Trust and Antitrust: Illinois baseball fans can accept the chance to evaluate the quality of play

May 1, 2002

The Joy of Keeping Score

How Scoring the Game Has Influenced and Enhanced the History of Baseball
Paul Dickson, 1996
Walker and Company

Bob Rosenberg has been a professional sports scorekeeper since 1961, when he broke in with the Chicago Packers basketball team. 

As far as he knows, he’s the nation’s only full-time professional scorer, keeping the books for the Chicago Bulls, Bears, and White Sox, as well as half the home games for the Cubs. 

Official scorers have unprecedented collateral power, especially in baseball. It’s their calls — not the umpires’ — that determine which tough fielding chances are hits and which are errors. A hit here or there can translate into a fatter batting average for a second baseman or a higher earned run average for a pitcher, stats that mean millions at contract negotiation time. 

That’s cool clout for a position that pays $125 per game. But there are pressures, too. One Rosenberg insists doesn’t bother him is that so many fans reserve the right to ignore his calls. Instead, they trust their own judgments, assigning hits, errors, wild pitches and passed balls as they see them. 

In fact, baseball writer Paul Dickson in The Joy of Keeping Score sees scoring as one of the last elements of the game under the exclusive preserve of the fans. “Scoring is the fan’s game,” he says. “It does not belong to the owners, the players, their union, or Major League Baseball. It is literally ours.” 

And there is quaint satisfaction in the 125-year-old low-tech craft of tracing little diamonds inside tiny boxes to record every pitch, hit, sacrifice and run. 

But why be limited to the action on the field? Professional baseball is a billion-dollar industry that, in many cases, relies on public dollars to finance its ballparks and the federal government to protect its sometimes arcane business practices. If, as Dickson suggests, fans have the right to score the games they see, then citizens have the duty to score the state of a game that has ingrained itself deep in American culture.

So, here’s a card. Here’s a pencil. And, though a pro such as Bob Rosenberg would quible with the system, here’s how one fan scores a few early season at-bats for pro baseball in Illinois.

For the economics of baseball, mark a backwards K for a called third strike. 

On the field, a backwards K means the pitcher either made one hell of a pitch, or the batter wasn’t protecting the plate. Even little leaguers know it’s a sin to get caught looking as the third one goes by. But a good long look at a nasty pitch is exactly what Congress got last year when Commissioner Bud Selig, for the first time ever, showed profit and loss statements for all 30 Major League teams.

Last fall, Selig raised the ire of congressional committees when, a month after the World Series, he announced the league would shrink by two teams before the start of the 2002 season. This, despite a July 2000 report of a Selig-appointed independent panel that outlined remedies for the league’s financial ills and said “there should be no immediate need for contraction.” 

Congress reacted to Selig’s plan, drafting a couple of bills to limit baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust laws.

Unlike pro football, hockey or basketball, professional baseball enjoys antitrust protection thanks to a nifty, and now outmoded, legal fiction concocted by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1922. He ruled that the league itself was not a business involved in moving its product between states. Baseball, at least then, was a sport.

If Selig’s testimony last year accomplished anything, it demonstrated that if Major League Baseball is now a bona fide business, it’s a lousy one. Altogether, the 30 big league teams raked in more than $3.5 billion in 2001. But they shelled out some $3.7 billion in operating costs, and, when all was said and done, Selig’s unaudited financial statements showed Major League teams losing nearly $519 million. 

In a year when only five clubs made money, the Chicago White Sox were as mediocre on the spreadsheet as they were on the field. The South Siders got nearly $31 million at the turnstiles and hot dog stands and another $30 million in local broadcast rights. Total operating income amounted to nearly $111.7 million. 

But Sox management incurred more than $50.6 million in operating costs and put $66.7 million in the players’ pockets. The total operating loss for 2001 came to more than $5.6 million. 

Then came the big hurt: $4.2 million gone to the league in revenue sharing, for an after-revenue-sharing loss of $9.8 million. On the plus side, the club showed $2.2 million in interest income to reduce its total loss to $7.6 million. (Of course, that may lead one to question why a team that required public financing for its ballpark has interest income.)

On the North Side, Chicago’s lovable losers, the Cubs, landed near the top of last year’s financial standings. The team ranked with the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners as one of the only clubs to finish in the black. Still, in true Cub fashion, the income statement shows a $17,000 loss for post-season expenses in a year in which the team missed the playoffs. 

For fans used to pouring over batting averages and ERAs, the calculations provide interesting oddities. Jim Banks, writing for mlb.com, wonders, for example, why the Cubs earn less than the Sox on TV and radio rights. Because the Cubs and their TV broadcast partner, WGN, are both owned by the Tribune Company, it could be that the Cubs are charging the station less than fair-market value.

Numbers crunching aside, it’s hard to pin down the exact point of the congressional hearings. By opening day, all 30 Major League teams were set to take the field — at least for this year — and the bills to limit the league’s ability to contract were still warming the bench somewhere on Capitol Hill. 

But Selig did get the numbers on the record. Baseball is officially a loser, a status that ironically could prove helpful in the next round of the often self-destructive labor negotiations, or whenever the league feels it’s prudent to go ahead and yank a few teams. 

Already, the state of Minnesota, for one, is listening. Last month the Minnesota House, in an effort to get the Twins off the contraction short list, passed a plan to front a $330 million loan to finance a new stadium. 

At the same time, downstate Illinois Cardinal fans are following the action as the city of St. Louis, the county and the state work to scrape up more than $396 million toward a proposed new $646 million ballpark and downtown development project. The Cards, according to Selig’s figures, made $1.8 million on baseball operations last year, but lost a total of $7.3 after revenue sharing and interest income.

Clearly there are some tough choices: retain the antitrust exemption, shell out public dollars to keep the home team home, cut the league’s losses and drop a team or two. But all those options lie in the hands of the owners, the league and governments. And the relative merits of those options are tough to chart.

In the scorebook, it all comes out so clean. When the fielder has the option of putting out the batter, but instead puts out a different base runner, it’s a fielder’s choice — FC. The batter is charged with an at-bat but no hit.

Fans are realizing they have choices, too. The Cubs, Cards and Sox are not the only games in town. According to Minor League Baseball, single-A affiliates in Geneva, Peoria and the Quad Cities drew 797,955 people to Midwest League games last year. Leaguewide, attendance was down only slightly, coming off a record 3.2 million plus fans in 2000.

But the minor leagues are subject to many of the same woes as the majors. (Ask fans of the Rockford Cubs, whose team — now the Dayton Dragons — left for Ohio in 2000 and led the league in attendance last year.) 

Small cities want these teams for the real and perceived economic benefits they bring. The extent of that impact is probably impossible to quantify accurately, but Geneva’s Kane County Cougars wrote a stadium rent check of just under $700,000 to the county forest preserve last year. Quad City River Bandits General Manager Dave Ziedelis says his team puts $4 million to $5 million into the local economy. 

But what the Major League gives, it also can take away. 

And that spurred Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan to propose legislation to limit Major League Baseball’s antitrust-protected right to drop teams. In a letter to drum up support, they wrote that “the elimination of Major League teams would likely wreak havoc and uncertainty in a host of Minor League cities.” Among the teams Wellstone and Conyers singled out were the Cougars and the River Bandits. They are affiliated with the Major League’s Marlins and Twins, two clubs on the Major League’s troubled list.

But Conyers and Wellstone may be off base. The River Bandit’s Ziedelis says Major League contraction was among the least of his worries last winter. “We are guaranteed to have a Major League affiliate by contract with the Major League and Minor League Baseball,” he says, referring to a 1997 player development agreement that Major League teams will supply players to all 160 affiliated Minor League teams for 10 years.

In Geneva, it was new ownership, not contraction, that caused a small stir. Instead of being knocked out of the box scores, the Florida Marlins were sold to Montreal Expos owner Jeffery Loria. (In a maneuver fraught with conflict-of-interest potential, an entity comprised of the 29 other Major League teams bought the Expos to finance the deal.) That meant many on-field personnel from Marlin affiliates lost their jobs to managers and coaches from Expo affiliates. But the affiliates are independently owned, so front offices were not affected. 

Sedivy, the firmly ensconced Cougars general manager, echoes Ziedelis’ sentiments on contraction. 

“I don’t think markets like ours would be affected [by Major League contraction] in any way,” he says.

Still, the 1997 development agreement may not be iron-clad. According to Minor League Baseball spokesman Jim Ferguson, under certain conditions the Major League may terminate the contract in September 2003, if it provides notice this fall. One of those conditions is a congressional action “that subjects Major League Baseball in whole or part to the antitrust laws,” unless the big leagues ask for the change in legal status. 

In other words, Conyers and Wellstone are right. What happens at the big-league level does matter in Geneva, Peoria and Davenport. But fiddling with the antitrust exemption may only do harm.

In the Joy of Keeping Score, Dickson advocates for the team error (TE), a concept unrecognized by Major League Baseball. For example, when two players collide but neither touches the ball, Dickson says it’s unfair to the pitcher to score the play a hit. 

“I think they should have it for things like mental errors ... where a guy advances, but he really shouldn’t be there,” says Rosenberg. 

Officially, he can’t use the TE. But fans can. And they should, especially for plays off the field, where this year the potential for mental errors, especially those related to contraction and the antitrust exemption, is excruciatingly high.

 

Illinois Issues, May 2002