Nov 10, 2008, 04:36AM

The New Baseball Economics: An Interview with Craig Calcaterra

Splice talked with Mr. ShysterBall, one of baseball’s smartest bloggers, about economics, hot stove rumors and Barack Obama.

Selig.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The last time we caught up with Craig Calcaterra, proprietor of ShysterBall, it was a different world economically for the country at large and Major League Baseball. In this interview, Calcaterra offers opinions about the Chicago Cubs’ troubled franchise, his feelings about the new president-elect and the prospects for MLB attendance next year.

Splice Today: You have opinions on the sale of the Chicago Cubs. I happen to think it's a disgrace that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and his cohorts have apparently blackballed Mark Cuban, especially at a time, given the disastrous economy, that Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell has found his pool of bidders dwindling. How do you think this will be resolved? And am I incorrect in the belief that MLB could use someone like Cuban, a real sports fan who isn't afraid to spend money?

Craig Calcaterra: I think it all boils down to how bad Mark Cuban wants to pay a billion bucks for a non-liquid asset in a tough economy. If he wants to buy and Zell wants to sell to him, it ends in historic, antitrust-exemption-busting litigation. That's an outcome I'm praying for, by the way, because (a) I hate it when MLB acts like a cartel and I would like to see the owners get their comeuppance; and (b) because it would give about 100,000 words worth of blogging material. However, I'd wager that Cuban doesn't want any part of the freak show that is MLB ownership and gladly walks away.

Does MLB need Cuban? I actually don't think it does. Baseball has done very well (at least financially speaking) with the pliant, faceless ownership Selig seems to favor. There is a lot of money in the game right now and there is labor peace. Against that backdrop, Cuban may be a headache for the league in many ways. I think, however, that Cubs fans could really use Cuban right now. For years they dealt with indifferent ownership under the Tribune Co., and now their team is but a small part of Sam Zell's very complicated business empire. I think Northsiders would very much enjoy having an owner who sees the world they way they do and defines success in the same terms. 

ST: You were an early supporter of president-elect Barack Obama. What were your emotions like on Election Day?

CC: It's been interesting to read all of the immediate post-victory commentary and see all of the reaction, because it is almost 180 degrees opposed to the reasons I supported Obama. Don't get me wrong—I appreciate the historic nature of his win, and I totally understand the emotions so many people felt and are still feeling—but I'm just not there. My support of Obama is based, more than anything, on the belief that he would drain the presidency of all of the drama, ideology, emotion, and destructive desire to make a mark on history that has driven Bush and his gang for the past eight years. It was and remains my hope that he'll be a rational and intelligent leader driven by information and reality instead of abstractions. As such, my reaction to the win was a muted "thank goodness," and my hope now is that we are in for a very boring, but very businesslike and ultimately successful four to eight years. 

ST: Back in August, there was a spate of sports stories suggesting that the economy wouldn't affect MLB in 2009. Given all that's happened since then, do you expect attendance to slip next year? It's hard to conceive that regular fans will go to as many games as usual, given the high costs of tickets and refreshments. As for the high-rollers, who buy season tickets to entertain clients, my guess is that big companies (those that are still solvent) will cut down as well. Do you agree or do you think attendance will still be as robust?

CC: Attendance itself will be down next year, but that would happen regardless of the economy because Yankee and Shea Stadiums are being replaced by venues with fewer, albeit higher revenue seats. Even controlling for that, however, yes, I expect attendance to go down. How can it not? This economic downturn is impacting a lot more white-collar workers than usual, and those are the types of people who buy most of the tickets to baseball games today. How many Yankee games were attended by Lehman or Bear Stearns employees? How many Mariners season ticket holders worked for Washington Mutual? How many Indians fans worked for National City? It's really ugly out there, and I think baseball will feel it too.

ST: Your blog has grown significantly this year, in both influence and readership. What do you attribute that to (no credit for false modesty)? And going onwards do you plan on any changes in how you cover the 2009 season?

CC: If I'm not allowed to be modest, than I'll just come out and say that I think the growth of ShysterBall is mostly attributable to the fact that I post an awful damn lot. People crave new content, and they'll come back over and over again if there is any chance that there will be something new since the last time they were there. A little over a year ago I would be happy if I got three or four posts up a day, and now I'm bummed when I fall short of nine or 10. The traffic follows that, with many people who should have better things to do with their lives refreshing multiple times a day.  More specifically speaking, the daily recaps I started in April called "And That Happened" really spurred readership. I almost always got those up by six each morning, and a ton of people seemed to start their web surfing day by reading those. Their eyes were ripe for the taking too, in that, wire reports aside, the big sports sites don't start updating until much later in the day. I mean I love me some Deadspin, but it can be 10 a.m. before anything new shows up there, and by that time I'm thinking about lunch.  

I don't think there will be any changes in how I approach 2009 creatively speaking, but there may be some cosmetic changes. I'm hoping to update the look and feel of the site between now and April because, let's face it, the off-the-rack Blogspot template I've been running for two years is pretty country. I have zero in the way of technical chops though, so I may need to enlist some help.

ST: Was this year's World Series a letdown? Aside from the television ratings, which were down, what did you make of the very weird conclusion to the Series? And I think we all know that the Tampa Bay Rays are now a force to be reckoned with, making the A.L. East by far the most competitive division; what could derail the team next year aside from an inordinate rash of injuries?

CC: I kind of liked the weird end to the series. Sure, the first half of Game 5 was awful, but I am not such a purist that I can't admit that the little mini-game conclusion was fun, especially considering that it ended at a decent hour. I was way more disappointed in the Rays' bats going silent for so long, because they were a really exciting team to watch through the season and the ALCS, and once the Series started they just went kinda blah. Going forward I think the Rays will be contenders for a while, but I could see things short of big injuries that could send them off the tracks. A sophomore slump from Evan Longoria for one thing. Maybe B.J. Upton falls in love with the home run hitter he became in the playoffs and messes up his swing. Maybe Carlos Pena gets old fast. Things just happen in baseball, especially when you have the Red Sox and Yankees breathing down your necks.

ST: On occasion, you've criticized some daily newspaper baseball writers. Among the beat writers and columnists (including the web) that you follow who are your favorites? Least favorite? When you call out certain writers, do you take any flak for it?

CC: I'm decidedly web-centric in my baseball reading, so my favorites skew that way as well. I like Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan, Keith Law, Joe Posnanski. Tim Marchman, Ken Rosenthal, Tyler Kepner, Art Martone, and King Kaufman, among others. I could list several that I don't particularly care for, but if I had to pick a least favorite, I'd go with T.J. Simers of The Los Angeles Times. I'll admit that he can be funny from time to time and I kinda like him when he's playing the curmudgeon, but most of what he does is insult, bait and pester Dodgers players, hoping against hope that they'll spout off in anger so that he can print a juicy quote and follow it up with his "man, what's his problem?" shtick. The fact that I still read him even though he enrages me means that he probably knows what he's doing, however.

I've never gotten any real flak for calling out anyone. I'd like to think that it's because I always try to address the argument rather than launch ad hominem attacks, because I'm respectful, or because after reading my criticism, the writers know I'm right. I think the reality, however, is that most of the subjects of my criticism simply never see what I write because, let's face it, there are more popular sites out there than mine.  

ST: Will Marvin Miller ever get his due from Hall of Fame voters? Do you think current players appreciate the work Miller did on their behalf, or is that just ancient history to them?

CC: I think Miller should be in the Hall of Fame, but practically speaking I think that ship has sailed and that he won't make it. There are still active owners who have never gotten over free agency, and as long as they're around, there will be people lobbying against Miller. Once they're gone, there won't be anyone around to care. It's sad on one level, but Miller was a union man through-and-through, and I don't figure that he set out to become famous.

ST: Who, in your opinion, are the five best role models in MLB today? Not just for athletic ability, but also in terms of donating money to the less fortunate, and becoming involved in their communities?

CC: I don't know enough about what guys do off the field to give you five, but in my mind, Albert Pujols is sort of the platonic ideal of a baseball player, both in terms of on and off-the-field performance. On the field he is the best hitter in the game, and with apologies to Adrian Gonzalez, he is by far the best defensive first baseman around. Despite having a sharply below market contract, you never hear him complain or posture about it. He just plays ball. Often injured, I might add.

While there are many guys who do tons of off-the-field stuff, Pujols did take home the Clemente award this year, and by all accounts the man is a machine when it comes to community involvement.

I'm from the Charles Barkley school when it comes to athletes-as-role-models (i.e. they shouldn't be), but if my son were desperate to find a hero on the diamond, I'd try to steer him towards Pujols.

ST: In our May interview, you took a leap, predicting the Diamondbacks would play the Red Sox in the World Series, with the caveat that you're usually wrong on this kind of stuff. Do you agree that the speculation at the start of each season by well-known baseball analysts is mostly poppycock and merely fun for fans?

CC: How about that Diamondbacks pick! I think how wrong I was despite having more than a month of data proves that such predictions are meaningless. I also think that if you asked the writers and editors behind predictions features, they'd tell you that they don't provide anything of value. They're easy content at a time when there isn't yet any baseball going on, and they provide more easy content (i.e. the "why I was right/wrong" column) when the baseball is over.  

ST: As a lawyer, I'm sure you've got a better handle on the financial crisis than most laymen. Any comments on where this recession is heading in the next year? And what affect does it have on the legal profession?

CC: Actually, I'm just a dumb litigator, so my understanding of the financial crisis is not that much sharper than anyone else's. That said, I think this may be more than a mere dip like we've seen in recessions past. Maybe not on the surface—there will probably be some kind of superficial rebound and people will talk about the bad times being in the past—but I think there will be some real changes in the way people deal with money. People are going to borrow less and buy less going forward. Not that it will be perceived as some refreshing return to frugality. My guess is that we'll see stories and lawsuits about people not being able to obtain car loans and credit cards and stuff like they used to, and it will all be couched in terms of credit discrimination and unfairness and everything. After, oh, a decade of that fight, maybe, just maybe, people will figure out that they don't have a Constitutional right to consumer electronics and new automobiles every couple of years.

The legal profession as we know it is full of bloat and inefficiency, and regardless of what it means for me personally I believe (and sincerely hope) that the downturn takes a giant bite out of it. So much of what companies and individuals pay law firms for is wasteful and overpriced, and so much of it really doesn't even need to be done by licensed, U.S. attorneys in the first place. There are many legal process outsourcing companies now—Pangea3 is a great example—with operations in India, most of whom can do what a U.S. law firm can do but faster and cheaper.  No, they can't come here and try a case or conduct the big deal closing— we'll always need lawyers here who can do that—but they can draft basic contracts, review documents, manage electronic discovery, and conduct legal research, and that's where a huge portion of a given legal bill comes from. I'm hoping the LPOs take off and change the industry, even if it means that I and future versions of me get tossed out of our jobs. Maybe then we smart analytical types will take our big brains and do something in this world other than gatekeeping.  

ST: What would be the ideal family vacation for you?

CC: We had one back in August that was pretty darn close. We went up to Traverse City, Michigan, rented a place on the water, and just had a really great time. Sure, it could be better—the kids are still three and four, and that makes it hard to go to nice restaurants and truly relax—but the cherry pie up in those parts is really good and that makes up for a lot.

When the kids are a bit older, we plan on taking them to Italy. My wife Carleen has family there, and my boy Carlo eats like a horse. I think he'd never want to leave.  

ST: Quick flashes on the hot stove. Where does Manny Ramirez end up and will any team get sucked into his agent Scott Boras' demands of a multi-year contract? What about Jason Varitek, long considered the "soul" of the Red Sox? Do the Yankees blow away C.C. Sabathia with a Fort Knox-like offer and sign him, perhaps along with Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett? And what about your team, the Braves? How do they get back into competition with the Phillies and Mets? Will the Brewers trade Prince Fielder, the alleged vegetarian? Any other thoughts on what big-name players will change uniforms for '09?

CC: I'm not sure where Manny ends up. I'd love to see him go to Toronto, Cleveland, or Seattle where he could DH and relax and maybe not take up so much of the national media's focus, but that probably won't happen. If he's smart he'd take that short $23 million/year deal that Los Angeles just offered him because he could really own that town and because, man it would piss off the Dodgers' brass, who only made the offer because they believed it would be rejected. Ultimately, though, I think the Mets or maybe even the Yankees will pony up the years he wants because they can't help themselves. If they do, they will come to regret it.

I just have this feeling that Varitek will stay with Boston at a greatly reduced but incentive-laden deal. I'm not sure why I think this given his agent [Scott Boras], but Varitek seems like a reasonable guy who doesn't himself believe that he's worth a multi-year, multimillion-dollar deal anymore. I don't think the Sox will cave. They let Nomar and Pedro and Millar and Damon and Manny go because it didn't make sense to keep them. If their hearts didn't rule the day with those guys, don't expect it to happen with Tek.

I think the Yankees will sign two of the Lowe-Sabathia-Burnett trio, though I'm not sure which two. I think the Braves are content to remain a rung down from the Mets and Phillies in the payroll and glamour departments and try to build from within for the foreseeable future but feel obligated to bring in some big names so Chipper Jones is not lonely. This may lead to some more bad years for them as they do things like unload the farm for Jake Peavy, which I am against, partially because of his elbow, partially because the prospects he will cost could be employed in better deals or, heaven forbid, actually come and play for the Braves one day. I think Prince Fielder stays with Milwaukee. He's not as good as he looked in 2007, but he's not the liability so many people fear either.

ST: Finally, you're baseball's commissioner for one week. What three changes would you make in the game?

CC: Because it's in the news right now, I'd take the minimal steps to ensure that the World Series never goes into late November. In my mind that's working with the union to schedule a couple of day-night doubleheaders a month, eliminating non-travel days off in the playoffs, and starting the season early, while making sure the early-season schedule is optimized to avoid snow-outs and the like. Do that, and no one will be bringing up this insane neutral-site World Series stuff again.

The second thing—and it's probably too late, but who cares—is to encourage teams to self-finance stadiums rather than go with hands out to the taxpayers. Sure, this flies in the face of the owners' narrow economic interests, but (a) it's the right thing to do; (b) it would deprive every damn public official from thinking they have a say in what happens in the game; and (c), it makes for the best stadiums and better long-term financial security. Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park absolutely rock, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that pride of ownership and attention to one's investment has a lot to do with that.

Beyond that, I'm pretty happy with baseball right now, so my final change would be more about serving my subjective whim as opposed to making the game better: I'd outlaw the mismatched pants-jersey look that has become so prevalent over the past decade, and enforce a solid home whites/road grays-only rule. Okay, I'll allow powder blues, but only for teams that came into existence after 1969.

  • I've been a regular reader of Craig's site since the last interview posted on Splice...definitely have to offer thanks to shysterball for the increase in posts. today alone I've checked in perhaps five times and been greeted with something new each times.

    Responses to this comment
  • ...and I couldnt agree more with his assessment of our new leader. he's not just a baseball buff afterall.

    Responses to this comment
  • Great interview. I've been following Shyster ball ever since your last one in May, and it's great to have a sequel. I just can't wait till the baseball season starts again.

    Responses to this comment
  • I love going to ball games on Sunday afternoons. Even with the bad economy, I'm sure I'll find the money to have a peaceful, and relaxing Sunday afternoon.

    Responses to this comment
  • Mark Cuban rocks. He'd be a activist owner, a lot like Arte Moreno, owner of the Angels, a guy who's loved by fans. MLB needs less stuffed shirts for owners, more guys who actually love the game.

    Responses to this comment
  • It's my hope as a long-time invisible White Sox fan that Obama (a big Chi-sox supporter and friend of GM Kenny Williams) will bring the White Sox out of the Cub's shadow as Chicago's real baseball team...

    Responses to this comment
  • Yeah, I read Obama was a huge Pale Hose fan. Man, that would really burn those Cubs fans. I still think the Cubs would be better off with Cuban as an owner. By the way, how do you think the White Sox will get a bit younger in the off-season?

    Responses to this comment
  • Craig Calcaterra knows more about baseball than I will in a lifetime, but what I found insightful was his view on Barack Obama. That he was an early supporter who's disappointed by all the star-making of Obama, and that he's hoping for a president who isn't worrying about history, but going about his job in an understated and businessman like fashion.

    Responses to this comment
  • I'm late responding, but one tiny thing. I liked the colorful Sunday home jerseys when they appeared only 13 times a year.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment