11 June 2015

Reviewing The Game: Secret World of MLB Power Brokers

Jon Pessah's The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers is a long, but engaging read.  The scope of this work is to highlight the trials, tribulations, and successes of Bud Selig as he rose up to take the reins as the commissioner of baseball after helping instigate Fay Vincent's removal as a result if Vincent's perspective that he should pay service to the game as opposed to the owners.  The book moves around with varying focus on MLBPA's representative Donald Fehr, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and various individuals of consequence in the public emergence of the Performance Enhancing Drug scare.  All in all, you have two decades worth of material thickly documented over 625 pages.

What the book does best is admittedly what I know least about.  It is interesting to read how labor and management try to bluff each other into believing different things and how they try to manipulate the media.  The book, although receiving a great deal of cooperation with individuals in management, comes off as quite favorable to the MLBPA.  That is not very hard to do though because the owners continually mislead about their enterprises and the economic realities they face.  Be it collusion or hiding how much their teams make, which, based on leaked documents not mentioned in this book, is quite a bit.  Fan bases sometimes think of owners possessing teams as vanity projects and insist on owners to lose money for the vanity of winning, but owners actually own teams in part because they are actually reliable, blue chip investments.

Selig comes off as a worrier who is desperate to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee and convinced that salary caps, luxury taxes, and new stadiums are silver bullet cures for markets that simply do not hold up in comparison to larger markets.  He also is shown to be an owner at economic crossroads in 1990 who wound up making hundreds of millions of dollars by possibly misleading taxpayers into paying for a stadium and by rolling in salary as the commissioner of baseball.  The other actors in the book are not as well fleshed out as Selig.  He really is the narrative device that holds it all together.

What the book does poorly is what I know best: PEDs and baseball.  With baseball, you will read errant lines about Derek Jeter's "superb" defense.  The player performance takeaways are rather cringe-worthy.  The lean more on the convenient, casual narrative as opposed to any objective analysis.  The same is true about the PEDs.  The book does well to characterize the recent history of use as well as the fear and grandstanding of congress.  It does decently in explaining the union's position about why they did not want to be involved with testing as a result of how management has manipulated them in the past and were also largely incompetent (which, once forced into drug testing through congressional pressure, MLB shows again that it manipulates the information against the players and is also largely incompetent in handling the data).  What it does poorly is that it does not cut through the misunderstandings about "PED"s in that many of them have no indication that they do anything for performance.

The most interesting story about PEDs is that the whole thing is theater.  Congress is upset because the public is upset.  The public is upset because they value the numbers of baseball which is something you really do not see in other sports when their players use disallowed products.  The system in baseball is about banning products without much exploration in effectiveness or danger while being excessively punitive.  As a result, you get what you ask for.  It is a system that does discourage some use, but encourages covert use.  A more comprehensive and understanding program directed at player health instead of avoiding congressional oversight and public outcry would be far more effective.  A program that assessed side effects and rigorously tested effectiveness would surely trump the capabilities of the current supplement industry that often resides in the shadows utilizing word-of-mouth evidence and the expertise of gym rats.

Instead, the story presented in the book is about PEDs is about how the Union tried to prevent testing and the owners did not bother to confront the Union seriously.  It is about how once congress was involved, how the owners immediately rolled over on the players.  It is about how the government was obsessed within the IRS, DoJ, and congress about drug use without really explaining why.  It is about how the players are somewhat conflicted about the whole thing and probably do not realize how the program really affects them.

However, I should stress that the words written about baseball performance are in passing and the effects of PEDs are largely outside the scope of this book.  The focus is truly on power and how different groups try to seek, maintain, and utilize that power within the baseball industrial complex.  For those interested in the game and trying to pull back the curtain in the luxury boxes behind home plate, this is a solid offering from Pessah.

The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers
by Jon Pessah
Little, Brown & Company, 625 pages.

1 comment:

Zeb Snyder said...

If you want to know more about labor-management relations and the business of baseball from the early days until Selig arrived, read The Lords of the Realm by John Helyar. http://www.amazon.com/The-Lords-Realm-John-Helyar/dp/0345465245