Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2008

Baseball and capitalism

Filed under: commercialism — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm
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Willie Randolph: fired and humiliated

Last night, just around midnight, Willie Randolph—the New York Mets baseball team manager and first African-American manager in New York baseball history—was fired by the team’s general manager Omar Minaya along with two of his coaches. The firing took place in a California hotel during a road trip. The media had been predicting Randolph’s firing for at least a month since the team was losing more games than it was winning despite the third largest payroll in baseball.

On WFAN this morning, NY’s all-sports radio station from which Mets games are broadcast, the host was railing against the Wilpons, the team’s owners, and Minaya for treating Randolph in such a shabby fashion. Why did they have to wait until he was 3000 miles away to fire him? Mike Vaccaro, a NY Post reporter, described it this way:

This? This is unspeakable. These men couldn’t have been fired in New York, before heading on a plane and flying 3,000 miles to their doom? They couldn’t have been spared the ignominy of a public perp walk back east, their dignity thrown into their carry-on luggage?

Really?

Is this the best the Mets can do? Is this really what they are about? Can they really consider themselves a professional operation when they do the simplest task in sports, firing the manager, this wretchedly?

My response is that of course they are a professional operation. That is how the bosses routinely treat employees, as I discovered after I left Goldman-Sachs. One morning, about 15 long-time managers were escorted by security guards with all their belongings shortly after discovering that they could no longer logon to the email system in the morning. The humiliation taught the remaining management who was in charge.

Fred Wilpon: N.Y. Mets owner and tax cheat

Fred Wilpon, the owner of the N.Y. Mets (his son Jeff is co-owner), is a real estate developer. If you know anything about N.Y. real estate, you can only wonder why the Wilpons did not have Willie whacked by a mafia hit-man.

In 2002, Fred Wilpon and other real estate barons bribed the city’s property tax assessors to illegally slash their tax bills. The city’s finance commissioner said, “We found a definite understatement of value with these properties. We set out to revalue them using standard assessment procedures. The end result is a higher tax bill.” If you want another example of this kind of double-dealing, you should study the early years of the Cuban revolution. When Castro decided to nationalize some American corporations, he paid them the same amount that Batista’s corrupt tax assessors has assigned. When they squealed about how unfair that was, Castro reminded them that they should have never tried to cheat the Cuba people to begin with.

Evidently, the Wilpons were not just unhappy with the Mets’s performance under Willie Randolph; they also were incensed that he had the nerve to talk about the problems facing Blacks in professional sports.

In an interview with the Bergen Record, a New Jersey paper, Randolph was asked whether black managers are held to different standards than their white counterparts. He replied:

I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but I think there’s something there. Herman Edwards did pretty well here and he won a couple of playoff [games], and they were pretty hard on Herm. Isiah [Thomas] didn’t do a great job, but they beat up Isiah pretty good. … I don’t know if people are used to a certain figurehead. There’s something weird about it.

The Wilpons reacted to this as if it were a Reverend Jeremiah Wright sermon. After he was summoned to their office and bawled out, Randolph carried out what amounted to a Maoist self-criticism:

First of all, I want to apologize to Met ownership, SNY and my team for the unnecessary distraction that I created, that I caused the last couple of days. I shouldn’t have said what I said. It was a mistake. Simple as that, it was a mistake. There’s no excuses for that. No excuses for it. I’m owning up to it.

Randolph is not the only Met manager whose performance was put under a microscope. Minaya is in the hot-seat as well since he hired the expensive free agents who are underperforming.

Omar Minaya: Mets general manager accused of reverse racism

There is also a racial dimension to the flak that Minaya is taking since he—a Dominican—has been accused of favoring Latino players. A few years ago the Mets traded their pitcher Kris Benson to the Baltimore Orioles. His wife, a former model and dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, accused Minaya of building an “all-Latino” team. Although I had always favored the Mets, this was enough to turn me into a rabid fan, especially when one of the Latinos was Carlos Delgado.

Carlos Delgado: political progressive past his prime

Delgado, a Puerto Rican, has been deeply involved with the movement to stop Vieques from being used as a testing ground for U.S. bombing runs. He was also against invading Iraq. During the 2004 season, Delgado protested the war by remaining silent in the dugout when the horrible “God Bless America” was played during the seventh inning stretch.

Unfortunately, Delgado’s performance on the field is not on a par with his politics. Like a number of the very expensive Latino free agents that Minaya lined up, they were past their prime. This is the consequence of trying to buy a baseball championship. Right now, some of the top teams have the lowest payroll. Sooner or later, some wealthier team will purchase their top players but at the risk of buying a faded rose. In the off-season, Minaya managed to acquire Johann Santana, a Venezuelan two-time winner of the Cy Young award. Many commentators thought that Santana’s best years were behind him, however, and his less than spectacular performance this year might bear that out. Of course, the mediocre hitting of the Mets was a factor in several of his losses.

One other source of top Latin talent is revolutionary Cuba, where baseball players and other athletes are expected to shun big contracts of the sort that Santana enjoys. Since there is enormous economic pressure on Cuba, affecting even the elite, it should not come as a surprise that Cuban baseball players defect to the U.S. on a regular basis.

An alternative model

In a long article titled “Commie Ball: A Journey to the End of a Revolution” that appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine, financial journalist Michael Lewis reveals the slim pickings that face North Americans who want to exploit Cuba’s human resources:

For the 30 players who traveled with the Cuban national team, quitting Communism for the big leagues has been as simple as missing the bus or hopping the wall in left field. But relatively few Cuban players have left their island and almost none of the best. What has come to the U.S., instead, is a rattlebag of players past their prime, players in political trouble, players injured, and players who were never very successful in Cuba. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez escaped by boat in 1997, when he was in his early 30s, and became a star with the Yankees—but he had spent most of his prime in Cuba, and insisted that he never would have left had he not been banned from baseball by the Cuban government because his half-brother, Livan, had fled Cuba two years earlier. Gus Dominguez’s former client Rey Ordoñez, who spent seven years as the starting shortstop for the New York Mets, left Cuba in 1993 only after it became clear that he was blocked by better players from starting for his Cuban team, the Havana Industriales.

U.S. agents seeking to convince Cuban ballplayers to defect have a tough time entering Cuba, but the doors are always open for people who simply love the sport in harmony with the island’s socialist values. One of them is Kit Krieger, a former head of British Columbia’s 41,000-member teachers’ union. Michael Lewis reports:

There were no official Friends of Cuban Baseball, and so Kit Krieger became an unofficial one. “I have the largest collection of Cuban-autograph baseballs in Canada,” he says. “The second-largest is 31 million people tied, with none.” Once he went to Cuba with paper and pencils and schoolbooks; now he goes with bats and balls and gloves. He meets with team managers and players and league officials. He became close friends with Communist Party officials who shared his love of baseball.

It strains the resources of a retired schoolteacher living on his pension to medicate half of Cuba’s old-timers and equip some large number of young Cuban baseball players, and creates domestic problems in the bargain. “My wife thinks I’m being used,” he says. “And she’s right. I am being used. But so what? These people have nothing.” In 2001, to supplement his pension, he created a small company, called Cubaball, to introduce baseball fanatics to Cuba. Most of the people who go on these trips aren’t anyone’s idea of normal. They all know more than any human being should about Cuban baseball history, and perform, for the benefit of the locals, astonishing feats.

Michael Lewis is the author of “Liar’s Poker”, an excellent book about Wall Street financial cutthroats. He knew this world from experience, having started out as a bond salesman for Salomon Brothers, a firm that once employed me as well. In 2003, he wrote a book titled “Moneyball” that investigated the success of the Oakland A’s, a successful professional team that was under-funded, just like the teams that have shot ahead of the budget-busting N.Y. Mets.

With his fascination about price/performance ratios, Lewis is at a loss to explain how Cuban society works, especially within the baseball stadiums. It starts with the snack vendors who resist the temptation to rip him off when he overpays:

Up in the stands are three ladies with trays of peanuts and cookies and whatnot. I grab a few sacks of peanuts and some weirdly wrapped cookies and ask them how much for the lot. “Five pesos,” they say, and so I give them five of what the foreign-exchange lady at the Havana airport had given me. Wrong! I’d paid them 25 times the going rate for peanuts and cookies, and the ladies are so delighted and startled that they try to give me their entire store.

And it extends to the souvenir stands, or lack thereof:

What’s even odder is what is not sold: souvenirs. It’s hard to imagine an American baseball game without jerseys and autographed balls and bobble-head dolls being hawked for outrageous sums. There’s none of that in Cuba.

And to top it all off, there’s the players themselves who play for seeming peanuts:

Officially the players aren’t paid at all for playing baseball but for some other “job” they hold. “Coach,” say, or “sports counselor.” For their phony jobs they get 250 Cuban pesos a month. The 520 players in the Cuban National Series receive, in total, $60,000 a year. In theory, the entire Cuban league could be bankrolled with roughly one-seventh of the salary of a rookie big-league benchwarmer.

The rest of Lewis’s article is interesting, but contains the typical jibes at a society that does not operate on the profit motive. He accuses Cuba’s baseball players of supplementing their meager income with black market sales of sports gear, something he presumably finds reprehensible. One might hope that with his interest in Cuban baseball and an obvious affection for the Cuban people he might work for an end to the blockade which creates the economic difficulties that provide a fertile ground for the black market.

On Saturday and Sunday I like to run in Central Park. I always stop at the baseball fields on the east side of the park, near 102nd street to take in an inning or two of baseball. It is much more fun than watching it on television since you can stand very close to the action. I like to stand behind home plate and watch the ball speeding toward the batter. When he connects, there is a solid crack of the bat that television can never approximate. Plus, you get to hear the banter between the players, a very important part of the sport.

Pancho Coimbre

Last Saturday I stopped to chat with the manager of one of the teams and learned a bit more about the teams. They are organized through the auspices of the Pancho Coimbre Baseball League. None of them earn a penny but local businesses contribute to a fund that pays for uniforms and gear. In others words, these mostly Latino players are in it for pleasure rather than profit. As such, they have an affinity with the Cubans.

Coimbre played professional ball in Puerto Rico in the 30s and 40s. After leaving Puerto Rico, he played with the New York Cubans, who were part of the Negro Baseball League. Following his retirement Coimbre began managing teams in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations. It was in Puerto Rico that Coimbre discovered the great Roberto Clemente, who he helped recruit to the major leagues in the U.S. (Clemente died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering goods to the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua.) In the wiki entry on Coimbre, learn that he promoted an ideology that focused in the performance of the team, instead of the success of individual players. Coimbre died on November 4, 1989, when he was trapped in a house fire. The Central Park-based teams play in a league quite rightly named in his honor.

A September 5, 1994 Newsweek article explains the economics of the Pancho Coimbre league. Many of New York’s Latinos cannot afford the price of a ticket to watch the Yankees or the Mets. And the prices cited below are from 14 years ago. They are much higher today.

I make $ 7 an hour,” says Luis Rivera, 40, a cook who coaches a neighborhood peewee team. “I have four kids. If I go to the stadium, I can only take one.” It costs $ 29 a month just to watch most of the games on cable TV, and parts of the neighborhood still aren’t even wired for cable.

Given these harsh economic realities, they did what was necessary to satisfy their love of the sport:

Instead, Latino immigrants have imported their own baseball — and some say it’s better. Owners in the Paneho Coimbre Athletic League, named after a Puerto Rican star in the old Negro Leagues, put up $ 5,000 each to field teams of dazzling young players from around the city. A training ground for big-leaguers like the Blue Jays’ Devon White, Pancho Coimbre attracts hundreds of fans every weekend in Central Park. Its 71-year-old president, Jose Calderon, says the striking pros might learn something from organizations like his. “This league’s only for one purpose — to play ball,” he says from his beach chair behind home plate. “We have no drugs. No fights. If you want to have a beer after the game, you can have it. But not in uniform. If I see that, I’ll suspend them.” In Puerto Rico, Calderon says, the pros stay active in youth leagues and teach kids to play. Here the players demand even more money — while Calderon’s teams play on dirt and gravel. “In Yankee Stadium, we’ve got Latin guys making millions of dollars,” says Lueis Vazquez, who at 34 is one of the league’s retired legends. “What do they do with it?”

To watch the Pancho Coimbre teams in action, just go to Central Park on any Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It is a welcome break from the scummy world of capitalist sports.

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