A non-refundable $45 fee on a bank statement whose existence cannot be explained by anyone; Raytheon’s Twitter account responding to a jape from Lockheed Martin’s Twitter account with a GIF of a grimacing Steve Carell from an episode of The Office; a show on The Learning Channel that is just goateed men dropping bricks on each other from increasingly great heights; the broader vibe and actual experience of Netflix; a meme on a relative’s Facebook page in which a Minion is dressed like a police officer for reasons that are not immediately clear. All strong competitors, to be sure, but for my money the most patently and potently of-this-moment experience currently available is that of being talked down to by an extremely rich person who is obviously dumber than you.
Our present moment feels uniquely defined and governed by the vanity and shortsightedness and manifest fuckery-prone unworthiness of society’s ostensible betters. We live in the wreckage that these people and their failings have made, but also with the moments in which they deign to explain that The Wreckage Is In Fact Actually Good, And You’re Welcome. The deference demanded by the people that own everything and their repeated howling stupid failures do not coexist easily, or comfortably. Chicago Cubs fans know.
The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, and have a current PECOTA projection of 79 wins for the 2019 season; it was 80 wins before the Brewers re-signed Mike Moustakas, and it’s PECOTA’s 80-82 projection that appears, presumably as a motivational gambit, on the team-issued workout schedule early in spring training. Both projections have the Cubs in fifth place in the five-team NL Central. This is glaring because the Cubs won that World Series and because they looked, at the time, like a nascent dynasty—rich and good and smart in the ways teams need to be rich and good and smart, with valuable players on the big league roster and percolating in the minors. They seem less like that now, but it is February and what a baseball team seems like in February is not really a very important thing.
It could happen, though. The Kansas City Royals declined in a similar fashion—they won 81 and 80 games in the two seasons after winning the World Series, and then collapsed to 58 last year—but also they are the Kansas City Royals, which is to say they are one of the dozen or so MLB teams that don’t really make any great show of trying to win a World Series in a given year. They are in retrenchment mode now, and will likely remain there for some time. The Cubs are not that. The Cubs are rich and powerful and command a much bigger media market; the Cubs’ owners are richer and their executives considered to be much more brilliant; their active roster is so much better than Kansas City’s that it’s honestly weird to compare the two, which are alike in the same way that a cruise ship and a barge overloaded with rotting brown fruit are both more or less boats. The Cubs have some very good players and not all that much behind them and suffered for that last October; they quite intentionally have done virtually nothing to improve their team this offseason, for reasons that owner Tom Ricketts recently said came down to the team “not [having] any more” money to spend to that end.” It is not the most objectionable statement attached to someone named Ricketts this offseason, but it’s not great, either, and not only because it seems so patently untrue.
Ricketts isn’t a great talker, but he has the confidence and ease of those born extremely rich, whether it’s explaining his father’s toweringly racist emails or his baseball team’s decision not to try to improve its active roster. The Cubs are counting on players who underperformed or were injured to return to form, and if those players do so the team likely will be very good; if those players don’t, there’s very little slack built into the roster (or in the upper minors) to insulate against the sort of outcome that PECOTA projected. There are a number of teams like this, but they’re not the sort of teams that generally get described as World Series contenders. They’re... well, they’re the Mets every year, or the Cleveland Indians this year—teams that have prioritized paying players less without quite committing to Strategic Badness. Teams that want to, as the Mets owners once put it, play “meaningful games in September” but aren’t willing to go the extra mile to be any better than that. That does not necessarily only mean spending money on players, but there are only so many ways for a team to get better and the ones that don’t involve spending money don’t work as well as the ones that do.
“I mean the fact is,” Ricketts explained to the media, “the correlation between your payroll and your wins is positive, but it’s not dispositive, it doesn’t decide how you’re gonna do.” The Lite Rumsfeldian archness of expression aside, at least the last part of Ricketts’ statement is true enough. But it’s also transparently a justification. There has been a great deal of this over the last few weeks, from owners and executives and Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has struck an aggrieved tone when confronted with the fact that camps opened with a number of the biggest free agents still unsigned. “This narrative that our teams aren’t trying is just not supported by the facts,” Manfred sniffed last week. “I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how hard a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be.” Manfred insisted that every MLB team wants to win, which if it is even true is also not relevant. It’s not about what teams want but what they do, or don’t. What owners want is at some point unknowable, or at least something that must be taken on faith. What they do and haven’t done is right there, as plain as it was a month ago, and for all of last offseason.
And what teams are doing, now as last offseason, is expressing their priorities. MLB owners are sick of paying players, and keen to keep more of the record revenues that the league is throwing off. That they are not saying this explicitly is no reason to disbelieve your own eyes as you watch it happen. That the things they are saying instead are so unconvincing—these perfectly circular blobules of management-speak and patient paternalistic explanations that up is not necessarily the same thing as not-down—is its own sort of evidence; there would be no reason to say any of this if things were working the way they were supposed to work. That Manny Machado wound up signing a record contract with the San Diego Padres is not proof that, as Tom Verducci had it in Sports Illustrated, “free agency is fine.” The fact that Verducci even felt compelled to say so is, in a roundabout way, proof that it isn’t. In this case, it seems safe to believe what you see. Which is not a proper Randian capital strike, exactly, with a bunch of steely railroad titans letting waves of their faceless lessers starve or choke for reasons of pure pissy principle, but what Tom Scocca called “a capital tantrum, in which people and corporations come completely unhinged at even the mildest suggestion that they should slow down their unchecked looting.”
This is not, whatever Manfred says to the contrary, healthy or normal or anything that anyone should feel uncomfortable criticizing. It is a rich kid’s snit sliding towards something more serious, and if you want baseball to be competitive and fun and fair, it sucks like crazy. No rich person alive has a better deal than Major League Baseball’s owners, who enjoy an extremely luxurious bespoke mutation of socialism that only they can access and an exemption from the more inconvenient parts of national labor law. That all that is somehow still not enough is human nature, maybe, but it’s also very much their problem.
There’s no reason to pretend this is anything but what it still so obviously is. It’s not just greed, although it is that. It’s a pure and unreasoning and ultimately annihilating vanity—the determination to wreck something that already works very well for them not so much on principle but because, if you’re rich enough and dim enough and bored enough, it’s just boring to have so much and just keep on having it. At some level, surely even some of these preppy mutants and platinum-plated failson scions and ruddy old-school luxury creatures realize that having everything, which necessarily means taking back everything that’s been shared with anyone else, won’t work. Their bellies will burst; the yacht will tip over. They’re choosing it all the same, mostly because they can’t be bothered to choose anything else. It is all exactly what it appears to be.