About a month away from pitchers and catchers, baseball’s hot stove has yet to heat up.
In fact, it’s no longer a stove. It’s more of a box in which everything remains at room temperature until it’s ready to serve, at which point no one cares any more.
A few years ago, we were sold the idea that the off-season leading into 2019 would feature perhaps the greatest free-agent class in history. Bryce Harper! Manny Machado! Dallas Keuchel! Josh Donaldson!
It hasn’t turned out.
After nearly three months in the shop window, Donaldson is the only member of that group who’s signed – on a speculative, one-year deal. The big news is Patrick Corbin joining Washington for nine figures, leading to excited cries of “Patrick who?”
Harper was supposed to be LeBron big at this point. Instead, he’s becoming the trade equivalent of an eggshell paint sample. One is pretty much like any other.
This week, he did finally make a headline. Harper is raffling off the chance to accompany him to the barber and get “the secret” to his hair. Yes, you too can look like Kenny Rogers, circa his First Edition years.
Major League Baseball wants people panting over the prospect of Harper joining their team. Until he makes his decision, it should be a topic of daily conversation in every major market. Instead, people figure he’s going to Philadelphia (yawn) or staying with the Nationals (zzzz) and they’ll let us know when that happens so that we can adjust our fantasy teams accordingly. No big whoop.
But it is, or it should be. If a league can’t manufacture interest during the off-season, it has badly failed.
The off-season has become as – maybe even more – important to driving the sports news cycle as the real thing. If your team is poor or on the cusp, the players' holiday is your regular season.
A couple of generations ago, fans were out in the driveway imagining themselves as the players. These days, they’re hunched over a keyboard trying to be amateur general managers. The off-season is their time to shine.
Even the National Hockey League, which is about as sharp as a bowling ball when it comes to promoting its own product, has figured this out.
But baseball has an off-season problem. Nothing interesting happens for huge stretches. Given (theoretically) unlimited money to spend, no one wants to spend it.
Instead, it’s become a protracted staring contest as everyone strings matters out until the last minute, and then hustles to get a compromise contract in under the wire. What should be months of news is crammed into a few days before or during spring training.
This is another side to baseball’s multifaceted charisma problem. It’s never-too-high, never-too-low approach has begun bleeding into all aspects of the business. These days, baseball can only create tension for two months of the year – September and October.
This begins with its stars. They are, for the most part, interchangeable in the public mind. I recall waiting in the visitors clubhouse at the Rogers Centre a while back trying to pick out Mike Trout.
Trout isn’t just the best player in baseball right now. He may be the best ever. He may be an AI sent from the future to conquer our species through baseball.
As he is the Tiger or Lionel of his sport, Trout’s face ought to be more familiar to each of us than some family members. But standing there and watching the great moving herd of uniformly buff, crew-cutted, varsity squad types on the Los Angeles Angels, I couldn’t spot him. It wasn’t until he was looking directly at me that I realized I had the right guy.
Trout was given a long-term extension years before his free agency was a possibility. More’s the pity. He might be the only ballplayer at work capable of drumming up an honest-to-God bidding war.
This is where you wish the MLB and its players association could see the marketing forest for the financial trees.
It’s great for owners that they control their employees – who mature into their jobs at a far more advanced age than any other sport – through their most productive years.
It’s great for players that once loosed into the free market, they are unconstrained by a salary cap and can ask for any amount of money.
But it is not great for baseball fans, who are robbed of what has become half the drama of modern sports.
If he were as good at basketball as he is at baseball, Machado’s free agency would have lasted a couple of torrid weeks, tops. No one would care about questions of character, or tortured themselves trying to figure out where he “fit.” Teams would have known for years roughly what he’d cost – the salary-cap max – and budgeted for it. Machado would know the same thing.
Multiple bidders would have entered the fray. It would all spill excitingly out into public, creating league-wide buzz. Then on to the next as every team hurried to round out its preset budget.
Instead, we get this awful dreariness, a few corporate Richie Rich’s trying to chisel away at what will still become far too much money to pay a guy who’s never shown himself a winner. By the time it happens, the reaction will be a shoulder shrug.
How has the National Basketball Association turned itself into the most interesting league on the continent? It’s not the quality of play, or the inherent theatre of the sport.
It’s that the NBA is a twelve-month-of-the-year concern. Its hot stove is always cooking.
Every other league should aspire to that. The National Football League and NHL try, if not always successfully. Soccer’s top leagues work it a different way around. Theirs is far less fair and even more fun.
But baseball continues to operate as if it’s the fifties and the game has a monopoly on public interest.
Well, so did General Motors back in the day. That’s worked out just fine.