Joe Guzzardi: Remembering Seaver and the altered game of baseball
Published 12:43 am Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Baseball fans will be a long-time mourning Tom Seaver’s passing. “Tom Terrific” was an icon like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams who, for those who watched them play, will forever treasure the experience.
Baseball analyst Bill James argues that Seaver ranks among baseball’s best-ever pitchers, equal to or better than Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson or Bob Feller. More important when lamenting Seaver’s death, however, is to remember his character. When the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Seaver’s death, it referred to his dignity, sportsmanship, integrity and wisdom, qualities too-infrequently found in famous athletes.
Since Seaver’s stellar 1969 season when he led the “Miracle Mets” to a World Series victory, baseball has undergone transformative changes: three more expansion rounds, divisional realignment, radically altered on-the-field game execution philosophy, foolish rule changes and several added layers of post-season play.
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One of the most dramatic shifts is the demographic composition in the player rosters from mostly native-born Americans to roughly 30 percent foreign nationals. On Seaver’s 1969 Mets, the 25-man roster was 100 percent U.S.-born, which included five African-Americans. The 2020 Mets Opening Day roster includes nine foreign nationals, a mix of Cubans, Dominicans and Venezuelans, but no African Americans. In 2019, only 68 African-American players appeared on opening-day rosters, injured lists and restricted lists. During the same year, rosters listed 251 international players.
Fans wonder how, over a half century, foreign nationals displaced about 30 percent of American-born players. They question why such prestigious, generously paid jobs go, virtually by default, to international players.
Therein hangs a tale.
The short answer is the State Department’s willingness to issue a variety of nonimmigrant visas that enable international players to freely enter the U.S. The most commonly used is the P-1, which remains valid for the duration of players’ contracts, often for multiple years. Since 2006, even minor league players are P-1 qualified; before 2006, players received an H-2B visa, which meant they had to return home when the season ended. Unlike the H-2B, the P-1 has no numerical cap, so owners can no longer grouse about visa snafus that strand their international players.
The backstory is that MLB franchise owners, who preside over a $10.7 billion industry, have business models identical to Microsoft, Apple and AT&T: hire cheap labor, and maximize profits. Caribbean players are cheaper to sign – period! Dick Balderson, former Seattle Mariners general manager, once said that in the impoverished Dominican Republic, even a modest signing bonus represents a small fortune. Team owners can sign 20 penurious Dominicans, also incentivized by the prospect of coming to the U.S. legally, for the same cost as four Americans.
To hone Dominicans’ skills, all 30 MLB franchises have development camps run by professional coaches and trainers. Owners scuttled plans to start similar camps in Venezuela when the political climate became too unstable. Not a single similar MLB-maintained academy exists in the U.S.
Instead of inking foreign nationals, owners could choose from an abundance of solid domestic players. The annual College World Series puts their talents on display. Yet, wrote author Ryan McGee in his book, “The Road to Omaha,” for most college players, the CWS is the last organized baseball game they ever participate in.
Playing in the major league has to rate among the world’s best jobs. The starting, average and the highest salaries are, respectively, $565,000, $4.4 million and Los Angeles Angels’ Center Fielder Mike Trout’s bank-busting $35.5 million, a one-year installment on his $426.5 million 12-year contract.
The international players are talented, and perhaps deserving of their place on an MLB roster. But, to repeat, playing MLB baseball is a job (although never considered such among its devotees).
Talented U.S. players should get priority for playing in the big leagues, and making the riches that follow.
Joe Guzzardi has been a newspaper columnist for 30 years. Contact him at email@example.com.