January 22, 2013
Out of Left Field
Why You Should Quit Caring About Salaries
I’m o-l-d-e old so I can remember when players made a few million dollars a year. I’m talking good players. The best. It’s a pittance compared to what they make today. Dave Winfield once signed a 10-year, $23 million contract. A Hall of Fame outfielder signed for $2.3 million a year. Infuriating! Rage! No way he’s worth that! But I can’t remember a time when players’ salaries were not a public discussion point.
For roughly the last three decades, salaries have been published, debated, and outraged over. Information on player salaries is ubiquitous nowadays but, if you think about it, that’s pretty weird. Baseball players and professional athletes in general are some of the only non-municipal workers in the world whose salaries are public information. Most people’s salaries aren’t made public. Front office executives don’t have their salaries appear in the papers, except occasionally.*
* Our own meticulously maintained Cot’s Contracts lists the salaries of only two General Managers or Team Presidents, those of the Yankees and Cubs. Every other team has managed to keep the salaries of their GMs and Team Presidents private.
Everywhere I’ve ever worked my employers have actively discouraged my fellow employees and I from talking to each other about our salaries. I’ve always freely admitted my salary to others, mostly because I see silence on the issue as an unfair advantage for management. Put it this way: you can’t hire Ted for $30,000 a year to do the same job as Larry, who started at $45,000, unless Ted doesn’t know what Larry makes. So too with relief pitchers, sluggers, back-up catchers and the like. I suspect this is why baseball player’s salaries end up in newspapers and on websites. The information comes from the players and, more specifically, their agents in an attempt to do on a large scale what I once did over coffee breaks or in my cubicle. So I get that.
But what makes it especially odd is that, while publicizing salary information has at least helped to establish equal wages for equal work, fan’s knowledge of player salaries has turned that particular part of the game into our own little hate-fest. Not a day goes by without some columnist, commenter, talk-radio host, or caller complaining that a player is overpaid. Because players’ salaries are freely available information has accidentally opened up a vein of attack.
Like that metaphor, the public’s reaction itself is strange. Overpaid compared to what? Teachers? Well, sure. Firefighters? Absolutely. How about overpaid compared to what players made when Whiney Olderson was young? Of course. But that’s not how it works. If you want to change that, then you’re looking at altering our financial system. Calling a player overpaid compared to other current players is also odd because of the different tiers of compensation that exist, as a player in his second year of arbitration has vastly different earning power than a free agent, regardless of which player is better (or more valuable) on the field. Players get paid for what they do on the field, but also by seniority. The second gets lost sometimes.