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Will-ful Negligence George F. Will
2002-08-23 20:43
by Mike Carminati

Will-ful Negligence

George F. Will is one of the most popular (and most conservative) columnists and news show personalities in the country. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. And yet he may be best known as a huge baseball fan.

He has written two popular books on baseball and appeared in Ken Burns' Baseball documentary. It only seems natural that he would appear on MLB's Blue Ribbon Panel on economics whose findings are the basis of the owners' proposals in these labor talks. It seems that whenever there is a forum in which the grand ol' game is discussed that Will is present.

And yet a number of muckrakers have the temerity to call him a shill especially after a recent article he wrote entitled Baseball's Disparities. Merriam-Webster's online defines "shill" as "one who acts as a decoy (as for a pitchman or gambler); also : one who makes a sales pitch." That would appear to be someone who acts at another's behest. Shame on anyone for calling Will a shill (even if it rhymes). I take exception at such a description of such a popular and respected gentleman. Will is far from a shill; rather he is an outright scoundrel. Anyone calling him a shill owes every shill in America an apology. The article of which I spoke (wrote?) is dated August 11, and it has taken me this long to remove the remnants of bile (figuratively) from my system. That this individual occupies a position of respect and authority on any subject, but especially on baseball, is perhaps the worst indictment of our society since they outlawed Pop Rocks because of the fictional death of Mikey from the Life cereal commercials.

So what is the cause of my consternation? Well, said George Will sits on the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel and then reports its findings in his article as if the were his own ideas and deductions. Well, that's not so bad if the information is factual, right? The panel consisted of 16 individuals, 12 of whom, as Doug Pappas states, "own or operate major league baseball teams. The four "independent" members are Yale president Richard C. Levin, who drafted the owners' 1989 salary cap proposal; former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, who represented the owners on the last blue-ribbon economic panel, in 1992; former Senator George Mitchell, often mentioned as a possible Commissioner; and columnist George Will, who in a remarkable conflict of interest serves on the boards of both the Orioles and the Padres." Does this sound like an independent body. But there's more re. Will: Hoovers online states it even more strongly, "the team's (Orioles') minority owners include author Tom Clancy, columnist George Will, filmmaker Barry Levinson, sportscaster Jim McKay, and tennis player Pam Shriver." I could not find any evidence that he is an actual owner of the Padres.

Wait a minute, I read his article (as well as his online bio) and nowhere does it mention that he is a minority owner or a board member of any team. Well, that must have been an oversight. Since George Will is obviously representing the owners' side, as he is an owner, there must be equal time given to the players' columnist. Sorry, the Washington Post does not believe in fair play nor does it investigate its columnists particular financial interests before providing them with a forum from which to vent their views. The First Amendment is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

Now that we know whom Will represents, let's take a look at the contents of his screed:

- First, he claims that the "players' union's primary objective is to protect the revenues of a very few very rich owners -- principally, the Yankees'." Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black? Will's primary objective is to protect the revenues of the owners-he is an owner. I guess when one is this duplicitous, one sees machinations in everyone else's actions. He can't be blamed.

- Next he claims that "[t]he owners' primary objective is a more egalitarian distribution of wealth." Were that true why not pool all of the revenues, negotiate all local television contracts as a unit, and openly share players? Well, the reason is that the owners don't want socialism- they want to redistribute the wealth when it is beneficial to them. George Steinbrenner does not want to distribute his wealth to anyone.

- "But the concept of "local revenues" is problematic, because no team sells a local product." So, again, pool all local revenues and split them.

- He does at least mention parenthetically that he served on the Blue Ribbon Panel. Though, again, no mention is made of his position on any team's board. And he only mentions the "civilians" on the panel, not the owners

- "Of the 224 postseason games since the 1994 strike, 219 have been won by teams in the top two payroll quartiles." This is lifted from the Panel's report. Why not at least quote it? Enough has been said about this gross misstatement.

- He points out that "[o]ne day this May the Mets fielded a $63 million starting lineup against a $4 million Padres lineup." The Mets are only 4.5 games better than San Diego, at 58-68. So much for problems with competitive balance.

- He has a egregious error that any fact checker, let alone an 8-year-old baseball fan, would find instantly. He says that "the National League was founded in 1879 , locally generated revenues sta[aid] with the local owner.." The NL was founded not in 1879 but in 1876. I know that this is not essential to his argument, but it illustrates the shoddy research put into the column. Besides, home teams did indeed share gate receipts with the visiting team in the early days of baseball. It was the only way to ensure that they would show up.

- As to the poor state of MLB, he avers, "Attendance is down for the third consecutive season (5.7 percent this year, which means almost $80 million in lost ticket revenue alone)." Here is table of total major-league attendance, the number of games, the attendance per game, the percent change from the previous year (Att./G.), and the percentage change overall (Att./G.) for 1990-2002 (sources: 1990-2000 Total Baseball, 2001 TSN Baseball Guide, 2002

 Year  Attendance   #G    Att/G  % prev.  % overall
1990  54,823,768  2,105  26,045    --      --
1991  56,813,760  2,104  27,003   3.68    3.68
1992  55,872,276  2,106  26,530  -1.75    1.86
1993  70,256,456  2,269  30,964  16.71   18.89
1994  50,010,016  1,600  31,256   0.95   20.01
1995  50,469,240  2,017  25,022 -19.95   -3.93
1996  60,097,384  2,267  26,510   5.95    1.79
1997  63,168,684  2,266  27,877   5.16    7.03
1998  70,339,808  2,432  28,923   3.75   11.05
1999  70,139,376  2,427  28,900  -0.08   10.96
2000  72,748,938  2,428  29,962   3.68   15.04
2001  72,416,945  2,429  29,813  -0.50   14.47
2002  53,934,156  1,889  28,552  -4.23    9.63

Note that attendance has not gone down the last three years. It went up over 3 percent in 2000, declined slightly (.5%) in 2001, and dropped 4.23 so far this year. There are many reasons for this: A) the numbers for 2002 are incomplete and may change (pennant drive). B) There were a number of new ballparks opening over the past few years, but none this year. New ballparks always cause an upward spike in attendance. And C) fans are turned off in general because of the negative press (contraction, lawsuits, etc.) and the labor negotiations. These troubles are to a large extent baseball's own doing. Besides, attendance is still almost 10% better than it was in 1990. By the way, the 5.7% drop in 2002 attendance is another fabrication that the owners, and therefore Will, have been proffering,

- He bemoans the state of the Giants, having to pay "$20 million yearly in interest on that park, which was built without public funds." It's as if a publicly-funded stadium is to be expected yet the owners have no qualms about contracting a team without input from the locals.

- His last claim is that "[n]egotiations are creeping at a glacial pace, primarily because the union is being dilatory." Who fired their chief negotiator this past offseason as talks were progressing? The owners maybe?

All I can do is quote Chuck D. in saying, "Don't believe the hype"-You can't believe anything George Will is saying.

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