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opinion

Pitchers and catchers are reporting this week. It’s baseball season. Are you excited? No, me neither.

Baseball is suffering from a charisma-deficit problem. The pain is felt generally, but has highly localized flareups. Canada, for instance, is a problem area. Canada needs a lot of work.

The baseball problem you hear most about these days is collusion, or the lack thereof. After five months of cooling his heels on the free-agent market, generational player Bryce Harper remains unsigned. Like a next-gen iPhone or the news, everybody wants Harper, but no one wants to pay for him.

Over in the NBA, Anthony Davis mentioned that he’d like to be traded and a half-dozen teams were willing to hand him a significant chunk of the club’s total capital value, like, right then. Ledger-sized cheque books were being opened so quickly that a soft wind could be felt on either coast.

Harper’s as good at baseball as Davis is at basketball. But he’s been standing out here since the World Series with his arms open, waiting for a hug that never comes.

It would be sexy if the issue were collusion. That would at least be a story people could get interested in. It isn’t.

There is no star chamber where major-league owners get together and draw Xs through mugshots. The issue is value vs. results – no baseball player, no matter how great, can turn a so-so team into a winner all by himself (Exhibit A: Mike Trout), so why not be mediocre for less risk and a lot less money?

The issue is everyone got smart at once. And the result is a gaping charisma deficit.

This free-agent class has become a scene from Gone With the Wind – bodies strewn all the way to the horizon. Everybody’s going young (i.e. cheap) or value-oriented (i.e. cheap).

This raises a philosophical question. However skilled, can you be called a sports star if no one will pay you to play sports? Baseball has your answer – no.

Kyler Murray, a two-sport standout, recently decided to give the Oakland A’s back a US$5-million signing bonus. He’d rather play football instead – the sport that turns your hippocampus into porridge. When people would rather be hit in the head repeatedly than take your money, it’s time to reconsider your approach.

Down in Tampa Bay the Rays have come up with a solution to their attendance problem, as in, there is none. They’ve eliminated the upper deck of Tropicana Field (not with grenades, as I’d initially hoped, but with tarps). The result, according to the team, will be a more “intimate” fan experience.

The Rays are a bad, starless team who made little effort this off-season to get less bad or more starred. No one wants to see them.

I’m no economist, but there must be a chart that can explain the interconnectedness of these related phenomena.

The Rays didn’t spend any money because there is no point in doing so. Everyone knows who’s going to win the AL East (Boston) and who’s going to come in second and take the wild card (New York). Despite that fact, everyone’s still going to play 162 games.

The Toronto Blue Jays will also be playing this year. In military terms, the Jays will all show up in Dunedin to surrender and then spend the next six months getting slaughtered.

A year ago, the big news was the imminent arrival of Vlad Guerrero Jr. and it still is. That’s not what you’d call progress.

What other news is there? Um, well, I can’t see any here. Some guys will be pitching. You haven’t heard of most of them. Ditto the lineup. The team might still do some trades to get rid of the few remaining familiar names, just so no one on the roster has to feel bad about themselves.

You can tell people all day long that the tank is the way to go, but Canadian baseball fans have never truly lived through one. Not a real tank.

It will be awful and may or may not work. For every Houston there is a San Diego. The Padres have been tanking since the Eisenhower administration with no end in sight. Baseball’s greatest achievement over the past decade is semantic – it has managed to turn ‘being habitually inept’ into ‘tanking’. That’s the same way Wall Street does crashes.

So here’s my season preview – a few teams very, very good; everyone else terrible and hardly trying. Further details to arrive in September.

I was thinking about this a few days ago as I watched Steven Soderbergh’s new film, High Flying Bird. You might call it sports noir.

In the opening scene, an agent (André Holland) is dressing down a basketball-playing client. He’s trying to explain to him how the NBA, and therefore the world, works.

“Football is fun, but it don’t sell sneakers,” Holland says. “Baseball? It’s a whole lot of tradition. But in order to move merch and inspire rap lyrics, they need your services.”

(Later, the NHL gets it in the neck: “Why would you want to rep hockey?” Holland sneers at a colleague.)

Tradition was baseball’s foundation. Now it’s a crutch and a punchline.

Everybody loves baseball in October, when the game itself is capable of generating drama. From April until September there is none any more. It’s a chess match, and I mean that derisively. It can be about as exciting as watching two guys lean over a board, staring.

The easiest way to fix this is a meaningful salary cap. That would give clubs cost certainty, juice the market, create more parity, and give the game an accounting angle beyond incomprehensible gibberish like wRC+ or BABIP to draw in the generalist.

A couple of other ways – extensive rule changes; reduce the number of games; make a real effort at speeding up proceedings. One could go on at length. That’s an issue.

But baseball won’t change. Why should it, when it’s already creating this much excitement?

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