In the same week that Manny Machado signed a $300 million contract with a team 3,000 miles from Baltimore, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called Orioles fans a bunch of rubes too dumb to notice they’re being priced out of the game.
Manfred, in apparent possession of his senses, somehow declares baseball has “negotiated a system that allows a market to operate.”
Yes, but for whom?
This week, in a New York Times piece headlined, “Rob Manfred Says Baseball Doesn’t Have Free Agency Crisis,” the commissioner apparently failed to notice the meaning of Machado’s departure from small- and medium-sized markets like Baltimore.
Had he stuck around, Manny might’ve become the greatest player in Orioles history. At his current pace, he’s a future Hall of Famer. Shall we review how many home-grown Hall of Fame players the Orioles have produced in their entire modern franchise history, which now goes back nearly two-thirds of a century?
Their names are Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken.
Machado should have made it five. Any time a team has to give away a future Hall of Famer entering his peak years, that’s a sign that “the marketplace” isn’t operating well, isn’t operating fairly and isn’t operating the same for all teams, no matter what Commissioner Manfred wishes us to swallow.
The Orioles couldn’t afford Machado’s price tag. The free agent system’s been in place for a while now but not at these insane prices, which have now widened the chasm between the sport’s haves and have-nots beyond all previous dimensions.
At a certain point, every team not located in a big market has to let its best players get away, even if that player’s not getting $300 million over 10 years like Machado.
Teams sign a player, nurture him through years of minor league maturation, keep him for several years on the big league club as he’s fully developing, and then – wham! Just as he’s arrived at his most productive seasons, he’s open for general bidding.
And what that means is the game’s rigged. The richest teams rightfully expect to stock deep, talented rosters and compete for a title every year. If they’ve got great players, they can afford to keep them.
But the smaller-market teams can’t. And that means losing the great faces of the franchise who are the team’s great drawing cards and game winners. And fans have to accept lengthy rebuilding processes.
It means years of also-ran mediocrity, with occasional aberrant summers when they hope to challenge for a playoff spot. It’s now written into the sport’s bloodstream.
As baseball opens with spring training, it’s looking a lot like the rebuilding years when Paul Richards arrived in Baltimore and commenced what became known as “The Oriole Way.” That was way back in 1955.
What the hell, it only took another 11 years to build a pennant winner.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.