Language and the 2017-18 Offseason

Recently, I was inspired (read: annoyed) enough to send an email to MLB Radio about the stupidity of one of the conversations I heard there, and I’ve ranted about it to several friends since (hi, E!), so now you lovely folks get to hear all about it.

Here’s the deal: Bill Baer, a respected baseball writer, recently wrote a piece about the consequences of how we talk about player contracts.  Specifically, he suggested that our common language focuses on the value of the contract for management, which means that we are tacitly taking their side against that of the players in every discussion of player contracts.  In his own words:

One such example, which we’ve complained about here in the past, is when new ESPN play-by-play broadcaster refers to a player as “property” of a team. What Vasgersian means is that the player is in a team’s minor league system, but what that language elicits is a picture of a player powerless against ownership, subject to their whims. . . Allowing such terminology to become part of the language with which we talk about baseball serves to further the disparity in power and weaken our ability to empathize with players.

In other words, Baer is making the pretty uncontroversial argument that the words we use have consequences in how we understand the issues.  It’s novel in that this is the first time I’ve seen this type of linguistic analysis applied to baseball talk, but the argument itself isn’t unique (ask anyone in marketing or advertising).  Baer goes on to cite specific examples of common tropes and point out why those tropes might be problematic if your intent is not to favor management over labor.

So why did I send an email about this?  Because MLB Radio, specifically Steve Phillips, the host of Leadoff Spot, doesn’t get it at all.  He mentioned the article to co-host (and former player) Matt Diaz, and then asked him if he was “offended” when people talked about his contracts in these ways.


An image of Steve Phillips in this conversation. (Not to scale)

We’ve talked about this before, a bit, but let me be absolutely clear: fuck your feelings. When talking about the use of language to reinforce or challenge current power structures, feelings are irrelevant. Baer isn’t asking “does this hurt the poor players fee fees?” Instead, he’s wondering if the language we use serve to undervalue players by focus only on the perspective of team management, rather than a more equitable analysis of both sides of the deal.  It’s in large part an structural and economic question.(1)

So of course Diaz, who was basically asked on the radio if he was a snowflake or not, says no, he’s not offended.  But then, something interesting happens: Diaz tells the story of his contract with the Pirates.

I’m summarizing here, but basically, the story goes like this: Diaz is approached by the Pirates in 2010.  He’s offered a one-year deal to come and help turn the club around.  They’ve got a vision and a plan and they want him to be a veteran presence clubhouse guy to bring some steadiness to the young team.  Diaz agrees on the condition that he be given a two year deal because he doesn’t want to come in and get them on the right path and then not get to see the rewards of his hard work.  The Pirates agree.

Over the course of those two years, Diaz provides the value he’s been hired for.  He educates the young players on everything from how to tip clubbies to how to maintain a work schedule on the road to how to behave in the clubhouse to build teamwork.  He hits in accordance with (fairly low) expectations. In other words, he provided the services he was hired to provide.

On the radio, Diaz then concludes with a statement about how he’s not offended by commentary about how his contract was a loser or a ripoff because he knew what he was hired to do and he did it, and he and Phillips basically both blow off Bill Baer’s point as sort of dumb and “PC.”

matt diaz
Matt Diaz. Not offended.

Except, here’s the thing: Diaz’s example is an example of Baer being right. 

In Diaz’s own account, he negotiated a deal based, in large part, on his value in the clubhouse, value that he provided.  So any of the commentators and reporters who spoke about his deal being a loser for the Pirates based on how he played on the field(2) were necessarily favoring the manager/owner view and not the player view.  We could have had a conversation about how the current framing of the conversation undervalues “veteran presence” guys and skews the market in favor of owners paying less for those guys, instead of recognizing that veteran players can add value off the field as well.  Diaz and Phillips could have highlighted that this framing further disadvantages the average players, the guys who are never going to get the splashy contract, but are going to stick in the majors as everyday players who make up the bulk of every roster, by allowing management to pay them less.

In light of the 2017-18 off season, in which a number of high value free agents remained on the market until after the start of spring training or signed contracts less remunerative than they probably should have been because ownership refused to pay what would usually be recognized as market value.  The sports commentariat was full of insinuations of collusion and warnings about the impending labor negotiations, but somehow the link between this disadvantageous off season for the players and the practice of talking about contracts like management perspective is the only relevant perspective elided Diaz and Phillips.

And that elision made me send an email to sports radio, calling them out on it.  To date, there has been no response.(3)


(1) Made all the more relevant, by the way, by the current attempt to exempt minor league players from the Fair Labor Standards Act, a financial giveaway to management that is fucking gross.

(2) See, e.g., this article listing him at one of the ten worst free agent signings by the Pirates in a decade.

(3) I know there ain’t gonna be no response.

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