Sunday, June 04, 2006

Conservative Doomsayers: Consistently Wrong, Even About Baseball

Interesting table in the sports section of the New York Times today. It lists the ten baseball players who spent the longest careers with a single team (that is, not the longest tenures with a team, but the longest one-team careers, if you follow the distinction). Here's the list:

Carl Yastzemski, Red Sox--3,308 games
Stan Musial, Cardinals--3,026
Cal Ripken, Jr., Orioles--3,001
Brooks Robinson, Orioles--2,896
Robin Yount, Brewers--2,856
Al Kaline, Tigers--2,834
Mel Ott, New York Giants--2,730
George Brett, Royals--2,707
Craig Biggio, Astros--2,617
Ernie Banks, Cubs--2,528

Does this have some kind of social or political significance? Indeed it does. If you read the sports pages or listen to talk radio, you know that one of the favorite canards of conservative old fogies is the claim that "Ballplayers today have no loyalty," that "Free agency has destroyed team spirit," and that "In the good old days, players stuck with a team."

In fact, the very same issue of the Times contains a letter to the editor making exactly this point, using it to explain why some fans have (allegedly) abandoned rooting for real teams in favor of fantasy-league baseball. Todd Hemphill of Trinity, Florida, writes:

There was a time when rooting for the local teams made sense. With few exceptions there was continuity from year to year. The players were part of your community. When they succeeded, there was a sense of pride and accomplishment. Now plays are hired guns, spinning through a revolving door of multimillion dollar offers.
The implication is that businesses--i.e., the team owners--need to have greater control and power over individuals--i.e., the players--in order to suppress selfishness and disloyalty. For the good of the sport, of course.

This stuff about how baseball has changed for the worse is repeated so often that I bet almost all fans assume it's true. Actually it's hogwash. Go back to the list from today's Times, which one might as well call "The Ten Most Loyal Players in History." When were these players active? Here's a list of their career dates:

Yaz: 1961-1983
Musial: 1941-1963
Ripken: 1981-2001
Robinson: 1955-1977
Yount: 1974-1993
Kaline: 1953-1974
Ott: 1926-1947
Brett: 1973-1993
Biggio: 1988-date (still active)
Banks: 1953-1971

What do you notice? Of the ten most loyal players, only one (Mel Ott) played most of his career before World War II. Six played at least part of their careers after the start of free agency (1975), and four (Ripken, Yount, Brett, and Biggio) played practically their whole careers under free agency. This despite the fact that the free agent era is only thirty years old and therefore represents less than one quarter of the entire history of professional baseball (which started in 1869).

Only one conclusion is possible: In baseball, free agency increases player loyalty, continuity, and stability--exactly the opposite of what bloviating journalists, commentators, old-time players, and bar stool experts have proclaimed for years. Amazingly, none of them bother to look at the facts before making their grand pronouncements.

The larger point: When systems are reformed to protect the rights and interests of more people, the dire consequences that conservatives invariably predict rarely materialize. Increasing the minimum wage does not cause massive unemployment. Protecting the environment does not destroy industry. Raising taxes on the wealthiest does not slow economic growth. And letting ballplayers negotiate their own deals with ballclubs does not ruin the sport's continuity.

But don't expect the bloviators to admit it.

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