I’ve been following the ongoing saga with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers very closely over the past few days. This is entirely for selfish reasons — I was smart enough to draft James Conner for my fantasy team three weeks ago — but I’ve been trying to relate Bell’s situation to baseball. It’s an interesting thought.
First, a summary. Bell held out of training camp after having the “franchise tag” — a reserve clause of sorts that allows teams to retain one player for the following season at an average of the top five salaries at that position — placed on him back in March. This is a fairly common negotiation tactic in the NFL, but Bell is taking it a step further. He still has yet to sign his one-year contract. The Steelers kick off their season on Sunday, leaving Bell at risk of forfeiting part of his 2018 salary (roughly $14 million). Bell’s camp is hopeful this will reduce the wear and tear on his body, and potentially force a trade willing to give him a long-term contract extension.
I’ve been trying to think of how I would react as a fan in this situation. We, as fans, are conditioned to “root for the laundry,” or place the team’s well-being above that of the players, fans, and others. It’s why we worry about a player’s service time, the Super-Two deadline, and the relative value of free agent contracts. It’s why we’re (somewhat) OK with tanking, and even champion the benefits of losing now to acquire better prospects, hopefully translating to future wins.
But what if a player’s interests actively went against those of the team? Sure, we see players ask for large contracts, which potentially limit a team’s ability to pay other talented players. We balked at the gaudy figure handed out to Max Scherzer a few years ago, and wondered if he would ever be worth the $30 million average annual value of his deal with the Washington Nationals (spoiler alert: he has). Some even chastised Scherzer himself for not taking the low-ball offer* Detroit supposedly gave him the offseason prior, questioning his loyalty to a team that passed on him in the 2006 draft.
*My description of the six-year, $144 million contract on the table for Scherzer that offseason tells you how I felt about it.
The tough part about assessing Bell’s negotiating tactics through the eyes of a baseball fan is that the entire process is very foreign to us. All baseball contracts are fully guaranteed, and baseball doesn’t pose the same injury risk that football does. Even pitchers aren’t putting their entire career — and long-term health, if we’re being honest — on the line every time the ball is put in play. Playing an extra season under a suppressed arbitration salary doesn’t put them at significant risk of not reaching that next contract. Plus, there are deadlines for players and teams to come to an agreement well before the season starts, and the entire arbitration process all but prevents a training camp holdout from occurring.
But let’s say a baseball player were to hold out in a similar manner. How would you feel? I would certainly side with the team to a certain extent — we’re Tigers fans, after all, not just Michael Fulmer or Justin Verlander or Alan Trammell fans — but I can’t imagine myself truly turning against the player.
Maybe I’m too far into the weeds as a “baseball writer” (heavy emphasis on those quotation marks), and I understand how this business works, and how much money owners are making. Maybe I just can’t comprehend how frustrating this situation is for those actually invested in the team’s success. I’m not a Steelers fan; if anything, I’m rooting against them on multiple fronts, even if Bell humiliated my alma mater for three years in his college days. Maybe I just don’t get angry about things, unless they involve releasing Jairo Labourt earlier than I would like.
Let’s say Nicholas Castellanos were to lay his bat down and refuse to play next season until he receives a new contract. I’d be OK with it. I’ve publicly campaigned for him to receive an extension already, so perhaps I’m biased on this front too, but I would respect his rights. It wouldn’t be ideal for Detroit’s interests, but I couldn’t see myself fully turning away from a player just because he wants to be paid fairly for his talents. Even if I didn’t want the team to re-sign that player, I wouldn’t channel any frustration directly towards that player.
Sports fandom is irrational, though. We root for the team our parents rooted for, or the team that we are closest to geographically, or just one that we liked for a certain player or uniform or classic moment. We even let their fortunes dictate how we feel, perhaps for far longer in a given day or week than we should. Those of you still frustrated with Scherzer, or Prince Fielder, or another player who has wronged the Tigers in the past have a reason for doing so, even if it is, at its core, highly irrational.
Or maybe my experiences as a fan, coming from a different sport where I’m writing about my favorite team on a daily basis, don’t mix with those of football fans, who may better understand just how detrimental Bell’s actions may be to the team’s potential success. Maybe this relationship is contentious both on and off the field — his teammates’ comments certainly indicate as much — and we just don’t get that type of interaction in baseball.
What do you think?