Nate McLouth And The Modern Indentured Servitude

When I was young and green and full of vigor, I read the sports page every day before school. And by read I mean read through; I looked at the standings, the box scores, a few columns or articles, and finally the Transactions. The Transactions were always tucked somewhere amongst the horse racing odds and high school football scores – hidden in the crowded back pages. Some days it took longer to find the Transactions section than to read it.

There was something so nonchalant about the Transactions. The print was tiny; the language was terse and mechanical. No byline here: this was pure information, like you’d find in a box score, or the stocks page. All suspensions, signings, trades, and waiver wire claims are treated with the same banal objectivity.

After all, what’s a transaction but an exchange? St. James Place for B&O Railroad or $2.95 for a bottle of detergent – it’s all the same. In this context, Roy Halladay for prospects looks just like Joe Triple A for a Player to be Named Later.


There’s something both egalitarian and inhumane about the Transactions. In one sense, it’s only fair that all these moves get equal mention. To the teams involved, to the players whose lives are affected by a cross country trade or disheartening demotion, the newsworthiness of the transaction is completely irrelevant. But on the other hand, the offhandedness of it all, the blasé list of players swapped for one another as mere commodities reveals something kind of startling:

Trades, and the whole idea of trades, are really kind of insane.

Where else on earth can supposedly competitive entities, allegedly separate businesses, legally traffic in humans like they can in sports? What other environment would encourage something like that? Critics bang fantasy baseball for overlooking the human aspect of the sport, for reducing players to their statistics, but they forget something. Fantasy GMs are trading imaginary rights. Real GMs trade human beings.

It goes without saying that baseball is a business. But the existence of a financial bottom line does not preclude human emotion from its rightful place at the center of well, humanity. When the Pirates traded their best player, Nate McLouth, to Atlanta last month, we were all surprised. Teammate Adam LaRoche was a little more than that:

“It’s kind of like being with your platoon in a battle, and guys keep dropping around you. You keep hanging on, hanging on, and you’ve got to figure: How much longer till you sink? … I’ve still got to be in here telling guys it’s going to be fine with Nate gone. Well, you can only do that for so long until guys just kind of … well, they know.”

The war metaphor may be overwrought, and the rumors that Pittsburgh players held a candlelight vigil for their departed center fielder turned out to be false, but it seems obvious that beyond just baseball and business for the teams involved, the trade mattered on a human level to these guys. Not to mention the three prospects who packed it up from one minor league city to another, and their teammates, and their families, and so on.

We try to hold onto the things we can hold onto – the routines and the consistencies that define our lives. We need those to stay sane, to maintain the notion that we control at least some part of our destinies. The circumstances are obviously different for professional athletes – they are living a worldwide dream, making inconceivable amounts of money (at least at the highest levels), and achieving a kind of rare glory. In that context, the travel and the grueling seasons and the complete lack of control – one man’s fate (where he lives, who he works for) resting on the whim of another man – doesn’t seem so strange, or so undesirable.

I’m not here to lament the state of professional athletes because they get traded. It’s part of the game. We fans grew up with trades, with waiver wires, and disabled lists, and so did they. But it’s not for nothing that athletes covet No Trade Clauses. With the No Trade Clause, they are liberated from the fear and uncertainty of that Transactions section. They can start families, and at least for the length of their contracts, know that only by their own consent will that family be uprooted for job considerations.

This is not an argument for the elimination of trades – they are a vital part of what makes baseball and sport in general so compelling. I just find it strange, borderline illegal even, that such a system exists. And it could only exist, I suppose, in a realm of simulated competition like Major League Baseball, where the real (economic) battle isn’t between franchises on the field, but between baseball and other forms of entertainment.

Athletes are in a strange position. They are the most fundamental ingredient for major sports as we know them to exist. But in a business sense, they are expendable, they are products, albeit valuable products, on display. That it took so long for Free Agency to take hold is a testament to how skewed the system, with its antitrust exemption really is. If Curt Flood was a Well Paid Slave, does that make our current crop of athletes Well Paid Indentured Servants?

2 Responses to “Nate McLouth And The Modern Indentured Servitude”

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article, for the memories invoked of combing the newspaper for box scores and ultimately checking the transactions…the transactions have never changed. Box scores change, new stats added over the years. The standings section changes all the time. Columnists and writers come and go. Newspapers come and go.

  • Thanks. I think newspapers are mostly going these days though…

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