This excerpt appears in the book Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency by Daniel Gilbert. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview and read Bill’s book review.)
Ichiro’s phenomenal debut season in Seattle, in which he led his team to a runaway division title and a showdown with the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, helped Mariners fans get over the departure of the previous face of the franchise: star shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Following the 2000 season, “A-Rod,” widely considered one of the best players of his generation, signed a ten-year $252 million free agent contract with the Texas Rangers. For Seattle fans this marked the second consecutive winter of catastrophic loss, coming on the heels of Ken Griffey Jr.’s departure for his hometown of Cincinnati after the 1999 campaign. When Rodriguez returned to Seattle for the first time with his new team in April, sellout crowds at Safeco Field greeted the former Mariner with thunderous boos. Some in attendance even showered the field with fake $100,000 bills, protesting the player’s apparent choice of money over loyalty to his first major league home.
There was a certain irony in the spectacle of Seattle’s baseball fans mocking A-Rod while rallying behind Ichiro, who himself had only recently changed jerseys in pursuit of a lucrative opportunity in a new city. As the Safeco Field crowd’s alternate booing and cheering suggests, fans and players alike have had to become increasingly adept at the art of flexible affiliation. To connect with their teams, communities must engage in nimble acts of fiction writing, embracing each year’s roster of athletes as hometown heroes, in spite of the crude reality of MLB’s marketplace of athletic talent.
Fans’ collective revisions of local identity, like the annual acts of player mobility and roster replenishment with which they are inextricably linked, have come to define Major League Baseball in the age of free agency. New practices—and politics—of flexibility lie at the heart of three of the baseball industry’s most significant developments in the early years of the twenty-first century: the growth of the World Baseball Classic, the increasing popularity of fantasy baseball leagues, and the public revelation of players’ use of banned performance-enhancing substances.
One of the most conspicuous developments in the baseball industry in recent years has been the World Baseball Classic (WBC). Held for the first time in 2006, reprised in 2009 and 2013, and scheduled to be repeated at four-year intervals thereafter, this round-robin tournament pits national teams against one another in a format modeled on soccer’s World Cup. Reflecting the balance of power in the industry’s labor relations, the MLBPA has been a core partner in the WBC from the beginning. While one long-term ambition for the contest is to develop new territories of baseball interest, the event relies first and foremost on fan investment from established national strongholds.
One nation that has figured especially prominently in the early history of the WBC is Cuba, making the tournament a relatively rare instance in which the country’s athletes have competed against the rest of the baseball world’s top professional players. Cuba advanced to the championship game in 2006 with hard-fought wins over both Venezuela and Puerto Rico, showcasing the exemplary play that had long defined Cuban teams’ performance in international amateur competition. But the Cubans ultimately fell in the championship game to a great team from Japan, led by Ichiro Suzuki. The iconic Mariner and his fellow Japanese stars continued their WBC dominance in 2009, this time besting South Korea in the final game. In the wake of their back-to-back victories, Japanese players campaigned for a larger share of WBC revenue. In July 2012 the Nippon Professional Baseball Players Association announced that its members would sit out in 2013 unless the tournament’s profits could be distributed more equitably. The players did not back down until Nippon Professional Baseball officials negotiated a new agreement on sponsorship rights with WBC organizers.
Seeking audiences across the baseball world, the WBC builds on a signature element of Major League Baseball’s transnational business model: tapping into communities of fans through the popularity of local stars. But the tournament has at times placed athletes’ multiple identities and constituencies in conflict. Ichiro, for example, faced criticism in 2009 from some members of the Seattle sports media over whether his commitment to winning a WBC championship for Japan might hinder his preparation for the upcoming MLB season. Alex Rodriguez confronted scrutiny of a different sort as he struggled to decide which national team to join. Born in New York City, Rodriguez spent parts of his childhood in both Santo Domingo and Miami. In this way he exemplified the complex transnational identity shared by millions of Dominican Americans. WBC rules allow players to represent either their own or their parents’ native country, and in 2006 Rodriguez labored over his decision before announcing that he would play for the U.S. team, drawing rebuke from multiple quarters. An injury forced him to sit out the 2009 WBC, but not before he had declared his intention to join the Dominican team, inviting a new wave of criticism. The public controversies over the terms of players like Ichiro and A-Rod’s participation in the World Baseball Classic underscored how central flexible citizenship had become to the sport by the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Fantasy baseball, in which fans draft and manage imaginary teams composed of major league players, competing against other “owners” to compile the best statistics over the course of the season, has become exceedingly popular in recent decades. Writer Daniel Okrent and his fellow members of the Rotisserie League (named for La Rotisserie Française, the Manhattan restaurant where early league meetings took place) have been credited with devising the first version of modern fantasy baseball in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, millions of fans were competing in leagues with the help of the expanded publication of statistics in print forums such as USA Today. But what had been a craze among a committed subculture of baseball nuts exploded into a much larger Internet-based phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dedicated websites processed pitch-by-pitch results from MLB games into real-time score updates for growing numbers of fantasy leagues.
The proliferation of fantasy leagues in the Internet era spurred MLBPA leaders and MLB officials alike to assert property rights to the player statistics essential to this growing offshoot of the baseball business. Starting in the 1990s, the MLBPA signed licensing agreements with a number of fantasy content providers. The union’s approach in this area grew naturally out of the long, profitable history of collective licensing that dated back to Marvin Miller’s first years as MLBPA executive director. In 2005, MLB’s division for Internet-based business initiatives, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), signed a $50 million five-year deal with the union to acquire players’ licensing rights for fantasy leagues and related online content. When in short order MLBAM declined to ink a deal with St. Louis–based CBC Distribution and Marketing, a fantasy content provider with which the MLBPA had worked since 1994, a legal fight ensued. Faced with the prospect of being shut out of its own industry, CBC brought a successful suit against both MLBAM and the MLBPA. CBC won the case by arguing that player statistics, which have long been widely available through newspapers and other media, are in the public domain.
The CBC court fight was a significant development in the baseball business, and not just for its implications for the future viability of fantasy content providers. The fact that Major League Baseball’s players and team owners were positioned on the same side of a legal battle over property rights was a sign—like their joint investment in the World Baseball Classic—of the MLBPA’s power in the industry. Union–management collaboration in marketing and licensing initiatives such as branded fantasy content and the WBC unfolded in an era of relative labor peace which distinguished baseball from the other major professional sports in the United States. That baseball’s owners and union officials hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement without a great deal of rancor in the fall of 2011 was notable in light of the bitter lockouts that rocked professional football (2011), basketball (2011), and hockey (2012–13) during the same period. The MLBPA’s strong and stable position in the industry, particularly when seen against the backdrop of tense struggles faced by athletes and their organizations in other sports, provides further evidence of ballplayer unionism’s enormous impact over the four decades since Marvin Miller visited spring training camps for the first time.
Fantasy baseball matters not simply as an important feature of the business of baseball but as an increasingly widespread form of spectatorship. Unlike some fans, whose interest in baseball news might not extend far beyond their favorite team, committed fantasy leaguers depart from conventional place-based forms of engagement, keeping tabs on every MLB player and top prospect. Allowing fans to organize their own “home” teams, and requiring neither physical proximity to the ballpark nor access to local broadcasts, fantasy baseball lends itself especially well to the cultivation of fans who fall outside MLB’s traditional arrangements of territorial identity. Just as significant, the enterprise privileges a form of spectatorship centered on individual athletes’ “metrics” rather than on MLB teams’ collective accomplishments.
With its growing legions of imaginary executives, the fantasy phenomenon resonates with a larger trend in baseball storytelling. As personnel transactions have become more and more a part of the drama of Major League Baseball in the age of free agency, general managers have themselves become stars. Consider the 2011 feature film Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling account of Beane’s innovative approach to reappraising undervalued talent, Moneyball marked a key development in films about baseball, making the front office the center of the action. Nominated for an Academy Award, Pitt’s portrayal of Beane may prove as iconic for new generations of baseball fans, who have grown up playing in fantasy leagues and tracking off-season free agent transactions, as Gary Cooper’s Lou Gehrig and Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs were in their own day. Though contractual dramas have figured in popular baseball narratives since the nineteenth century, free agency has engendered a heightened attention to the work of evaluating, recruiting, and managing athletic talenFor many baseball fans, the turn of the twenty-first century will always be known principally by one designation: the steroid era. Whispers and rumors about doping in baseball had circulated since the late 1980s, but the first decade of the new century saw a cascade of public scrutiny when performance-enhancing drugs became the subject of tell-all memoirs, congressional investigations, and collective bargaining between major league players and their teams. In response to the scandal, league officials implemented mandatory random testing, first in the minors and later—following a 2002 agreement with the union—in MLB. The results of the drug testing programs quickly pointed up a striking global division in the impact of performance enhancement.
Since the beginning of baseball’s anti-doping program, Latin American athletes have represented a disproportionate number of those testing positive, at both the major and minor league levels. Players from the Dominican Republic in particular have tested positive for steroids at a noticeably high rate, accounting for 38 percent of positive tests between 2005 and 2009, while representing only 17 percent of all players at the time. The large number of Dominican athletes among sanctioned players is a product of their nation’s position in the political economy of the contemporary baseball world. The rise of the Dominican Republic as a key site of MLB talent development has created powerful dreams for many young Dominican ballplayers from impoverished backgrounds, for whom the baseball academies promise a shot at a better life than seems possible working in the nation’s tourist industry, free trade zones, or informal economy. With the stakes so high, many young players—and those around them with a financial interest in their future careers in the big leagues—are willing to put their bodies at risk for a chance at a contract. With steroids available both over the counter and under the table, their use has grown widespread throughout Dominican baseball, even as MLB officials have instituted testing in the academies and the Dominican Summer League.
Players who use performance-enhancing drugs without medical supervision assume deadly risk. In 2001, two Dominican prospects died after taking veterinary steroids. Eighteen-year-old William Felix succumbed to a heart attack after several months of self-administered shots. Lino Ortiz, age nineteen, perished three days after injecting himself in advance of his third tryout with an MLB team, reportedly out of desperation to improve his chances of impressing the scouts. In the years since these tragic deaths, especially in the wake of the larger steroid controversy in Major League Baseball, U.S. baseball executives have responded to pressure by advocates for Dominican player safety with increased drug testing and additional resources for education and prevention among the nation’s prospects. There are, however, substantial limits to such reform efforts. MLB’s academy system, in which work contracts and signing bonuses are awarded on the basis of scouts’ assessments of the potential contained in young athletes’ bodies, presents powerful incentives for gaining every possible physical advantage.
While the stories of young men like William Felix and Lino Ortiz stand as reminders of the inequalities that structure baseball as a transnational culture industry, the most prominent episodes in the steroid controversy in recent years have centered on stars. Some of Major League Baseball’s most famous players, including Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez, have had their remarkable achievements on the diamond called into question by allegations (and, in some cases, admissions) that they used steroids or human growth hormone. A distinguishing characteristic of the public response to baseball’s steroid era has been an intense focus on individuals, and on individual guilt. From José Canseco’s bombshell memoir, Juiced, to Major League Baseball’s own internal investigation headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, to the series of congressional hearings on the matter, the public has been invited to reckon with the steroid era through rituals of naming names.
The widespread focus on personal culpability is closely tied to the privileged place that individual records occupy in baseball history. Commentators and fans have expressed outrage that Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, star players linked to steroid use, hold the iconic home run records previously set by Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. But there is more at stake in the outrage over performance enhancement than respect for the statistical accomplishments of earlier heroes. Stars’ alleged use of steroids threatens to undermine a core cultural identity attached to athletes more broadly—their ability to stand as ideal representations of individual agency. It is a measure of our powerful cultural investment in individualism that the most dominant response to the steroid era has been to scorn players like McGwire and Bonds as “cheaters” or betrayers of fair play, rather than to call into question the larger structures of power and ideologies of competition under which ballplayers labor.
It remains to be seen whether a deeper cultural conversation about the political economy of athletic performance can grow out of baseball’s steroid era. The successive waves of accusations and revelations have certainly brought new focus to the laboring bodies of star athletes. While the drugs in question help build muscle, they also help heal. Like Jim Bouton’s “greenies” and the other substances that generations of professional athletes have taken to allow them to go back out on the field, day after day, steroids are as much performance enabling as they are performance enhancing. In this sense the sport’s doping controversies have revealed some of the physical pain and abuse that elite athletes must endure on the job in order to make Major League Baseball what it is. This is not to suggest that players are powerless victims. On the contrary, the forms of player power that have shaped the modern baseball industry have likewise done much to establish the stakes and debates of the steroid era. That is, as a union defined by its commitment to a labor politics of free market individualism, the MLBPA has helped set the stage for the performances of accusation and guilt that have done so much to define recent baseball history. Although star power has clearly served MLB players well in many respects, the measures of personal risk and solitary blame that athletes continue to bear suggest some of the limits and contradictions of a workplace ethic of individual exceptionalism.
Even in the wake of the steroid scandals and through the lean years of the “Great Recession,” Major League Baseball has remained extraordinarily popular. Fans throughout the baseball world continue to find value and meaning in the work that big league players perform. While some athletes have seen their reputations profoundly tarnished by allegations of drug use, others have been held up as unimpeachable examples of principled hard work. For every Alex Rodriguez, forced to carry the burden of blame for his industry’s widespread culture of performance enhancement, there is an Ichiro Suzuki, singled out as a model of clean play. Although no longer leading the American League in hits every year, after more than a decade with the Mariners, Ichiro remained one of the sport’s most captivating stars.
Ichiro’s iconic status made July 23, 2012, an especially dramatic day in the baseball world, when the Mariners traded their longtime star to the New York Yankees, in exchange for two minor league pitching prospects. Having played for more than ten years in MLB, and over five with the same team, Ichiro was protected against being traded under the “ten–five” rule, which team owners and the union had agreed to in the wake of Curt Flood’s historic challenge to the reserve clause. In the immediate aftermath of the move, Mariners officials announced that the player had come to them earlier in the season to request a trade if it could improve the team’s prospects for rebuilding into a World Series contender once more. Joining a new team might also provide Ichiro with the opportunity to pursue his primary remaining objective in MLB: to play in a World Series himself. An additional factor was the growing sense—unimaginable just a few years earlier—that there would be at least a measure of public support for a deal. Ichiro still showed flashes of his former brilliance, but by 2012 his skills had slipped to the point where some Seattle sports commentators—including his former teammate Jay Buhner—registered their strong conviction that the team should move on without the player whom many regarded as worthy of eventual recognition in Cooperstown.
On the day of the trade, before he assumed his new role with the Yankees, Ichiro held a press conference to bid farewell to Seattle and reflect on his career with the Mariners. “Thank you for the last eleven and a half years,” he said through his interpreter. Speaking slowly, with emotion audible in his voice, the star player went on to describe his choice to request a trade as a difficult but necessary next step for himself and his now former team. Seen in the larger context of Major League Baseball’s labor history, his comments are especially meaningful. Thanks to the struggles of earlier generations of athletes like Curt Flood, Ichiro had been able to exercise substantial agency in determining his professional future.
Hours after his press conference, Ichiro played for the first time as a visitor at Safeco Field. He received an enormous standing ovation before his first at-bat in the gray Yankees uniform, taking two deep bows in response to the crowd’s loud, sustained cheers. The moment became an opportunity for an imagined community of baseball fans to honor a departing hero. Ichiro’s leaving occurred under far more compelling circumstances than those of departing free agents of earlier years, including his new teammate Alex Rodriguez, who after moving from the Mariners to the Rangers in 2000 had since been acquired by the Yankees, in another blockbuster trade. But much more than a matter of celebrating one athlete in comparison to others, the crowd’s ovation was a form of collective reckoning with historical change, a shared acknowledgement of the end of an era. For fans who had rooted for Ichiro’s Seattle Mariners, his first at-bat with the Yankees presented a rare chance to say good-bye, not only to a great player but also to a period in their own cultural history.
Baseball remains a captivating cultural form because we continue to celebrate athletes for the labor they perform on behalf of the communities they represent, in spite of the dollar signs attached. Perhaps the powerful applause at such moments as Ichiro’s farewell registers as an index of longings for collective purpose in the face of the free market individualism that has defined our era, however elusive such dreams may be. Does the future hold a world—baseball or otherwise—in which more people enjoy real freedom and agency in their own lives, with the opportunity to leave their mark as part of something larger than themselves? If baseball teaches us anything, it is to have faith that history remains to be written, and that there is always hope for what the next season may bring.