Walk into almost any grocery store, and watch the shoppers… especially the families. When they get to the checkout aisle, while mom and dad are looking to the left, and unloading the groceries onto the belt, the kids are looking to the right, scouting out the candies and toys placed in convenient reach ofÂ the children. Watch the children ask their moms and dads, “Can I get M&Ms? Pleeeaaase?”
Mom and dad are placed in an unfair, but very familiar situation: relent and get the kids what they want, or risk a loud and possibly embarrassing tantrum.
It is with that in mind that I read Dave Sheinin’s post in Nationals Journal about the drafting of Stephen Strasburg. It seems that Scott Boras is intent on retaining control of how his client appears in public. That’s an excellent strategy, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Boras, especially when he representsÂ a player as highly-regarded as Strasburg. But in the process, Boras is creating a divide. A divide between player and team, and between player and the fans.
I think he’s on the verge of sending the wrong message.
I went back today and looked at the Nationals number one draft picks since they moved to Washington. If you look at that list, you notice something every interesting. Almost every one of those first round picks are players that even casual fans would recognize, because at the time they were drafted, they appeared in the media and in person, where the fans could get to see and hear from them. The players I remember most from their media tours were Ryan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. Both appeared on MASN and sat in the booth for a while during games… but other first rounders also came and visited Nationals Park, took questions from the media, etc. I remember thinking at the time, just how exciting it will be to see such a highly touted draft pick like Ryan Zimmerman grow and develop into a star with the Nationals. I thought the same thing about Ross Detwiler, too.
And then there’s Aaron Crow.
Of course, there was never any thought that Zimmerman or Detwiler wouldn’t sign with the Nationals. Part of that was because they stated publicly that they were excited at the prospect of playing in Washington… and it was just a matter of time and working out the details. And of course, there’s the news this morning that the Nationals other first round pick in the draft, Drew Storen has signed with the Nationals. But for Crow, who was invited to visit with the team, see the new stadium, meet the fans, wax poetic about his future in Washington – none of those things ever happened… and while it didn’t go unnoticed that Crow didn’t sign, for a lot of us, it wasn’t like we’d left a family member off the family reunion guest list. Crow’s negotiations were about the business of baseball, and not so much about the fans. You can be upset that Crow got away, but it wasn’t like Ryan Zimmerman getting away. The fans weren’t in love with Crow – they’d never met him.
And this, really, is the lesson that Boras needs to learn from the supermarket. Baseball teams pay the players salaries, but the fans are the consumers. The reason that the Nationals need to sign Stephen Strasburg is not because the Nationals need him, but because the fans want him… which is the same reason that mothers and fathers buy M&Ms for their kids. In fact, from a purely business standpoint, the Nationals don’t need him. It is only for the marketing and public relations value that Stephen Strasburg commands the price tag he does. For the kind of money Boras is talking, the Nats could sign a top-shelf free agent pitcher with a lot less risk.
So my message to Scott is this: If you want to get the best deal for your client, put him at the checkstand, right at eye level with every one of the Nationals instant-gratification-short-attention-span fans. Let Carpy and Dibble and Charlie and Dave interview him. Let him sign autographs. If you really want to be over the top, get the Nationals to have Strasburg be a guest of the team and throw out the first pitch at a Sunday afternoon game. Let Washington fall in love with Stephen Strasburg. Make it so that when the Natosphere whines and cries to mom and dad for M&Ms, there’s no real choice.
The mistake that Boras is making is that by trying to make an example of the inequities of the draft system, he risks convincing the consumers – you and me – that there is a price that is too high for a player… but the price is not a dollar price, but rather the price of the drama. The average fan wants to see Stephen Strasburg on the field. The average fan doesn’t particularly care if he signs for $15 million or $50 million. The average fan is inclined to blame the Nationals if contract negotiations fail – unless Boras calls so much attention to himself and his client that the casual fans see the absurdity in the argument that a $50 million contract in unfair – to the player!
Many fans and bloggers will correctly point out that the $500,000 difference that kept Aaron Crow from signing with the Nationals was a trivial amount, and that it shouldn’t have prevented him from signing. But suppose in that alternate-universe reality that I am so fond of, that Aaron Crow had made those public appearances at Nationals Park, been interviewed on MASN and on the radio, met the team, visited the stadium, seen Washington… given the fans a chance to fall in love with him. Do you think he wouldn’t have been signed? Do you really think that the Nationals could have let Crow walk away, while the casual fan pined for Crow in a Nats uniform? Do you think that $500,000 would have stopped the Nats?
Not a chance. Just the marketing and promotional value of those appearances would have been worth the $500,000, especially as poor as last season was.
My approach works for both parties. The Nats are desperate to show forward progress as an organization. Trotting Strasburg out at Nationals Park would be a huge win for them. And it would be a win for Strasburg, too. It serves to gloss over the monopolistic organization that is Major League Baseball and its inequities, and puts free samples of M&Ms in the hands of kids that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer when they cry for more. We want M&Ms! We want Strasburg!
A quick, fair, and probably record-breaking contract negotiation is a win for everyone. A drawn-out, acrimonious, tedious negotiation full of the minutiae of contract law and the inequities of a monopolistic system, argued on behalf of a college kid with no Major League experience that might make $500 million in salary and endorsements over the course of his career – that would be a loss for everyone.
Remember who the consumers are.