As baseball salaries have skyrocketed in the last 35 years or so, reactions to the extremely high salaries paid to sports stars have changed too. Initial shock about how well players were compensated for "playing a children's game," gave way first to hostility to these players, which was most obvious in the fan reactions to the baseball strikes of 1981 to 1994. Over the last 20 years this resentment has given way to a recognition that money is an important part of the game that informs all baseball decisions as well as an understanding that baseball is a multi-billion dollar business where a lot of people are getting rich. Too frequently, lost in that acceptance is that the rising prices of things like tickets, parking and concessions have had a severe impact on how and by whom the game can be enjoyed, or consumed.
As writers and fans have grown to have a stronger understanding and interest in the business side of baseball, it has become more common to measure the success, or health, of the game by things like the revenue generated by the teams. This is not unlike measuring the state of the American economy by looking only at the Dow Jones Index. It may give a good heuristic of the economy, but it misses a lot of important aspects. Why, after all, should a devoted fan care how much more money the rich people playing and running the game make? I do not enjoy a day at Yankee Stadium, the venue where I usually see most of my live baseball, any more knowing that the Steinbrenner brothers are having a good year. In fact, I enjoy the experience less knowing that so many of the people behind the scenes, doing things like selling concessions or tickets are not compensated well.
Similarly, strong attendance figures are more a reflection of the health of the owner's bank account than a more abstract state of the game. I enjoy a sold out playoff game or late season game during a pennant race, but some of my most sublime and enjoyable afternoons of watching baseball have been in half empty stadiums. There is a certain feeling of being in a large and mostly empty ballpark that most true baseball fans can appreciate.
The question this all raises is whether or not baseball is doing better because it is bigger than ever. There are many great things about big league baseball in the 21st Century. These include the increased international feel of the game at its highest level. Top players from Korea, Venezuela, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, the Dominican Republic have made the game better and more fun to watch. The availability of extensive video and the ability to watch virtually any game on any night for a relatively modest annual price is a new and great development too. Similarly, the internet has made a wealth of websites, podcasts and writers available to the serious fan for little or no cost. This makes it possible to learn about and enjoy the game from a broad range of sources whenever the impulse strikes. Some of this is due to the amount of money generated by the game, but even if revenues were 25% less, for example, it is still likely that MLB would make games available to online subscribers and that teams could pay enough in salary to draw top talent from around the world.
There are, however, other indicators about the health of the game, that we do not see measured enough. For example, it would be good to know how many retired players are in difficult financial straits or have baseball related injuries of a serious nature. It would also be relevant to know not only that the owners are getting rich, but that those people in the industry doing less glamorous work are making a living wage. Another indicator might be the relative cost of a trip to the ballpark for a family of four. A more affordable game, is a healthier and indeed better game.
Big league baseball is many things. It is a billion dollar industry, but one that is heavily subsidized by tax-payers and protected by regulations and laws enjoyed by few if any other industries. It is also, of course, an important part of the every day lives of millions of people who watch, listen, talk and write about baseball regularly. It continues to offer a top product and be enjoyed by millions. Nonetheless, measuring its success by how the wealthiest in the industry are doing is not in the long term interest of the game or its millions of fans.