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December 2, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Overspending

by Jim Baker

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Consider the paradox: a nation of over-spenders ruled by an elected government that overspends appalled by the overspending of those who run the franchises of the national game.

That is, basically, where we find ourselves in the first week of December 2005. As our personal finances redline and our leaders increase the national debt, we sit with mouths agape as another crop of baseball free agents are given contracts with puzzlingly plump parameters.

There are, basically, six types of teams. They are:

Category I: Those that have money but won't spend it.

Category II: Those that have money but will only spend it when they're certain they're getting their money's worth.

Category III: Those that have money and will spend it on everything and anything.

Category IV: Those that have no money and get by on the basics.

Category V: Those that have no money and, when they do spend, they do so very judiciously.

Category VI: Those that have no money but spend like they do.

To this point in the 2005-06 off-season, it appears that there has been a lot of Category III and Category VI behavior afoot, although the perpetrators probably think they're operating in Categories II and V.

The most glaring, certainly, is the B.J. Ryan signing by the Toronto Blue Jays, a team we had all long since placed in the "enlightened" column. A five-year contract for any reliever outside of Mariano Rivera is something that is not defensible on any level, other than, perhaps, as a method for the team to signal to its fans that yes, the team does care about winning. Even that approach is flawed, however, because in the end this will not help the team win. It will merely sap resources that could be better allocated elsewhere. Had one of the game's more moneyed teams taken this plunge our collective shock would have been diminished, no doubt.

The Esteban Loaiza signing by Oakland is either a colossal blunder or a signal that this is now the going rate for a league-average pitcher. (It could also be both.) At the moment, it looks like a definite Category VI move, even in the face of growing evidence that this is what players of this ilk can expect to earn going forward. Even if this is the market rate, though, the A's have survived thus far by avoiding the inflationary path set by their more moneyed competitors, and avoiding this kind of investment.

What has a lot of us sitting around scratching our heads is that these are moves from teams we all looked to as bastions of Category V thriftiness. If they have lost their fiscal sanity, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Surely we expect a team like the Mets to behave in a Category III fashion by signing Billy Wagner to a four-year, eight-figures-per deal. Ditto the Yankees and Kyle Farnsworth. That's what they do. From the Blue Jays, though, we expect a modicum of restraint.

Some observers detach themselves from the realm of concern by dismissing all such doings with the phrase, "it's not my money." We could argue that, in some instances, it is their money but that isn't the point.

What is at stake here is the vicarious thrill of watching a well-laid plan develop. Why does a movie like "The Great Escape" continue to entertain 40 years after it was made? Because the characters have a plan! Why do we invariably pull for the robbers in heist movies? Because they have a plan.

Watching a plan come together is exciting. Most of us don't have a plan in our lives. If more people did, there wouldn't be so many bankruptcy filings. Do we really want to see our baseball teams reflecting our own behavior? We are a nation that recently saw its bankruptcy laws tightened--and justifiably so. Unfortunately, there was not a commensurate tightening of the screws on the lending industry. So now, it's easier than ever for credit-card companies to lure people into spending themselves into oblivion yet the relief from that oblivion is harder to come by.

Because so many of us are up against it financially, we look to caper movies and baseball general managers to give us our vicarious planning thrill. Why did Moneyball resonate the way it did? Because it's about a man with a plan, that's why. When that very man makes somebody like Esteban Loaiza secure for life, we let out a collective groan because it doesn't appear to follow the plan of seeking out low-cost alternative resources.

We must admit to ourselves that we are a nation of Category VIers looking for order outside of the sphere of our own financial chaos. When the teams we count on most to exercise restraint fail to do so, we see our own irresponsibility reflecting back at us and it's not pleasant.

No, it might not be "our money," but we all lose nonetheless.

Related Content:  Money

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<< Previous Article
Prospectus Notebook: R... (12/02)
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