The Steinbrenner Effect


My roommate used to bother me about always playing this video game on my computer. According to him, every time he was coming into or leaving the apartment, I would be sitting there, Sidewinder in hand, playing just one more game of High Heat Baseball. I’ve loved baseball ever since I began playing at age 7. When I couldn’t get out onto the field I would play baseball video games. Games like Bases Loaded II (NES), Bases Loaded 3 (SNES), RBI Baseball (Genesis), All-Star Baseball (N64), among others. I even played Pete Rose Pennant Fever (PC) - a relic of a game so old that when I managed to track it down on the internet a few years ago it wouldn’t even run because me computer was too new. They were all enjoyable and fun, but I always told people it was nothing like the real thing.

Over time, the games got better and better, and some of them began to get it right. Enter Out of the Park series (PC) and High Heat Baseball (multiple platforms). For a few years there (circa 2000-2002) these two franchises were the best baseball simulations you could buy - bar none. OOTP was a text-based game, so you didn’t control players during the actual games. Instead you were thrust into an ownership/General manager position where you micro managed everything about the team: making trades, setting lineups, signing free agents, scouts, pitching coaches, etc. The game gave you complete control over your team, as well as three minor league affiliates.

High Heat, on the other hand, was a game that you actually played. This made game a little more mainstream, but it stood out from other games with its lifelike physics engine and its faithful recreation of the pitcher-batter confrontation. The game also gave users vast amount of control: one could make trades, call up minor leaguers, draft your amateurs, etc. In all, the two games were the pinnacle of baseball simulation as we knew it, no matter what style you preferred (I must mention that I never played the much-lauded Earl Weaver series and therefore can’t include it in the discussion).

I ended up buying High Heat Baseball 2000(HH2K), along with the eagerly recommended Microsoft Sidewinder Gamepad. The game was incredibly realistic, you actually felt like you were out on the field playing baseball. I played for hours, days at a time. My roommate wasn’t exaggerating, I was always playing. Its main hold on me wasn’t the actual playing of the games (a half-hour task in itself). I derived pleasure from viewing the box scores at the end of the every game and looking at my players’ performances. The games would accumulate, the stats would pile up, and that’s what I enjoyed. I was creating a parallel universe to Major League Baseball, only that I was in complete control of it. There was no reason to keep a struggling catcher when I could simply trade for the best catching prospect in the minors and call him up to the Show. I think the statistics were so important to me because they brought an otherwise virtual world to life. The team was never finished because I always wanted every player to have MVP numbers. Since the game allowed me to make whatever changes I wanted, there was no reason to stop once I had a great team, it could always get better.

One day I was playing what must have been my third or fourth game of the day (of the eighth season) when all of the sudden I realized I was bored. I wasn’t having any fun. I realized that the game, life everything else in life, had its faults. It wasn’t perfect. As far as I could see, there were two major issues that kept this game from truly being “like the real thing”: a) trading was far too easy. It didn’t take much to acquire another team’s young superstar in exchange for mediocre players from your minor league system. OOTP was much better at this and there was even talk, at one point, of creating a program that would merge the two games together. The possibility of such a program caused great excitement and “The Link” (as it was called) gained a wide, mythic-type following.

This had nothing to do with the developer of HH (3DO), it was a fan-based initiative that actually looked like it could happen (it turns out some fans have similar if not superior talent than that of the game’s creators). A fellow known as DangerZ had created editing programs for HH and it was discussed. In the end, it never happened. So the trading problem was still unresolved as far as HH went.

b) The second fault was that the game didn’t have a financial model. This meant you could have the most expensive players (talent-wise) on your team and not suffer any side-effects for it. You could have an All-Star team for 162 games and that would be OK.

Which is what I realized I had as I sat there playing my fourth or fifth game of the afternoon. It wasn’t an All-Star team in the sense of having a Bonds, Piazza, Sosa, Pujols, Rolen, Guerrero sort of lineup, but I had my favorite guys from around the league (and minor leagues) on my team. I was winning, I had the best record in the league, I had tons of great players - but I always wanted more and I realized that if I wanted to I could always go out and get better players. There was no fantasizing of a sense of team or chemistry. The realization let me see how boring it all was. What had started as enjoyment of a very lifelike simulation of a game I loved had morphed into some grotesque imitation of itself. This wasn’t baseball, this was God I was playing.

Enter George Steinbrenner, the man currently playing God with baseball (along with perhaps Scott Boras, but that’s a whole other story). Starting lineup: Jeter, Williams, Arod, Sheffield, Giambi, Posada, Matsui, Lee/Clark/Sierra, Wilson. And it should read Boone instead of Wilson but for his injury and subsequent release. Lofton is on the DL/bench. Starting rotation: Vasquez, Mussina, Brown, Lieber, Contreras (for now). Bullpen: Rivera, Gordon, Quantrill, Karsay.

If you would have told me all that information four years ago I would have said, “Yeah that’s a pretty good team, but I don’t think that Matsui guy has been uploaded into the roster patches yet.”

I would have assumed it was a HH conversation (in OOTP such a team would’ve been impossible to assemble without running into some financial trouble). Over the past few years George Steinbrenner has turned baseball from a hallowed pastime into High Heat Real Life Major League Baseball, and I don’t like it. His infinitely deep pockets are one thing, but some side effects are getting out of hand.

Look at what happened when Arod was on the block this past off-season. The Red Sox were this close to getting him until it all fell apart. Enter the Yankees. In exchange for Soriano and a minor leaguer they got what some are prematurely calling the greatest player ever. In exchange for two players? If I were Texas I wouldn’t save my game after that trade. Reset, undo, cancel, anything to undo it. The trade has ended up looking good for Texas so far, but this isn’t about Texas. So what does Steinbrenner do after acquiring the best SS in the game? He moves him to 3B.

Look at what happened when one of the best Cuban players defected and wanted to play Major League Baseball. Enter the Yankees, who pay him $8 million to go to the minors and “find his rhythm.” Evil empire indeed.

The classic example of this “High Heat mentality” can be seen in the way the Yankees handled this past off season: they signed Lofton and Lee, a CF and a 1B. The Yankees current CF and 1B? Giambi and Williams. But both are up there in age and have leg troubles so they want backups, just in case. Plus they can DH too, along with Sierra and Tony Clark. Throw Miguel Cairo into the mix too. The whole point here being that the Yankees have the luxury of acquiring players that could be starters in the Major League to be their backups.

It’s ridiculous because I know exactly what Steinbrenner is doing, only he’s actually paying real money to make these moves, and paying dearly for them. He fails to realize that there is a threshold in baseball, as with other professional sports. The threshold rule says that once a team acquires a certain level of talent (lets say around $180 million), you can’t buy more victories after that. You can’t be more sure that you will win the World Series, which is the ultimate purpose of the whole thing. This is, clearly, something that Mr. Steinbrenner doesn’t realize. Every time the Yankees don’t win the W.S. he asks his “people” or “inner circle” why they didn’t win. I can’t imagine the tension in the room after such a question:

“Well sir.....um...you see....they scored more runs than us and well...there’s this thing called chance...” What else can they say? He had to have felt additionally terrible after the Marlins, a small market team, beat them in the World Series last year. It was perfect: a small market team beating this big monster with all the money and muscle.

“Why didn’t we win?”

Because this is baseball and chance is one thing you can’t simulate in a video game? No, chance is one of the easiest things to program into a baseball game. Chance is what makes a best of seven game series like the World Series a crapshoot. It’s a gamble out there. Unlike some other things in the world, there will never be an absolute correlation between money and winning it all. It is, as they say, “why you play the games.”

I don’t play video games anymore, baseball or otherwise. For the past two years I’ve been enjoying the real thing, but this Steinbrenner fellow doesn’t realize what he’s doing. If he wants to bastardize a franchise with such fine history and standing, that’s fine. Do it. I don’t care, Yankees suck, right? Jeter sucks too (he really has this year, finally). But his handling of the team has had repercussions. The proverbial ripples in the water.

Enter the Red Sox. I love the Sox. Not crazy about the fans (they suck too), but the team is great and they all seem to have a great chemistry. But some names jump out at me: Schilling, Kim, Williamson, Foulke, Arod, Contreras. Two closers of that caliber on one team? Another number one pitcher? Kim is getting paid good money to pitch for AAA Pawtucket. Granted, they didn’t get Arod nor Contreras, but they were right there in the bidding for them. I see a baby-Yankees here. I understand that, in order to keep up with the Yankees in that division, they have to do some Yankee-like things, so yes I understand. And it’s the Yankees’ fault. It’s because of the Yankees that nowadays if you don’t have at least a .280 hitter with 15+ homeruns at every position, you have a problem. It wasn’t always this way.

Then we have my beloved Cubbies. Those of the ever-increasing budget owned by the Tribune Corp. I see it happening here too, and it’s even worse because I follow them the closest of all. Some names: Maddux, Baker, Walker, Ramirez. A future Hall of Famer as a number five starter? Walker getting paid to sit on the bench after hitting .280 with 80+ RBIs? (yes, that was Walker’s decision, but still) A manager that gets paid how much? They got Ramirez and the afore-mentioned Lofton last year for who? (the trade was a wash) Teams are feeling like they have to catch up and something must be done to put a stop to all this craziness.

A salary cap, as much as the players don’t like it, could save the sport. I do like the current system of the luxury tax though. However, I think it should be more extreme. Double it. Do something that will make the Devil Rays a competitive threat to the Yankees and Red Sox every time Steinbrenner goes on one of his spending binges “just in case.” Granted, more money won’t necessarily make a team better (see Seattle, New York Mets), but it’s certainly a start.

Average baseball salaries didn’t rise for the first time in a long time this year. That’s a start. But I think this problem is strictly in the hands of greedy ballplayers. They could fix baseball if they wanted to, and fix in the good way. And this is the game’s second problem (besides Steinbrenner, who is the root of so many others): they don’t want to. Baseball is no longer a game, it’s a business. You’ve heard it hundreds of times in the paper. A player wants nothing to do with the business aspect, he wants to “focus on what happens on the field,” which leaves the game in the hands of greedy agents. If they control such an influential part of the game (the money), then they become part of the game. They are the game, and can become just as or even more important than the players (don’t let the slogan fool you, MLB is not about “the fans”). It’s not a pretty picture of baseball.

And here we are wondering why we ever wanted a financial model in a baseball video game. If we let Steinbrenner continue to run his team this way, the only way other teams will be able to keep up is by adopting this same, "fantasy" tactic. Meaning at one point we'll stop playing baseball as we know and instead of Major League Baseball being sponsored by games like High Heat Baseball we'll find baseball as we know it has ceased to exist and that what is left is more of a fantasy game, complete with wild, inconceivable trades and three or four All Star Teams battling for the pennants. With the trade deadline coming up, you just wait and see.



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