According to the adage, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel, but in fact the Yankees with their enormous payroll, entirely disporportionate to the rest of the teams in the league, represent, if anything, the triumph of labor over management, earning close to the maximum of their market value for their efforts, for better or for worse. In the game that fans generally don’t care about—the struggle between workers and bosses—the Yankee players are succeeding in unprecedented fashion. In the game we watch on the field, it’s a different story. This weekend the Yankees lost a playoff series to the Detroit Tigers, a team with the best pitching in baseball (and the statisics prove it) and which won 95 games, two fewer than New York. Because of the disparities in the teams’ payroll, though, the Tigers were considered to be underdogs, wildly overmatched, a hopeless longshot to even compete in the series, so their victory was heralded as some kind of karmic triumph, something that had less to do with their efforts than the hubris of the Yankees and the laziness and indifference of the team’s overcompensated players. Commentators have a chance to break out all the ideological notions that go along with big-money athletes: Well-paid players can’t work together as a team, players care more about their pay than the game, the players are arrogant and aloof and unmanagable, they were overconfident in the face of low-profile upstarts, they don’t play for the love of the game. Then there’s the Tigers, who prove that working hard and beating the best is its own sweet reward, no matter what the players’ take-home pay is. By repeating these nostrums, are we dittoing management’s line in undermining unions? True, it’s hard to see guys like Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield as working-class Joes; they tend to be depicted as mercenary “free agents,” even though it required union intervention to allow them to negotiated the contracts they received, which were not extorted but given freely as a response to fair competition, at least as we typically define fairness economically—not having enough money to make a competitive bid doesn’t amount to unfairness, despite the complaints of small-market teams. But such free agents are ultimately wage workers; they don’t own the means of producing baseball games and their talent and notoriety—the only capital they have—requires someone else to build an arena in which to exhibit it. They just happen to be wage workers who have managed to get a much fairer deal—a larger proportion of the MLB enterprise’s profits—for themselves than most workers, because they have rare skills that are not easily replaceable. But because they have won the labor-management game, we for some reason have a strange desire to see them lose the game on the field as recompense. We crave proof that being a successful worker paid an appropriate wage somehow means you are a bad human being, tainted by money. We end up cheering the Tigers’ victory as some kind of victory for the baseball system or because they have a low payroll and have thereby “overachieved”—but isn’t it odd to cheer an organization for its success in suppressing wages? That is like rooting for U.S. Steel.
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