On B.J. Upton, Marvin Miller and the dollar signs that bind


It’s fittingly ironic that B.J. Upton signed a $75 million contract the week Marvin Miller, the man who made it possible, died. Because it allows Miller’s critics, most of whom, like Mitt Romney’s friends, own teams, to point disparagingly at what Miller has wrought.

Miller made men richer, which is only part of his legacy. It’s not a bad one, especially for a union man. That many of those he enriched were his opponents at the negotiating table was an irony lost on them, if probably not Miller.

Five months after their Phillies won the 1980 World Series, the Carpenter family announced they were selling the team because Braves’ owner Ted Turner agreed to pay Claudell Washington, an above-average outfielder (think Garrett Anderson with less power and more speed) $750,000. For five years, not one. The Carpenters said they couldn’t afford it.

We can only guess what the Carpenters would think of Upton’s $15 million a year contract — it’s 100 times the Washington contract which made them wave at a rich bullpen.

Today the Phillies’ franchise bought by the Carpenters for $450,000 in 1943 — $300,000 less than the sum of Washington’s contract — and sold by the Carpenters in 1981 for $32 million is worth $723 million. At least some of that is because of Marvin Miller.

He took over the union in 1966. There were 20 teams which drew approximately 25.8 million fans that season; ironically, the Dodgers, who had the highest payroll ($800,000) thanks to the holdout of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, drew the most fans (2.6 million; the Mets were next at 1.9) and won the second-most games. Perhaps they understood something about investments and returns on them.

In 2012 there were 33% more teams (30) which drew almost three times as many fans (74.8 million). The Dodgers’ MLB-leading 2.6 million fans of 1966 would have ranked 14th in 2012, behind the nine teams which drew three million fans and the last-place Colorado Rockies, who didn’t exist in 1966. The team with the highest payroll (the Yankees, as you might have guessed) won the second-most games, but the second-, third- and fourth-highest payrolls (Philadelphia, Boston and the Angels, respectively), all missed the playoffs, the first two badly.

It’s hard to argue free agency hasn’t helped baseball.

The two other sports baseball shared the first half of the 20th century with — boxing and horse racing — are in steep decline (it doesn’t help that we’ve seen close up what can go wrong with the competitors, short-term and long-term, in each; you could ascribe it to our evolution as fans, but that doesn’t explain the popularity of MMA). It may be a little much to say free agency saved baseball from a similar fate, but it brings constant attention to a 21st-century world which demands it.

It’s also brought a competitive balance it was supposed to prevent. In the 46 seasons before Miller took over the union, one team won 29 American League pennants and 20 World Series; in the 20 seasons between 1947 and 1966, the Dodgers won half the NL pennants, even while dividing their time between two coasts. That was the parity free agency was going to destroy.

(In fairness, the Yankees were out of the postseason from 1965-1975. But in that time the A’s won three straight World Series, the Orioles three straight pennants and the Reds three in six years.)

The first decade of the 21st century saw nine teams win the World Series, including Soxes who broke an 86-year drought (Boston) and an 88-year one (Chicago), expansion teams in their fourth (Arizona) and 11th (Florida) seasons, and an original franchise (the Phillies) which won its second World Series in its 126th season (yes, the first 19 there was none). If we keep the system around long enough, it might even help the Cubs.

Yes, the Yankees won, too, and their wealth helped. But remind yourself who did better this year: the team which paid Albert Pujols $24 million, or the team which declined to.

Because free agency has also brought a new way to evaluate the players we watch. When we ask how good a player is now, it’s also about how much he is worth. Which has coalesced perfectly with the birth of and the work of the sabermetric community. Ultimately, all the new stats, evaluations and explanations are trying to determine a player’s value.

Today, the fan who decries the loss of RBIs as a meaningful stat sounds like the false prophets who warned of the dangers of free agency.

Which brings us back to B.J. Upton and his $75 million contact. It’s not the worst one ever signed since Upton is only 28, has power (51 home runs the last two years) and athleticism (67 steals at a nearly 79% rate the last two years) and fills a need. If not Upton or another free agent, the Braves would have been forced to play Jose Constanza in center field. They’d be better off with George Costanza.

But Upton has his flaws. He hasn’t hit more than .246 since 2008 and his on-base percentage hasn’t surpassed .331 since the same year. He walked early in his career but not as much since; he’s hit 43% of his 118 career home runs in the last two years. He’s unpredictable and undependable.

I’m not sure Upton is worth $15 million a year, but I can guess what Miller would think.

He is if the Braves say he is.

sources: Philly.com, forbes,com, mlb.com baseballreference.com

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