Continuing our off-season series of interviews we're joined today by Bomani Jones. You'll likely recognize him from his appearances on various ESPN programs, but he's more than just a talking head, owning three degrees in economics, including two masters. We talk to him about the attendance issues plaguing the Rays, the new CBA, his views on sabermetrics and his experiences writing a piece on B.J. and Justin Upton. Enjoy.
Erik Hahmann: As a Braves fan you know a thing or two about low attendance figures for successful teams. Do you see any correlation between those Atlanta teams and the past four years of the Tampa Bay Rays?
Bomani Jones: I do, to a degree. For all the talk of the Braves and attendance, they did well early in the salad days. From what I remember, things tailed off once the Braves became somewhat predictable. That is to say, people got bored when it seemed as if, at some point, they were simply going to lose (a post-Leyritz condition). But before they'd won a ring, when there was still a novelty to winning, the Braves would do okay maintaining interest. The biggest difference I see between the two situations, obviously, is the stadium. But after the first couple of years in a new stadium, is that really going to affect attendance that much?
EH: A new CBA is likely to be finalized soon and will likely include significant restraints on how much teams can spend on draft picks. Two part question; Isn't that virtually a salary cap, and do you think these restraints will drive kids even farther away from baseball? *This question was asked and answered before yesterday's announcements.
BJ: I'm not so sure of that. I'm not convinced the kids' financial interests are what have driven so many players away from baseball. It's the financial interests of the adults who "mentor" them. There's more money for a school or whatever to make off a high school football or basketball player than a baseball player. If a kid has to pick between one sport, what do you think the adults are going to suggest that he play? My guess would be the one who makes them the most money. But, even with the constraints in place in the new CBA, if a player has an offer of a football scholarship or a baseball contract, is the baseball contract not still more attractive? As things stand, there still aren't blitzing linebackers on a diamond.
EH: Did you ever think you'd see the day when baseball would be the major sport to go the longest without labor unrest?
BJ: I actually could see that. Look, the owners know that the baseball union will shut this whole thing down if they don't' get the deal they want. Further, they know the baseball union will hold out until it does. There's never been any reason to expect that from football or basketball. The owners rule there, and their unions have never had the strength of the MLBPA. Well, it may have taken decades, but the owners now respect that strength. At the same time, those owners seem to have won this negotiation. If I had to guess why: for the first time, the players don't want to be the bad guys. With unrest in, literally, every other labor situation in the major sports, this was the time for baseball players to make peace. I just wonder if they made too much of it.
EH: A majority of the teams in the southern markets (GA, FL, NC) don't draw particularly well. Do you have any thoughts as to why that is?
BJ: It's a tricky question. Charlotte sold out its massive coliseum for years for the NBA before George Shinn soured the entire area on the league. Orlando sold seats when Shaq and Penny were with the Magic. Atlanta, of course, has had trouble selling seats for all sports, even though the Falcons have done much better since Vick captured the city in '02. I can't give an answer for why that's the case, though. In Atlanta, I've always thought people underestimate how rooting for sorry teams for decades can make one less inclined to go to an arena. I don't know the other cities as well, but I do wonder if the case will be different in 20 years, when you'll have multiple generations who grew up with these teams. As it stands now, the Rays and Marlins are still on their first generation of fans. You can say the same for basketball teams in that area. I wonder if building more tradition will change things in that regard.
EH: What does baseball need to do to remain a top-two sport in America? Does next-generation media play a major role in it? They're woefully behind when it comes to social media.
BJ: The hard part for baseball is attracting casual fans. You can get nearly anyone to watch postseason baseball, but it's hard to simply watch baseball here and there. For most, to be a fan is to be a fan of a team and go through the grueling 162-game grind with it. In this day and age, with so many entertainment options, how many people are truly willing to do that (or even able)? So how does one attract casual fans when one might turn on a game and see the fifth best pitcher on the whole team? That's hard to appreciate when you just drop in, but easy to work with as a die-hard. So if I had to say something baseball could do, it's find a way to make this game that encourages such dedication from fans more attractive who have but so much they can give baseball.
EH: Can you explain to people who may not know what a travesty it is that Marvin Miller is not yet in the Hall of Fame?
BJ: I just can't think of a single non-player that's been more important to the last 40 years of baseball, for better or worse. My slant is typically pro-labor, so most of what I think about Miller is about the better, but we have to be honest here. The '94 strike nearly ended baseball's time as a major power, and that had lots to do with the fact they had a labor stoppage at the end of every collective bargaining agreement. Miller, and later Fehr, fought and fought for their players, and they consistently won. They ushered in free agency and, effectively, the hot stove league that intrigues us every year. He is the biggest face of sports labor, a man who did more for his constituents than any other labor boss, and he absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame.
EH:As you know, we're a sabermetric slanted site. You're not particularly fond of that style of thought, can you tell us why?
BJ: I'm OK with sabermetrics. I'm a social scientist, after all, and I prefer to use advanced statistics to answer questions. However, increased knowledge doesn't always mean increased fun. I enjoyed baseball when it was less efficient, with teams like the Herzog Cardinals slapping the ball around off the carpet, trying to steal bases and all those things we know now aren't worth the risk. But whether that baseball made sense or not, I preferred it.
EH: You wrote a piece for Page 2 a few years ago about B.J. and Justin Upton before either had become a star at the Major League level. What was that experience like?
BJ: It was really interesting. For one, I joined the long list of people who has had serious trouble trying to get B.J. on the phone. But the next part that was interesting, for me, was hearing what the two brothers and their father thought about why there's such a paucity of blacks in baseball. None of them are scientists or anything on this, but to hear their desire to see that condition change while hearing B.J. and Justin sound almost incredulous in some ways about the situation while their parents discussed some of the financial sacrifices that were necessary to get them where they wanted made one thing clear to me: there really aren't any easy answers to that question. When you're a young writer and your editor wants that sort of answer, it really makes you think about whether an answer truly exists. Years later, I'm still not sure. And, in a way, that was the most rewarding part of writing that story: I saw and heard enough to know how much more there is to see and hear.