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December 19, 2000

Catching a Piece of Sky

Reacting to Overreaction

by Derek Zumsteg

After Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez signed megadeals at the winter meetings, there was more than the usual amount of hand-wringing about salary insanity and how fans are turned off by the amount of money changing hands. I wondered, as I always do when I watch this sort of thing between highlights of boring NBA games, why baseball is on the verge of death every offseason. It's the big numbers, I've decided, and not because anyone is thinking about what's really wrong with the game.

People want to believe that baseball players are playing the same game they played. Part of the game's appeal lies in seeing a tall, scrawny kid from Southern California hitting the corners with breaking pitches and thinking, "Hey, he looks like me; I could do that". People also don't want to believe that just as they get out of bed every day and work hard for a biweekly paycheck, their favorite players look at their season in terms of a series of direct deposits. We want to believe that players know they've got it good, playing a game for money, spending their time in our favorite places. That it isn't so disturbs us, and it's not something we want to be reminded of. Especially not in 48-point headlines.

It's true, however, that for many players the game is just a job. Most of them won't say it, because they don't want to alienate fans. David Justice once admitted that he took the field solely for the paycheck, and even I haven't entirely forgiven him for it. Players who seem to be good-natured and having a great time, like Tony Gwynn, are huge fan favorites.

Most fans don't imagine that being a baseball player is anything but a charmed life. But to play the game at its highest level takes years of practice and drills, conditioning, reviewing scouting reports, trying to learn from variously-qualified coaches, all the while fighting to keep climbing the organizational ladder and hoping not to fall into disfavor. That's if you're a good prospect in a good organization. It can be much, much worse. This is the distinction that makes the salaries so disturbing for many: we still think it's a game and that being paid is like a tip players should be particularly thankful for. But it is a job, and if players couldn't make money there would be no professional baseball for us to cheer, certainly not on the scale and offering the level of talent we see.

Scarcity determines the economic value of a person's skill set, and because there's only one person in the world who plays baseball like Alex Rodriguez, he's going to make the most money of any baseball player. The principle of scarcity reveals a fundamental problem has emerged this year, larger than ever: owners are stupid. While Rodriguez may be a good gamble at $21 million a year, an easily-replaceable player is worth about what his replacement would cost--the league minimum.

Of course, the problem is that there are a lot of those "easily-replaceable" players who are making a lot more than the league minimum. I'm talking about Derek Bell and Jose Mesa here, if you didn't see that coming. Many players with lots of service time and one good season umpteen years ago have gotten salaries that are wildly out of line with what they're worth to their team. Even the Diamondbacks, who spent the year crying about how broke they were, signed Mark Grace to a $3 million per year contract when they had better options on the roster already. Do these teams deserve sympathy for their own stupidity? Clearly, the answer is no. If anything, they should have to pay for their mistakes.

If in the long term that means their franchises lose money and they're forced to learn a lesson or sell to smarter owners, that's good for baseball. But imposing salary caps and ill-advised economic remedies on baseball will do nothing but hamper good franchises and allow stupid ones to cavort consequence-free. If fans in those towns ever want to see their teams turn around, there will never be any hope. Because if a franchise needs to turn around in a hurry, needs to complement their existing core or just needs to fill some small holes, free agency is the way to do it.

Take the Royals, who were recently sold to David Glass, who has a net worth somewhere in the mid-nine figures. If he'd wanted to build a winner right away--after firing Tony Muser and the entire front office--he could have hired Rodriguez and Mike Hampton for a massive capital investment and, just like that, be in business. Having improved the product, he could then look to re-negotiate local media contracts. Increased demand for tickets should follow, which could allow him to increase ticket prices. (Note that this isn't "high salaries causing higher ticket prices", but increased demand.)

Instead of focusing at the gaudy numbers with all the commas, the salaries of the game's greatest, look at the money being flushed on replaceable middle relievers, terrible veterans of all positions and the third-tier starting pitchers. For what the Phillies and Pirates have blown on inexplicable signings, they could have signed Alex Rodriguez and some minor-league free agents to pitch middle relief for the league minimum.

Direct your outrage at those front offices, please, and not at Rodriguez. Yes, he's spectacularly well-paid, but he's also quite deserving of the money he makes. He's not the one causing your franchise to claim they're losing money, and he's not the one chasing Ricky Botallico.

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

Related Content:  Baseball Salaries,  The Who

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