Rebuilding: What Baseball Tells Us About the Economy

Part of my new job (internship but who’s counting?) is to watch cable news all day and flag breaking stories, funny clips, and keen soundbites. One thing I’ve learned in just three days is that every mean thing ever said about political pundits is true. They really are that dumb.

Among the noises bouncing from network to network this week is a growing concern amongst media types that Americans are impatient with the rate of our economic recovery. “Americans are sitting around waiting for things to get better,” one empty suit might say. “Yep, consumers won’t spend anything until they see that we are really coming out of this,” another might reply.

The sentiment is a dangerous one. We can’t make everything all better right away. I won’t comment on policy decisions –this website is about understanding the world through baseball, not political gospel- but I will make one statement. Things will get worse before they get better. If you don’t realize that, you better wake up. Now we start with the baseball:

The first thing to occur to me when I heard all that chatter about a quick recovery was baseball; I thought about my days managing teams in online simulations. I thought about the way real life clubs rise and fall, rebuild or try to spend their way into contention.

Let’s look at the economy like a struggling baseball franchise. On this team things were going great until all at once they weren’t; a bunch of guys got hurt and few reckless signings came back to burn the front office. Suddenly the team is taking. A superstar is done in by a steroid scandal, the manager retires after his own scandal-plagued reign, and the bottom has dropped out of the team’s won-loss record. Last place and falling fast.

As a General Manager, what do you do? You could spend big on a few quick-fix free agents. It worked for the Florida Marlins after all, but where did that leave them the next season? Back in last place. You could trade everybody and completely rebuild. Do it like the Oakland A’s. Win for a few years until the youngsters grow up. Then let them walk when you can’t afford to pay them and start from the process over.

Or the balanced option: Work to the best of your ability with what you have. Try and stabilize what core of your roster hasn’t festered, and in the process overhaul the personnel, culture, and failed office structures of your franchise. Don’t let your team crash completely and risk crippling ticket revenue, but don’t get ambitious. Don’t build a skyscraper with a shallow foundation. Perhaps the best example of this approach is what the Cleveland Indians have done under Mark Shapiro.

When Shapiro took over the Indians in 2001, the team was on its way to toal collapse. But after two very ugly years, Shapiro got the team on an upswing. He bought a fancy software program called DiamondView and changed managers. He gave prospects the chance to succeed and kept the right veterans like Omar Vizquel around. The franchse has not been spectacular, but it is the definition of stable. Now the Indians have nowhere to go but up.

Mark Shapiro, Tim Geithner, Joe the Plumber, you, me. We’re all just out there trying to make sense of the world. And as we do, as we read the paper and watch the news and check our dwindling bank accounts, I think it is important we maintain perspective. Things will only get worse. More jobs will be lost, more homes will be foreclosed. We must consider how we want this recovery to happen.

Do we want to be the Florida Marlins or the Cleveland Indians? Do we pin our hopes to Bobby Bonilla, huffing after a bunt on the back end of a big contract? Or do we pin them to Grady Sizemore, running down a would-be double in the gap, young and in it for the long-haul?

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