John Feinstein, one of the deans of sports writing in Washington, isn’t always right. But he sure was spot on Tuesday evening when he wrote the following for the Washington Post:
Here’s a pretty general rule when it comes to running a sports franchise: You don’t trade away a generational player. You especially don’t trade one when he’s 23 and hasn’t even reached what should be his best years.
Even if his agent is baseball’s answer to Lord Voldemort, Scott Boras.
The Washington Nationals had just committed the unforgivable sin of trading their generational talent — Juan Soto — just a year after gutting a World Series-winning team and trading stars such as Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Just four years after letting another mega superstar in Bryce Harper get away. And the reason is generally because the team’s owners — the Lerner family, who made their money in commercial real estate — think that home-grown talent should give them, the billionaires, a local discount when negotiating salaries. Juan Soto is worth $500 million in this market, but the Lerners tried to get him for a mere $440 million.
This from an ownership group that bought the franchise for $450 million some 16 years ago and is now looking to sell it “for north of $2 billion.” That’s more than four-times its original value. The Lerners are not small-market owners. Washington is not Kansas City. This is a team where the city put up a lot of money to build a stadium (almost $1 billion when you factor in interest) and took a great deal of grief for that decision. This is a team in the nation’s capital that has proven to be a strong draw with a wealthy and knowledgeable fan base drawn from a two-state area (plus the District of Columbia).
A fan base that just got kicked in the teeth — again — by owners who have proven they are only in it for the money.
What should they have done rather than trade Soto? Simple: Say to Boras, “Okay, Scott, you win; what’s the number we need to get a new deal with Juan?” If Boras answered that Soto wasn’t going to sign regardless of what the Lerners offered, say that publicly. Out Boras for who he is, again — and still don’t trade Soto. Hand him over to the new owners for the two years until he can become a free agent and let them deal with the migraine that is Boras.
The Lerners owed that to their fan base, not a potentially empty promise that things will be better in a couple of years.
A number of sportswriters and commentators have pointed out that especially in the trades of Trea Turner and now Soto, the Nationals owners have shown that they really don’t care about the fan base. The Nationals are “the team that loses perennial all-stars.” Players that the locals have supported with their emotions and money.
The Lerners are among baseball’s richest owners. But they have lost all those great stars because they have “chosen” not to pay them.
Kevin Blackistone, another nationally recognized Washington Post columnist, took the forceful case directly to the Lerners. “We enriched the Lerners through taxes to build the stadium and this season by shelling out $279.30 on average for a family of four to watch the worst team in the game”, wrote Blackistone. The owners promised last year that they were rebuilding — quickly — around Juan Soto when they traded off the core of their 2019 World Series championship team. Then they broke that promise earlier this week. Their “stewardship” of the team (and I use that term loosely) has led to what may be the fastest fall of a World Series champion in history.
As they traded away stars like Scherzer (a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer), Turner, and Kyle Schwarber, while also losing Anthony Rendon and Harper, they raised season ticket prices — 21% in 2022 alone. TWENTY-ONE PERCENT for what is essentially a AAA minor-league team. I know. I’m a season ticket holder in a group with some other friends.
Baseball business types have and will continue to argue that what the team is doing is smart business, and “just the way the game is” these days. However, the Dodgers, Yankees, Braves, Red Sox, and other perennial winners don’t tear down their teams at the drop of a hat and force their fan base to sit through at least five years of terrible baseball before they have the promise of a decent team. No, this stewardship by the Lerners is veering into Peter Angelos and Daniel Snyder territory (to mix sports). Both the Orioles and the Washington Football Team have eroded decades of fan loyalty as their owners pursued the almighty dollar (not to mention the stroking of their insatiable egos).
Robyn Ryle hit the nail on the head last March when she wrote about inequality and baseball. I linked to it on More to Come but you should go read Robyn’s piece. It is well worth the time. She writes of how some commentators will scream about the salaries of MLB players, such as Mike Trout and Juan Soto (once he reaches $500 million…which he will). But she paraphrases Chris Rock to note that Trout and Soto are rich, while the owners are wealthy. “There’s a big difference between the two.” The owners, CEOs, and other capitalists want you to yell about labor, conveniently forgetting that the Lerners have enough money to pay $500 million and the salaries of the other 25 Nationals. IF they choose to do so.
I last saw Soto play at Nats Park last Saturday evening. Like all fans, I want to see a good product. So do the players. The owners? Not so much. Robyn framed the problem in a way that most of us can understand.
Let me put it more plainly — the players want baseball to be good. The owners just want to make money. Period. End of story.
The Lerner family can’t sell the Nationals fast enough for me.
More to come…
NOTE: In a comment to my March post, my fellow season ticket holder Tom wrote about the giant tax elephant in the room and what is probably the real reason the Lerners are selling: the roster depletion allowance (RDA).
The RDA is a tax escape hatch baseball owners enjoy for 15 years in which they can write off the massive salaries they pay their players. The Lerners bought the team in 2006. Their RDA expired in 2021 or 2022. So they can’t write off the $400 million-plus Juan Soto wants now or enjoy the $200 million annual estimated write-offs they’ve enjoyed for years. A new owner certainly will….It’s a tiny bit about baseball and a ton about taxes.
Tom then quoted a law school professor on federal income tax who said on the 1st day of class: “If you see unusual behavior, it is often due to the tax code.”
Image of money by S.K. from Pixabay.
I feel for you. Our ownership told the fans at the beginning of the season, after tanking a young, competitive team, “Where else are you gonna go?” Well, not to the ballpark. Last time I looked, the Reds had the second worst attendance in the league? For the first time in probably ten years (leaving out the Covid season), I haven’t been to a game. Probably not going to. Don’t want to give those people my money. Hope both our teams get sold and bought by, I don’t know, people who care about baseball? Fingers crossed.
Thanks, Robyn. I have ten tickets as part of my season-ticket package, and I’ve had trouble getting up the enthusiasm to go. Who wants to see a minor-league club playing major league teams and getting crushed on a regular basis? Our attendance is probably holding up because of our east coast location and the fact that so many Washingtonians are transplants. Apparently, the crowd on Monday was 75% Mets fans. I did go last Saturday because I figured – rightly so – that it would be my last time to see Soto in a Nats uniform. They were playing the Cardinals and I was hoping to see Pujols one final time, but he didn’t play. Sorry about your Reds. These owners that prioritize money over mission (i.e., winning baseball) are just another example of what’s wrong with 21st century capitalism in the U.S. On a totally unrelated note, I recommend Fiona Hill’s memoir “There is Nothing for You Here” where she talks about how the Reagan/Thatcher policies of the 1980s set up the decline of both countries and the crises of 2020. I’ll have a post on it up on Monday. DJB
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