No one but the 100 or so unemployed baseball players invited to attend was admitted to the shadow spring training that the MLB Players Association opened at Bradenton, Fla.’s IMG Academy on Wednesday. The press was banned from the facility, and reporters who tried to get in were turned away; at least one team sent someone to scout, then got anonymously huffy about it when that person was removed. The union has said that this is a training camp and not a tryout; any or all of the players currently taking BP and long-tossing at IMG are available for tryouts should teams ask. These players are getting in suitable shape for jobs that their track records suggest they are eminently qualified to have; they are doing it in this weird Schrödinger’s Camp held somewhere on a labyrinthine Florida sports campus because big league teams have decided, separately or together and for reasons no team has quite named, not to offer them those jobs.
That this camp is happening at all—that a whole ghost team of MLB players are sprinting and stretching, in secret and in parallel to the rest of the league—is both confounding and appropriate given how this offseason has gone. No one really knows who is at the camp; the Boras Corporation has made it known that their unsigned free agents are not in attendance, because they’ve got their own fields and batting cages and VR Lounges and High-Performance Juicers thanks very much. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors called three other agencies, and none of them copped to sending any players to the camp, either. If anything is in fact happening in there, it’s very difficult to say what or how big it is. It may be that on some back field in Bradenton, Bo Porter, the former Astros manager tasked with overseeing the camp, is just watching Melky Cabrera and Lucas Duda blearily play catch all day while Jeremy Hellickson boops around on his phone and pounds sunflower seeds. It would fit, and anyway I can’t tell you that’s not what’s happening. But if you were to take all the free agents that have not yet signed the contracts everyone expected them to sign this offseason and put them on the same roster, you would have a team that would have a good shot at a wild card in either league.
A few of those players have been signed in recent days, mostly to one- and two-year deals, but the heart of that ghost team’s order and top of the rotation and back end of the bullpen are intact. For all that we do not know for sure about how things came to this pass, it does seem like we are now closer to knowing the impact on the game when a third of big league teams effectively decide not to try to improve over the winter. After another brilliant and widely watched World Series, with revenues in robust health across the sport and with the state of the league a little top-heavy but otherwise extremely intriguing, Major League Baseball’s owners have kinda-sorta opted to stage a capital strike.
Some of this can be connected to let’s say broader trends in the culture re: rich people not even pretending to give a shit about anyone else anymore. There are various tactical reasons why a team might decide to retrench or actively tank a season or two, and incentives built into the collective bargaining agreement that provide cover for teams that don’t want to spend on players. But the only reason for a fucking third of the league to actively bag the offseason—and the only reason for the commissioner to defend it on the record—is that the plump John Galt cosplayers that own Major League franchises have decided that they really don’t care if you notice them actively bagging an offseason or two. It is not a new thing that powerful people would prioritize their own enrichment over broader obligations or that they would tell crude lies about doing so—that is, in fact, something like the history of these United States—but there is something insulting about how blithe and casual they are currently being about it, in baseball and elsewhere.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters this week that payrolls have kept pace with league revenues, which is a statement so hamfistedly and obviously false that it scans as an intentional provocation. Other statements—most recently the announcement that the commissioner’s office will unilaterally install some rule changes designed to speed up games, and will be notifying the Players Union and everyone else at a date to be determined—really just are actual overt provocations. A plurality of Major League teams taking the offseason all the way off falls somewhere in between those two. It can be explained in unconvincing terms; Manfred did so on Thursday, in a statement that included such soaring oratory as “the clubs have conducted themselves in a manner entirely consistent” with the collective bargaining agreement. But also there’s no real reason to explain it. It absolutely explains itself, and for months now the main question of this offseason has been not whether something untoward and anti-competitive is going on, but whether it’s the result of craven coincidence or craven collusion. Anyone can tell you that it’s wrong; the question is whether it’s actually illegal.
But I am not a lawyer, which is something I have in common with 38 percent of Deadspin’s readership. And anyway, as (actual attorney) Jason Wojciechowski wrote some years back, “if it’s not illegal, it’s legal” is not how the law works, in this area or in the broader breech in which we go about our days. Even an under-credentialed dope like me can tell you that this offseason has seen either the coincidental or coordinated collapse of basic good faith in a marketplace that cannot exist without them. I can also tell you what your favorite baseball team looks like once it slips the surly bonds of good faith business dealing. It looks like my stupid, stupid favorite team. It looks like the New York Mets.
Relative to the rest of the league and also in absolute terms, the Mets have had themselves a decent enough offseason. They pulled whatever remains of Adrian Gonzalez off the curb for the league minimum and seem prepared if not quite eager to call him their new first baseman. They signed a decent enough middle reliever to a market-rate contract and committed $39 million over three years to Jay Bruce, the likable unidimensional slugger they dealt at last year’s trade deadline for a minor league reliever named Ryder who had just been chosen in the 30th round. They also inevitably re-signed Jose Reyes at minimal cost and lucked into Todd Frazier on a two-year contract that will pay him just $8 million next year. On Friday, they signed the soft-tossing lefthanded starter Jason Vargas, who turned 35 last week, to a two-year, $16 million contract. The team’s ritual leak that its payroll has reached $150 million—which is true only if you include the $20 million due to the injured David Wright, which you should not do because insurance covers $15 million of that—unofficially brought the team’s offseason to a close.
As it stands right now, including their minor league contracts, roughly half of the players that the Mets have signed so far this offseason have previously played for the team at some point in the last few years; Vargas is different only in that his tater-strewn previous stint with the Mets came in 2007. The team’s payroll is lower than it was during their disappointing and injury-wrecked 2017 season and they could, like every other team, simply have plugged Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn into their rotation and turned a decent offseason into a great one. People like me, who are dumb enough to have placed some portion of our emotional wellbeing in the hands of the secretive junta of priggish Long Island weirdos in charge of this team, knew that they were never going to do this.
We knew, too, that they would never really feel compelled to explain why. There are phrases that the organization likes to use—Payroll Flexibility is one, a very adult-seeming phrase that doesn’t really have any utility unless the team’s owners have a lot less money than they should—and none of them can quite be classified as explanatory. They’re not quite obfuscatory, either. They are just words that describe the team’s opaque and weirdly involuted business processes. Ownership gives executives a number that represents a desirable payroll, and that number can go up or down according to various factors. How the number is derived is not fully known; the factors that move it up or down are not fully known, either.
But there is, in all this, the sense that no one involved is quite telling the entire truth. General Manager Sandy Alderson often seems to be sending coded messages of despair or exasperation through wry comments about his roster and transparently false assertions of satisfaction, which is sometimes amusing in a darkish way but not quite healthy. Alderson has gotten some things right and some things wrong, but what he is actually permitted to do by ownership remains a mystery.
The team’s owners, for their part, are visible but not really reachable. Fred Wilpon, the team’s senior owner, haunts the background of many of the team’s Spring Training photos, but hasn’t been quoted on the record since a 2011 New Yorker story in which he dourly badmouthed his team’s stars and generally revealed himself as the type of baseball thinker that Mike Francesa spent the last couple of decades impatiently hanging up on. The preferences and personality of Wilpon and his son Jeff, the team’s top decision makers, can mostly be discerned in the negative—through catty quotes fed to tabloids about the team’s players and especially recently jettisoned ex-players, through the sexual discrimination lawsuits that the team settles out of court, through the tremors of executive grumpiness that sometimes register in coverage of the team.
We’re guessing, always, but at this point the guesswork isn’t really that difficult; the team’s strange fetish for players that have previously been with the team, for instance, makes plenty of sense if you presume that the Wilpons, in keeping with their folkloric comment-section understanding of how things work, hold in high regard the amorphous capacity To Play In New York. That or the annual servings of underdressed business-school word salad and leadership mummery and corner-cutting could just be the Wilpons covering up the fact that they’re using the team to cover their own personal debts! Or both! I’d be guessing, and so would you.
Wilpon the Elder groused to friends earlier this offseason about the Yankees doing things like spending money on baseball players, which is not surprising—there is, among our nation’s wealthy septuagenarians, apparently an endless popping party line of unmotivated phone calls in which sour rich oldsters upload their gripes onto each other and gossip and presumably give each other tips on how to get divorced more effectively. What is surprising, or anyway strange, about Wilpon’s complaints about the Yankees is that they have less to do with how bad they make his team look in comparison than with his adherence to a weird principle. It’s “not sustainable,” Wilpon believes, to do things like trade a remaindered middle infielder and a pack of cinammon Dentyne for Giancarlo Stanton. It’s not that it’s not smart, although you have to consider the risk of your team becoming too good and also who’s to say if the reigning National League MVP has what it takes To Play In New York. It’s that it’s irresponsible. Leave aside, please, the fact that the New York Yankees are the working definition of sustainable when it comes to running successful teams onto the field. Irresponsible to whom?
Or, more to the point: to whom is Fred Wilpon responsible, really, as the owner of the New York Mets? The presence of the word “owner” in that last sentence does a lot to narrow the range of possible answers, obviously. But to assume that the answer is “nobody, really” is to accept a pretty crushing defeat, even if you are smart enough not to care about this dumb baseball team. It’s accepting a future in which the majority of Major League Baseball feels and operates in the broken and limited and self-defeating way that the Mets operate—at the whims of a few rich dopes, per their folkloric misapprehensions and according to their self-serving interests, in a way that is exactly as secret and unaccountable as they choose. Ownership becomes as inexorable and non-negotiable as the weather.
Again, that is not a new problem in this sport or in this culture. What is new, and what is urgent and worrying in a way that transcends the stubborn dopiness of the idiot team I love, is the sense that the counter-forces that prevented things from slipping out of balance no longer work. Those forces are not just an aggressive and ambitious players union but broader and bigger ideas—a commitment to bargain in basic good faith, to at least try to put a winning team on the field, to be forthright and responsible in addressing the fans whose money and attention make the league go. The Mets are a problem, but they are in a sense my problem. A league full of teams as shameless and shortsighted and unaccountable and brazenly backwards as the Mets is a problem bigger than that.