Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
Last March, as COVID-19 had started to shut down most of society, I called a Lyft. There were not very many available at the time, as most drivers had reasonably retreated into their homes instead of hauling around potentially sick strangers. But I didn’t have my car, it was late and I needed a ride. It was the last rideshare I would take for many months.
Soon after I got in the car, the conversation inevitably turned to the emerging pandemic. It soon became clear that my driver, who alluded to a disheartening stint in the military, didn’t believe the coronavirus presented any real threat to us, but was instead a plot by the U.S. government to keep us inside. I was too tired to put up much of an argument and instead let him keep rambling on about that and whatever else he needed to get off his chest, which was a lot. Even a topic as benign as the weather wasn’t safe to broach. When talk veered to the rare Los Angeles rainstorm we were witnessing, he revealed his belief in the theory that the government could control the weather, and how that was just another sign “they” were trying to keep us inside. He also warned me about a civil war that’d break out by summertime, pitting the military and police against the country’s criminals, who were set to break out of prisons en masse—freed by undercover agents as some sort of inside job. It was a miserable, unsettling experience. I’m not one for conspiracies, and the only way you can make me entertain most of them is by trapping me in a car while someone else is driving.
But even I can understand why Pete Alonso publicly posited that Major League Baseball is engaged in a plot to screw over its free agents by manipulating its baseballs. And even if I don't believe it, he’s apparently far from the only player who subscribes to this conspiracy theory.
Let’s look at this from the point of view in the clubhouse: MLB purchased Rawlings in 2018 for $395 million, and has indeed tweaked the baseball to affect play to its liking. This is not for debate; what’s up for debate is the intent.
In 2019 the league juiced the ball, and home runs rose to levels even beyond the steroid era. Alonso set the rookie home run record. Five of Sports Illustrated’s top-eight free agents that year were pitchers—Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun Jin Ryu—which is a higher proportion than normal.
Ahead of the 2021 season, in an attempt to be more transparent, the league disclosed its plans to weaken the ball, and batting average has plunged to the depths of the Dead Ball era of the early 20th century. The projected top free agents for this coming offseason are almost all position players: Corey Seager, Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Michael Conforto, along with pitchers Kevin Gausman, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Alonso has yet to fully replicate the prodigious power he displayed in '19, and until an outburst of three homers in his past two games, was slugging at career-low levels.
As there are with most conspiracy theories, Alonso’s contains some obvious holes. The first is how long it takes to set up a production cycle of baseballs, which are tested ad nauseam. How would the league know which players set to be free agents down the road would keep performing well and refuse to sign contract extensions? The second is that even with incessant testing of the ball, the league has been seemingly caught off-guard by how it's played in actual games—surely they did not mean to remove so much action from the contemporary game. The third is the massive failure of the league to rob its most talented free agents, if that’s what they set out to do. The top-five pitchers of the aforementioned 2019 free-agent class combined to earn $852 million. Seager, Freeman, Bryant, Correa and Story could easily top that sum this winter.
And yet, as is the hallmark of any plausible conspiracy theory, you can’t entirely rule it out. That’s partially because the league has colluded against the players before, and not just once.
In the 1980s, the league illegally colluded to depress free-agent salaries three times. As part of the 2006 CBA, the league paid players $12 million to smooth over tensions about similar concerns, though without admitting guilt in a sort of no-contest plea.
The league has also eroded trust with players in slightly less nefarious ways. Under the current CBA, teams have blatantly delayed the clock on players’ service time to push back their ability to test their worth on the open market. Former Mariners president Kevin Mather admitted as much in February, and subsequently resigned for pulling back the curtain.
Last summer, commissioner Rob Manfred walked back his earlier statement that “we’re going to play baseball in 2020, 100%,” plunging the '20 MLB season—and players’ paychecks—into doubt. The players union accused the league of negotiating in “bad faith” with an intent from the start to extract “additional pay cuts from players.” Obviously, they eventually came to an agreement, but not before a whole lot of goodwill was wasted.
Now, is there any evidence for corrupt manipulation of the baseball, beyond the circumstantial kind? Nope, and don’t count on anything cropping up. It’s entirely reasonable to think that the league wanted to boost offense for the sake of the sport before 2019, then course-corrected when the juiced ball produced more homers than intended. Occam’s razor often reigns supreme. But the mere fact that Alonso would feel compelled to sidestep a question about sticky stuff and redirect attention to this theory is alarming for the future of the sport.
Let’s go back to my apprehensive Lyft driver for a moment. The government had let him down when he was in the military, and he seemingly let that experience color his entire belief system. He lost faith in the powers that be, and it seemed as though it’d take something miraculous to regain it.
Alonso and countless other players have seen their statistics and salaries affected by means beyond their control. In the coming offseason, players and owners will have to come to the table to hammer out a new CBA. There are plenty of issues to sort out, including but not limited to a depressed market for veteran free agents, postseason expansion, a luxury tax line that's functioning as a salary cap, pace of play and a universal designated hitter. Let’s hope the players haven’t completely lost faith in the integrity of the owners, and that neither side is pushed to cross the point of no return in negotiations. If MLB can’t convince its players to believe the league is operating in good faith, how will the two parties be able to come to an agreement to share billions of dollars?
Between 1972 and '94, MLB endured eight work stoppages. There technically haven’t been any since, but last summer's delayed start may serve as a preview of what's to come. With trust between the two sides nearing an all-time low amid a massive drop in revenue to bring down the mood even more, we could be due to witness the sort of strike that's called not by umpires but by the players.
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