A metaphysical question, with a slight twist: If a baseball game is played and no one can see it on TV, does the baseball game really count?
The standings say yes. The statistics agree. And yet to the greater Los Angeles area, 70 percent of whom cannot watch the Dodgers in the comfort of their homes, they might as well not exist. The most expensive team money can buy is also the most expensive mistake in the short history of wildly overpriced, patently absurd local-television-rights deals.
For an estimated $8.3 billion, Time Warner Cable bought the rights to the Dodgers and created SportsNet LA. Time Warner then suggested to cable and satellite providers that they pay at least $4 a month to carry the channel, a fee they would pass along to subscribers. Every one of them kindly told Time Warner to suck a lemon, and so here we are, with the most popular baseball team in the game's second-biggest media market practically blacking itself out on account of its own efforts to fatten its pockets.
And let's not twist this any other way: This is a Dodgers issue and a Time Warner issue, and any effort to spin it otherwise is revisionism. When you have a product like the TV rights to a baseball team, and the value of those TV rights is an ever-moving and nebulous dollar amount, it is incumbent on the parties paying those dollars and receiving those dollars to ensure they will recoup those dollars one way or another.
Everybody in the television business agrees: DirecTV, the satellite giant, sets the standard with sports programming – and should continue to do so even after its purchase by AT&T over the weekend. When it agrees to a carriage deal, the rest of the providers fall in line and do the same. For Time Warner to promise the Dodgers an average of more than $330 million a season for the next 25 years without even a soft carriage agreement in place with DirecTV is malpractice, a monster bet on an audience it clearly did not understand.
Were cancellation orders flowing in on account of the Dodgers' invisibility, surely DirecTV would reconsider its tack, much as it did when the Lakers launched their own network and fans cried foul at its absence on satellite. More than a quarter of the 2014 baseball season has passed, and DirecTV is firm as ever in its stand, which is frightening for the Dodgers, because it reinforces a troublesome truth: By chasing every last dollar and choosing Time Warner, a direct competitor to DirecTV and other providers, they failed to protect their greatest asset. Not a TV contract but a team.
Naturally, the buck-passing is starting, cracks in the unified Dodgers-Time Warner front apparent. Peter Guber, one of the Dodgers' co-owners, recently told the Los Angeles Times: "We sold the rights to a gigantic corporation, it's their job to market the rights and get the distribution. We are not happy that they haven't been able to get the full distribution in our own market that they promised. That's their job. They made the bet."
Actually, this bet was two-fold. The Dodgers bet on Time Warner to fulfill its duties, fully aware that an inability to do so would render them mute in a Los Angeles sports scene that thrives on noise. Of course, maybe that's a good thing, consider just how disappointing the …
1. Los Angeles Dodgers have been over the season's first seven weeks. Even though they're an above-.500 team, they're barely that at 23-22, and the scrutiny of last season's start isn't quite the same considering nobody has seen how mediocre they look.
It's more of a collective problem than an individual one. Their lineup is serviceable, even with Hanley Ramirez playing like the late-Marlins model and Dee Gordon cooling down and A.J. Ellis just back. Their pitching staff is loaded with brand names, some of whom are thriving (Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Dan Haren) and others of whom are merely surviving (Chris Perez, Paul Maholm, Brian Wilson).
Their disappointment is more relative than anything. On one hand, the Dodgers are in third place, behind the Giants (who have won two of the past four World Series) and the Rockies (who have finished in the National League West cellar two of the past three seasons). And on the other, at this point last season, the Dodgers were 19-26, on their way to a 30-42 start, from which they recovered by the grace of an incredible 53-13 stretch, the sort that made them favorites in a postseason the …
2. Boston Red Sox eventually dominated. Those Red Sox are nowhere to be found this season. The team that sported a 2.59 ERA over 142 1/3 postseason innings last year and rode great starting pitching now sports a rotation that is 60 percent meh.
Clay Buchholz has been straight awful (a major league-worst .337 batting average and .383 on-base percentage against), Felix Doubront pretty bad (puny strikeout rates and groundball rates are a bad combination) and Jake Peavy addicted to walks (and while he didn't yield any free passes Sunday night, Detroit peppered him for 11 hits).
Two slices of good news remain. First: At Triple-A, the Red Sox boast an entire rotation of prospects in Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman. Henry Owens provides reinforcements at Double-A. So flexibility exists, as it may in second baseman-turning-center fielder Mookie Betts, who could well replace Jackie Bradley Jr. and Grady Sizemore should they continue to struggle. Even better: The American League East is a complete dumpster fire. The injury-racked Yankees are in first place with a negative run differential, as are the second-place Orioles. Tough to buy the Blue Jays with their bullpen of doom (a 5.50 ERA in May, better only than the Dodgers' and Reds'). And then sit the Red Sox, at 20-23, just three games back of first place, though still two games ahead of the …
3. Tampa Bay Rays and their injury-ravaged rotation. Alex Cobb is on his way back. Jeremy Hellickson may return by late June. Matt Moore is done for the year with Tommy John surgery. The Rays surely were not anticipating giving 13 starts to Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard, the latter of whom, incidentally, has been their best starter. The result: a major league-high 152 2/3 innings from their bullpen, a weakness to start.
David Price remains an anomaly. His 77-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio is potentially historic. The record is 11-to-1, set by Bret Saberhagen in 1994, which Price's 12.83-to-1 would smash. At the same time, Price has allowed 11 home runs, including a pair to Albert Pujols on Sunday. He has given up 16 in each of the past two seasons, during which he logged nearly 400 innings total.
Chances are it's a blip, something correctable. The Rays' offense must remedy itself similarly, too, because as Evan Longoria told reporters on Sunday, the season thus far has "been pretty dismal, to say the least." At 19-26, the Rays are only 1½ games better than the …
4. Arizona Diamondbacks, which is both embarrassing for the Rays and edifying for the D-backs. They've won 10 of their past 16 to escape baseball's cellar (that belongs to the 15-27 Cubs) and put them nearly as close to the Dodgers as the Dodgers are to first place.
Still, the hiring of Tony La Russa this week as chief baseball officer reverberated through the organization. In recent weeks, general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson steeled themselves to what seemed like the inevitable end of their tenures with the Diamondbacks. And placing La Russa atop them in the organizational hierarchy neuters whatever power was left amid Arizona's troublesome start with a franchise-high payroll.
It's reminiscent of Cincinnati's hiring of La Russa's old boss in St. Louis, Walt Jocketty, as a special consultant in January 2008. Three months later, GM Wayne Krivsky was fired and Jocketty took the reins, turning around an organization though never getting the Reds to the NLCS. They're struggling this year as well, injuries and a miserable bullpen dooming them. Good thing the …
5. Pittsburgh Pirates are around to make the Reds feel a little better about themselves. These look like the old Pirates. Their run differential is actually worse than the Cubs' (who at minus-3 have, admittedly, hit a stretch of bad luck). The Pirates, on the other hand, are about as bad as their minus-18 indicates.
Starting pitching is the culprit. Francisco Liriano has resumed his career as Dr. Frankie and Mr. Liriano. Gerrit Cole, even with his monster fastball and slider, keeps proving hittable. The Edinson Volquez experiment is barreling toward its expected conclusion, which comes with a warning label and fire extinguisher. The bullpen can bail them out only so often, and beyond Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' offense consists of a cornucopia of mediocrity. In the meantime, Gregory Polanco sits at Triple-A hitting .389/.453/.623. Because, you know, he's not ready.
At least the Pirates are looking down at someone in the standings, unlike a …
6. Cleveland Indians team well on its way to bottoming out. Oakland swept the Indians over the weekend, and now they host first-place Detroit for three and head to Baltimore and Chicago.
While the long-term deal for Michael Brantley looks like a stroke of genius and the refusal to give Justin Masterson a substantive contract the same, the sorest thumbs with Cleveland are the most obvious. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, on whom the Indians spent a combined $104 million last season and to whom they're committed for the rest of this year and two more full seasons each, are drinking from the Fountain of Aging.
They embody the very sorts of contracts a low-revenue team like Cleveland cannot endure sans pain, and with Carlos Santana forgetting how to hit a baseball (with a major league-worst .152 batting average, it almost makes the …
7. Kansas City Royals thankful for having Mike Moustakas. Until they realize Moustakas actually has been a worse hitter than the guy hitting .152. He's at .157, and though his slugging percentage trumps Santana's, his on-base percentage is nearly 100 points lower. Which, considering the point of the game is to get on base, does not serve him terribly well.
Moustakas is a microcosm of the 2014 Royals: great hopes blown astray on the cool breeze of a bat swinging through a ball. Because the pitching and fielding are the flaccid bats' diametric opposite, both worthy of a contender. James Shields dealing, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy playing thunder and lightning, Jason Vargas doing his best Mark Buehrle impersonation, Greg Holland effective as ever, Wade Davis proving himself worthy of Holland's closing role in case the Royals wise up and deal Holland at year's end when his value remains strong.
And, yes, unless there's a monumental collapse in the coming weeks, the Royals do plan on keeping Shields and Holland for the remainder of the season. One of the great effects of the Tommy John epidemic is that it forces pitching-heavy clubs to never bank on a window of contention, and like the Royals, the …
8. Seattle Mariners understand any chance of reaching the postseason in a division with the superior A's and Angels rests on a starting rotation with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Certainly their offense doesn't inspire much worry, even with the anomalous 75 runs they've scored in May. That's sixth best in baseball this month, despite their May on-base percentage ranking 23rd, their slugging percentage 19th and no distinguishing characteristic there to immediately explain the incongruity.
The Mariners have hovered around .500 for most of the season, which might be respectable had they not gone out and spent $240 million on Robinson Cano. His contract changed the expectations for 2014, fair or unfair. It is the deal on which GM Jack Zduriencik staked his claim. And while the first two numbers of his slash line look A-OK – .318/.366 – the final one is more befitting of squire than king: .406. And that's after his 4-for-5 Sunday.
Jose Altuve's slugging percentage is higher than that. He fits in Cano's pocket. So is Danny Espinosa's. He spent most of last year at Triple-A. And Brandon Hicks'. He's not even hitting .200.
All the Mariners want at this point is Cano's second home run, especially as the …
9. Texas Rangers endure one of the most brutal injury stretches in recent memory. Their disabled list is like the Zagat Guide for Awful Luck.
Starters Matt Harrison and Martin Perez joined the crew this week. Harrison may need spinal-fusion surgery and Perez will undergo Tommy John surgery Monday. They join opening day starter Tanner Scheppers (who was making his first-ever major league start because so many guys were hurt), starter Derek Holland, second baseman Jurickson Profar, the resurgent Kevin Kouzmanoff and four others. Oh, and there's the whole neck injury to Prince Fielder, whom the Rangers owe $138 million for the next seven years.
Three games under .500, getting killed in run differential, the Rangers recognize winning with their current personnel may not happen as readily as it did with a full complement of players. If only the Rangers could have what …
10. Los Angeles Dodgers possess: an endless cauldron of money into which they can dip, filling every obvious problem with a flash of the wallet. It's really quite impressive, and it's what the Dodgers figured their next quarter century would resemble.
Sure would be nice if the fans didn't have to drive to Dodger Stadium to see it. Even at 23-22, the Dodgers are a hot ticket. The infusion of excitement from getting to watch them on TV every day – to see the narrative of a season build instead of trying to piece one together from now-and-again trips to the stadium – matters to the modern consumer. There's a reason local-TV deals have fetched billions. Because in those cases, demand dictated the price of the sale.
The tail wagged the dog with the Dodgers, and maybe the AT&T-DirecTV merger will force the issue instead of seeing the Dodgers go on the public-relations offensive while DirecTV continues to make the same reasonable point: Why charge everyone $4 for a channel not all of them watch?
It's a salient point, one that strikes right at the heart of the TV-rights system that continues to move toward a-la-carte programming. If you want SportsNet LA, you should have it. If not, you shouldn't. Simple enough. And yet because past TV deals have forced consumers into buying products they don't want, the Dodgers want to argue precedent holds.
So it shall, from now until whenever the lawyers say the Los Angeles Invisibles can return to television and remind people what they were missing in the first place.
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