witness in the sport the emergence of players from college programs and the minor leagues who simply have not mastered the fundamentals of the game. They cannot make adjustments hitting at the plate, cannot bunt the ball, cannot field their positions properly, and make too many base-running mistakes. Baseball has given us a ‘new age of shoddy’.
Ken Burns, in his television presentation of “Baseball” informs us that the sport has been central to the American Experience, playing major roles in establishing social norms from segregating to integrating American culture. That it has. What Baseball is presenting today is the example of what has gone terribly wrong with the economy and, by extension, the cultural norms. Long established as a legal monopoly, baseball was able to function by oppressing its labor force. With the coming of the Player’s Association and, more importantly, Free Agency the cork was removed from the bottle sending player compensation, profits, and costs through the roof. Now it is quite impossible to imagine Major League baseball as being able to exist in anything other than a state-sponsored monopoly. Oliver Wendell Holmes was quite right about that. Another league in competition would surely likewise send the cost of labor skyrocketing, as it did when the old American Football League challenged the National Football League at its inception. Professional sports, in order to function, nearly demand state protection.
It is one thing to have a monopoly or, for that matter, an oligopoly or cartel. These do exist and, sometimes as with the municipal power plant, the water department, or local hospital are necessary. But to have an unregulated monopoly leads to the kind of dysfunctions that produce the Adam Dunn’s of this world and a management left powerless to influence performance. The lack of regulation, as it did in the American Auto Industry leads to Shoddy. Lack of competition without regulation lead to complacency and decline. We must have one or the other.