The Toronto Blue Jays walked themselves into a PR blunder when the coaching and management sat rookie phenom, the #1 rated prospect in all baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the Victoria Day matinee at the Rogers Centre. Never mind the fact that the 20 year old superstar-in-waiting just broke out with a four homerun week that earned him American League player of the week honours. Never mind the fact that the attendance on a holiday Monday at the Rogers Centre cracked over 26,000 for only the third time this year.

For Blue Jays management, Vladdy Jr. needed a rest. It’s that simple, or indeed complicated. Professional sports franchises increasingly rely on sport science and analytics to fill out their rosters. Players sit to keep them in top physical shape. The fans don’t care. They wanted to see Vladdy Jr. play and the benching created a mini storm of negative PR for the team, especially the General Manager and President.

As one who teaches about sport from a variety of perspectives, this episode illustrates some very interesting dynamics about pressure in professional sports. The classical Marxist interpretation of commercial sport posits it as a debased commodified version of a pure activity. Once subsumed to the marketplace, sport loses all of its inherent moral characteristics and becomes a debauched spectacle meant to mollify a distracted population from their position of political and economic powerlessness.

I don’t personally believe that, but it’s interesting to observe the recent flare-up over Vladdy’s day off through that lens. First, there are tons of commercial elements present to analyze, but secondly these particular pressures didn’t manifest in that classical Marxist fashion (in reality, what ever does!)

In a capitalist economy, the consumers hold the power. Their collective decisions signal to entrepreneurs what is worth producing and what is not. For professional sports, this means the fans should be in the driver’s seat. The over 26,500 fans at Rogers Centre chanted for Vladdy Jr. at Monday’s game. They felt ripped off. The managers of the team have cut salary, told the fan base not to expect a competitive team, and have marketed this season as one to view the future. Vladdy Jr. is the cornerstone of this marketing strategy. The hype and anticipation over his debut this year is the largest commercial driver for the Blue Jays. His debut on April 26th drew the second largest crowd of the season, trailing only Opening Day.

The classical Marxist approach informs us that the Blue Jays management should do everything in their power to maximize profit. This would mean disregarding the health and future of Vladdy Jr. to reap as much short term profit as possible. They would give the fans what they want, more Vladdy Jr., all day everyday. But they didn’t. In fact, they enraged their fan base by protecting him. Manager Charlie Montoya and General Manager Ross Atkins towed the company line, that Vlad Jr. sits for health reasons. “We’ve got a set deal, he needs to get a day off,” Montoyo said after the game. “Everybody is going to get a day off, anyway, 16 straight days, so today was Vlad’s.” All of the commercial pressure and marketing strategy aligned, but in the wrong way. Holiday Monday, big crowds excited to see the game, but no superstar to cheer for.  

The capitalist pressure of profit seemed to take a back seat to the internal values of the game. Yes, professional sport is for the fans, but the Marxist idea of profit maximization debases the professional athlete into a public prostitution, whereby the athlete’s body is sold to the highest bidder and deemed worthy only when it produces. The athlete is discarded when they are no longer able to compete, deemed worthless. The Blue Jays sitting Vladdy Jr. shows us that the competitive drive is not incompatible with the inherent qualities of the game. In order to capitalize and compete in the future, some sacrifice must be made in the present.

The preservation of the athlete’s body is important, they are not simply used and abused. Now, more than ever, there is over precaution taken to protect the professional athlete. Many have asked questions about the physical capabilities of 20-year-old athletes, shouldn’t Vladdy be able to play all the games when he’s young and energetic? Many have questioned sheltering him from the emotional pressures of being the brightest young star in baseball and already to biggest star on his struggling team. As an athlete, that’s what you sign up for, especially if you want to play in the pros. Again, the decision to sit Vladdy in the face of all these questions and pressures speaks to the variability within the world of sport. No Marxist reductionism and over simplification.

In the end, this episode reveals the often competing variables that dictate decisions in pro sports when it comes to marketing, commercial gain, and the health of the athletes at the centre of the spectacle. While many fans are outraged and angered with management, they are doing what they think is best for the long-term future of the team and the player. Are they right? Time will tell. But we’ve reached a point in professional sport where the athlete’s body and mind are protected by their franchises instead of exploited and discarded without consideration for anything except the bottom line. Yes, decision are still made with a commercial motivation, but it’s not the debauched and demoralized fashion that the classical Marxist perspective predicts. In that sense, there is some reason to applaud the decision made by the Blue Jays, even if I really wanted to see Vladdy Jr. smash a homerun on Victoria day.