The excitement surrounding contract negotiations reflects our cultural obsession with wheeling and dealing—and gives otherwise bored fans something to argue about.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) and discuss the recent flurry of trades in Major League Baseball's offseason.
Josh Hamilton is on the move. Zack Greinke is set to fill the trust funds of his great-great-great-grandchildren. The New York Yankees just signed former Boston Red Sox hero Kevin Youkilis. Even the Kansas City Royals have been in the news. Baseball's hot stove is fully fired up, and for fans, this just may be the most wonderful time of the year.
In fact, I'll argue that it is.
The best thing about free agency in sports—well, besides the fact that various forms of labor rights-stifling collusion, including baseball's reserve clause, are utterly un-American—is that our offseasons are now as exciting as the games themselves. If not more so. And it isn't just baseball. Witness the mass hysteria over the NFL Draft, which has its own language and year-round Kremlinologists, and probably deserves its own television network. (Trust me: NFLDrafTV would crush CNN in the ratings. Of course, everyone crushes CNN. But still). Check out the NBA, where LeBron James's notorious "Decision" and Dwight Howard's recent indecision produced more ink and interest than anything either man has done on the floor. College football recruiting news is a growth industry; college basketball recruiting news is a thing; even the coaching carousels in various sports are a big, big deal.
For better or worse, we are a Hot Stove Nation—and that goes for more than athletics. (Be honest: We all pay a lot more attention to presidential elections than to what our presidents do in office, don't we?)
Why is the case? Two reasons, I think. The first is Christmas Eve syndrome. You know how when you're a kid, there's really nothing more exciting than the day you unwrap all those presents? How the mere anticipation of something new, different and potentially awesome is almost always better than the toys themselves? The offseason is the same thing. Oooh, the Los Angeles Lakers landed Howard and Steve Nash! RGIII is going to Washington! Petyon Manning in Denver! Can't wait to see Tim Tebow in ... well, never mind the last one. If you're a fan of a good team, this effect can be pretty powerful: Hey, maybe Ray Allen puts the Miami Heat in position to repeat. Meanwhile, if you root for a lousy franchise—like, say, my hometown Washington Wizards—this effect can be downright intoxicating. Because it's pretty much all you have, a little bit of hope before it gets dashed. (Speaking of which: The Wizards reportedly could have had James Harden, but instead filled their available salary cap space by acquiring journeyman role players Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. Is it possible to sue a sports franchise for malpractice?)
Second, I think we obsess over offseason transactions because doing so fits the zeitgeist. Look at America's post-millenial pop culture obsessions: Moneyball, Wall Street, real estate, televised poker, house-flipping, "American Pickers." Forget Oscar Wilde: We want to know the price and value of everything, and then dish about who got the better deal. For better or worse, we're an arbitrage-minded people, which means that even if I don't care who any given team traded for, I am more than happy to argue about the moves from a purely analytical standpoint.
So let's argue. I think the Dodgers will regret Greinke's gargantuan deal exactly until the moment they take a double tax write-down on it. I think that Youkilis-to-New York is less enraging than a sad commentary on the Yankees' zombified, load-up-on-win-now-vets, can't-quite-say-goodbye-to-the-aughts direction. And I think that the Washington Nationals landing Dan Haren and Denard Span is going to matter a lot more than anything else that happened this offseason. Christmas is just around the corner!
Hampton, what are you obsessing over?