Baseball and the End of Equality

Mickey Kaus – who, yes, I realize is now kind of crackpot, but let’s forget that for a moment – wrote a book many years ago called “The End of Equality.” The thesis of the book was that America’s status as a relatively classless society – socially speaking anyway – was breaking down. We had always had rich and poor here, obviously, but until recently money couldn’t buy someone out of being a citizen like everyone else all too easily. Sure, you could buy your luxury goods and, if you were very rich, you could have servants do your dirty work, but most people – including the professional and educated classes – still had to go to the train station or the post office or to hospitals or to libraries or to public schools or any number of other places where the stuff of society happens and interact with people as rough equals irrespective of financial means. It was this very coming together in the public sphere, Kaus observed, that made America America.

Kaus worried that, while the very rich could always keep themselves separate and apart, larger and larger numbers of people were using money to increasingly insulate themselves from everyday life. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries created a situation in which there was becoming “routine acceptance of professionals as a class apart” and created some implicit and insidious assumption that the affluent and educated were demographically superior to the poor. Kaus wrote the book in the early 90s so it didn’t deal much with the Internet and technology, but I would argue that the ability to shop and socialize apart from your actual physical community – not to mention the fact that the more money you have, the more access to all of the conveniences of the digital age you have – has exacerbated this dynamic, perhaps exponentially. 

I took and still take issue with many of Kaus’ suggestions on how to counteract the dynamic he observed. A lot of those he offered ended up in the misguided and counterproductive welfare reform initiatives of the late Clinton Administration. In addition to being punitive with respect to the poor, they did nothing to solve the problems with which he was concerned. Far more significantly, his discussion of race and of racial divisions and discrimination as a social destabilizer was superficial to the point of being non-existent. Even today, as is evidenced by the Clinton-Sanders primary race and the writings of each side’s supporters, people on the left can’t agree on how economics, race and class should be properly weighed and approached when it comes to addressing societal problems, so I suppose one idiosyncratic center-left (now all over the place) dude like Mickey Kaus couldn’t have been expected to do any better in this regard. It’s all still kind of a mess, really. That aside, Kaus’ prescriptions look less desirable or even plausible with each passing year and I would not recommend the book to anyone for its practical ideas.

Nevertheless, the book’s central observation still sticks with me. I think it’s true that the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. I don’t believe we come together as a society, across economic classes, in anything approaching the way we did even when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, let alone the way we did in previous decades (again, with the acknowledgment that in those previous decades race made this civic coming together a decidedly whites-only affair). We drive too much and live in isolated and increasingly cloistered communities of like-minded people. Indeed, “success” is increasingly equated with being able to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether. This is bad for democracy and social health. It takes us out of the role of stakeholder and, at best, puts us in the role of voyeur when it comes to the challenges we face as a nation. In many cases it causes us to simply turn away altogether and to believe the entire country is doing as well as we are in our little economically and technologically homogenous cocoon. 

I write about baseball for a living. Baseball takes place in stadiums with tens of thousands of people coming together in a single place, focused on a single purpose, all with an overlay of something approaching civic pride. Even if you only consume baseball via TV or online there is a communal aspect to it. If you watch it on TV you can share the experience of the game with people at work the next day. If, like me, you’re a multi-screen baseball consumer who is plugged in to social media as games go on, you are sharing, however virtually, some sort of public experience. Each evening there are only perhaps nine or ten and never more than 15 games going on at any one time and a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds are talking about it. For many years, even after reading “The End of Equality” and worrying about Kaus’ observations, I felt like sports was a bulwark against the degradation of the public sphere. Not a perfect substitute, but better than nothing. I mean, look at this for cryin’ out loud.

Increasingly, however, I don’t believe that to be the case. Indeed, in the past two days I’ve written baseball stories at NBC which remind me that the world of baseball is no different in this regard than anything else. It’s a world in which money is a great insulator and divider. Indeed, if the Lords of the Realm aren’t careful, it could very well become a world that has little if any use for anyone other than the rich. 

Yesterday I wrote a longish piece about baseball’s post-cable future. Currently, baseball owners are raking in money from extraordinarily large cable television deals built on the back of some extraordinarily large cable television bills for viewers at home. Until recently the demand for cable in general and sports on TV in particular was relatively inelastic and the prices could go up, up, up with very little risk to the providers and, in turn, baseball teams. Streaming services like NetFlix and Hulu are changing that equation to some extent for non-sports programming and more people are cutting the cable cord as a result, but baseball does not seem anywhere close to allowing people to consume large swaths of it without also subscribing to cable. Especially those who want to follow the team located in their very own city and who are blacked out from their local nine on MLB’s streaming service. Between the need to pay hundreds a month for cable and the obvious fact that the price to attend games has gone way, way up, baseball has become a sport most easily consumed by the rich over the past 20 years. Its fan demographics – mostly older, whiter and wealthier – bear this out. 

In another story, one I just wrote this evening, we see evidence that it’s not simply a matter of the rich being passively favored by the economic dynamics of the game. They’re now actively favored and catered to by team management, which has simultaneously developed actual disdain for the less-wealthy baseball fan. Hyperbole? Not really. Here’s Lonn Trost, COO of the New York Yankees, answering a question about why the Yankees have pursued a secondary market ticket policy which they own and which, unlike Stubhub, puts a hard floor on the price of tickets:

“The problem below market at a certain point is that if you buy a ticket in a very premium location and pay a substantial amount of money. It’s not that we don’t want that fan to sell it, but that fan is sitting there having paid a substantial amount of money for a ticket and [another] fan picks it up for a buck-and-a-half and sits there, and it’s frustrating to the purchaser of the full amount … And quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that’s a frustration to our existing fan base.”

That’s right. He’s worried that wealthy Yankees season ticket holders will be “frustrated” by having to sit with common people. And that, like some stockholder, their investment will be diluted by virtue of the presence of people who found a way to see a game at a cheaper price. I presume that in the next 24 hours Trost and the Yankees’ PR staff will find a way to walk those words back or shine them up a bit, but they strike me as a Kinsley Gaffe, which is not a lie or a misstatement but, rather, the revelation of some truth the speaker did not intend to admit. Indeed, I would bet my life on the fact that the swells in the luxury sections have told Trost that they really don’t like it when the hoi pilloi are near them. They’re not just paying for good sightlines, you know. They’re paying to be separated from the common fans. I mean, after all, Yankee Stadium has a literal moat built into it for just such purposes. How did these barbarians storm the gates anyway? Have you seen some of these people?

Maybe I’m willfully blind for not having seen baseball reflecting society in this way, as it reflects society in most other ways, until now. Maybe the fact that, increasingly, I attend games with press passes and thus don’t have to buy tickets and wait in long lines quite as much as I used to has caused me to overlook this stuff going on in he ballpark. Maybe the fact that, because I don’t live in the same town as the team I root for, I can watch most of their games with a relatively inexpensive streaming service rather than have to pay for a big cable package (coincidentally, I just cut the cable cord myself in the past week). The social insulation which Kaus described is not necessarily a function of an active choice or malice on the part of anyone, after all. It’s a thing that happens, often without its participants realizing it. I’m no different than any other member of the professional class this regard.

​I don’t have any better ideas about how to fix the problem of social stratification in society at large than Kaus or anyone else. But Major League Baseball is a pretty bite-sized portion of that society. It can, if it so chooses, try to reverse the trend as it manifests itself inside its own relatively small world. It can seek out ways to democratize the fan experience and make the sport more accessible for people who don’t happen to be wealthy. It can find ways for people to watch games, at home, on mobile devices or at the ballpark, that do not require a six figure income or hard budgetary choices on the part of fans. It can make a choice between punting away the young and the poor in favor of older and wealthier fans or it can punt the Lonn Trosts within its ranks to the sidelines and begin to look at its game as something for everyone, not just those folks in the Legends Suites.
I don’t know if it’s too late to restore civil society. But I don’t feel like trying to restore baseball to its status as game for the common people is an unreasonable thing to ask.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.