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Posted
February 1, 2005

Whose Ball?

The raw greed in the sporting world is appalling and, worse, sad.

My secret shrine was a flimsy metal cabinet in the bathroom in the basement. There, on the bottom shelf, stuffed between old yearbooks and math texts, was an object beyond wonder: my father’s souvenir scorecard from the 1946 World Series. I don’t think Moses could have come down from Sinai with anything more precious.

This was the mid-1950s, when the Red Sox were team of plodding white guys. Their owner, an otherwise-gentlemanly Texan by the name of Tom Yawkey, refused to sign a player of color. Other teams had Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Minnie Minoso and Larry Doby. We got the likes of Walt Dropo and Vic Wertz, and a bumbling shortstop who was the manager’s son-in-law. Fourth place was success. The Yankees owned first.

In those grim times, the scorecard was a relic of glories past. I lay on the linoleum and studied the grainy pictures for hours. Tex Hughson and Boo Ferris, the horses of the pitching staff. Birdie Tebbets behind the plate. Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr at short and second. What baseball names. Dom Dimaggio was in center. We had a Dimaggio?

Over them all, as the sun over its moons, was Ted Williams, who in my mind sat next to God. That team was only ten years gone, but it seemed like the Patriarchal Era. That my own father was there, meant that, by some vague law of succession, the World Series had touched me as well. Which meant that the role of watching and waiting for a series victory was passing to my shoulders. (The Sox lost in 1946 to St Louis in seven games, just as they were to lose again with decadal regularity in ’67, ’78. and ’86.)

Thus the tribe of Red Sox fandom has increased, bound by what it yearned for rather than what it had. Finally, this fall, the wait ended. New England has rejoiced. Old folks said they now could go to their final rest in peace. But as the months have passed the glow has dimmed and the memory has turned a bit sour. The joy is something I know I am supposed to feel but can’t.

Partly this is natural I guess. The event rarely matches the expectation. You have the wedding, and then there’s the rest of your life. Partly too it’s the backdrop. It’s hard to get too worked up about baseball given the forces that are claiming license in the nation and the world. But mainly it’s the money. The kid in me, the one who studied the scorecard in the basement like a sacred scroll, had a naive hope that the history and the yearning somehow would hold the greed at bay.

Fat chance. The grabbing started practically from the last series out. The team’s free agents were clamoring for more money. Pedro Martinez, the pitching-ace-turned-Grade-A-prima-donna, accused the team of “disrespecting” him because they offered less than did the New York Mets. The disrespect in question was more than $10 million a year, for three years, which works out to roughly $300,000 per start. I wish someone would disrespect me that way.

Now there’s the dispute over the ball. One Doug Mientkiewicz, a backup first basement who otherwise would be remembered mainly for a name that is hard to remember and harder to spell, kept the ball he used to make the last out of the series. Now he claims he owns it. “That’s my retirement fund,” he said, and added something about sending his kid to college. This from a man who is going to make $3.75 million this year alone, which is a lot more than I am likely to make in my entire working life.

Mientkiewicz (henceforth DM) since has agreed to put the ball on display for a year, so that kids and other fans can see it. Gee, thanks Doug. This whole thing is pathetic, and revealing too. You’d think someone making close to four million dollars a year — plus additional thousands in World Series money that came more from the efforts of others than himself — might show a little more class. Couldn’t he give the ball to a museum, or to charity? After all where does he think his ample paychecks actually come from? That’s right, us fans.

Let’s think about the baseball a bit. No question it could fetch a pile of money. The ball Mark McGwire hit for his 70th home run in 1998 sold for $3 million. But where exactly does such “value” — if that’s really the word — come from? Even in McGwire’s case it doesn’t come exclusively from himself. A lot comes from the league, and all the history behind it. Take away Babe Ruth’s records of almost 60 years before, and McGwire’s 70 becomes just another number.

By the same token, DM’s World Series ball wouldn’t have meant much without the decades of Red Sox trials that preceded it. Every player who ever wore the uniform played a part, and some a large part. How about Don Baylor (‘86), and Carlton Fisk (‘67)? They put more into the significance — and therefore the value — of the ball, than DM did.

Then there’s us fans. Our tax dollars pay for many of the stadiums these players get their millions in. Our loyalty and passion animates the whole enterprise.

The value of DM’s ball ultimately lies not in the ball but in us, and in this baseball really is a metaphor for life. Economic value of all kinds is a co-production between an individual and society. The value of land comes largely from the efforts and investment of the community that encompasses the and. Oil wouldn’t be worth much without a society that builds an infrastructure that encourages the use of that oil. Every writer and inventor builds on what they have received for free.

The inventor and the landowner are entitled to their share. But so too are all the others that play a role in the creation. If we really believe that actions have consequences and people should be rewarded according to their deserving , then all the co-producers are entitled to a share as well. This is a measure of the justice of an economic system. By what moral principle should a DM be entitled to the whole monetary value of the ball, just because it happened to be in his hands at the end of the game?

And what’s with the ball to begin with? It is identical to every other ball used in that game and every other major league game. You could switch it with another and no one would know the difference. The Red Sox victory was not in the ball any more than Michael Jordan’s prowess was in the sneaker line that bore his name. We are dealing here with the sympathetic magic of the commodity culture, and the compulsive need to turn everything into something that can be sold for money. What belongs to all of us — the World Series victory — becomes something that can be owned by only one of us, in the form of the ball. Economists call this “wealth creation.” Expropriation and subtraction would be more accurate terms.

The money-grubbing is petty, but it also is unsurprising. DM lives and works in an atmosphere hyper-saturated with money lust. The famed left field wall at Fenway Park where he played now is a pedestal for giant Coke bottles. Watch a game on TV, and you see ads imposed on the field that aren’t there in reality — yet. The corporate honchos in the league want desperately to sell ad space on players’ uniforms and even on the bases. Individual players get rated on sales of their signature jerseys and other paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, across town from Fenway, the wonderful old Boston Garden has given way to the corporate and generic Fleet Bank Center. Fleet Bank has been ingested by the Bank of America, so the name of the arena is up for sale again, a civic institution turned into the economic equivalent of pork belly futures. All of life is going this way, from genes and body parts to the water we drink. Everything else is a commodity. Why not a baseball?

Greed like this is not natural, as economists assume. It is socially enabled, a viral agent that spreads by example. In a world in which everyone is grabbing, you feel like a sucker if you don’t grab too. University scientists feel compelled to hire patent lawyers and guard their research even if they aren’t in it for the bucks. If they share their work with colleagues, some schmuck will run to the patent office with it and claim the money for themselves. When the newspapers are full of stories about stock market riches you want some too, even if you were content before.

Just so, a first baseman for the Red Sox looks up at those cola bottles on the left field wall, and thinks about the humongous contracts the team owners sign with the television networks. He thinks too about the paychecks of some of the players on the field with him, checks that make his own seem “blue collar” in the preferred and fatuous sportswriter expression. And hey, if he doesn’t grab the ball someone else will. So the first baseman thinks, “Why not me?”

It is not admirable but it is understandable. Much as the Soviet system bred cynicism and paranoia, so the market of Milton Friedman’s fantasies can become a Petri dish of pathological self-seeking. That’s why a market economy needs a commons sector too. It provides an antibody to the virus, and a host in which the “we” side of human nature can grow. A thriving commons gives rise to social norms in which people don’t feel like a sucker if they give up a little for the good of others. It provides a setting in which the contributions of the whole actually return to the whole People don’t get to walk home with the ball just because it was in their hand last.

There are two versions today of the nation’s moral and spiritual decline. One is two men or women kissing. The other is the Red Sox World Series ball becoming the object of a money grab. Political moralists in Washington have made the first the topic of endless railing and indignation, while they are strangely silent on the latter. In a political culture dominated by money, lust is a safe and easy target. Greed gets a free ride.

But Scripture makes no such distinction. Jesus said that the love of money — not of another human — is the root of all evil, and you can’t get much worse than that. Where are the moral leaders who are willing to stand up to the legions of Mammon? Where are the abstinence crusades aimed at money lust?

In 1988, a veteran catcher by the name of Rick Dempsey caught the last World Series out for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the clubhouse afterwards, he hugged Fred Claire, the Dodger executive who had signed him. By Claire’s account, Dempsey “reached into his back pocket and pulled out the ball. ‘Fred, this belongs to you,’ he said.”

What if DM had said that, not to a Red Sox executive but to the fans. What if he had said, “You’ve waited for it. You’ve paid for it. It’s yours.” He would have become a civic hero, and a shining light for future generations, far brighter than the old scorecard was for me. Now he’s just one of the pack. Doug, there’s still time.