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November 9, 2008

Prospectus Today

Navigating

by Joe Sheehan

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Back in 1995, I was underemployed. I'd graduated from USC, was living with my fiancee in Orange County, and doing part-time work for a New Jersey-based marketing company, work which had nothing at all to do with my journalism degree. Then I applied for, and was offered, a $22,500/year job as an assistant editor at a small publishing house. I took it because I-we-needed the money and the benefits the job provided, and because it was something in journalism.

After a few months doing layout and copyediting, an editor in the magazine department noticed me and offered me a job in his area. It was a tough call, because I really liked the people I was working with on the book side, because I was learning a lot, and because I tend to hate change. Nevertheless, I took the job, because the increase in salary and autonomy were significant, and the magazine side of the operation looked like a lot of fun.

Just shy of two years later, I left the position to work full-time on Baseball Prospectus 1998. Although the company, and my boss specifically, had been patient with me on the 1997 book, they were less interested in allowing me the time it would take to help write and fully edit and lay out the new edition. While that was the proximate reason for my departure, there were others, most notably including a strained office environment brought on by differences in work processes and my own boredom with the subject matter. It was time to go, even though I wasn't quite sure where I was going.

After temping for a while, I caught on at the University of California, Irvine, as a data-entry specialist and, eventually, trainer for an in-house software package. I liked the people, they were flexible with me on time, and supportive of my burgeoning efforts to be a sportswriter. On the other hand, the work was even less appealing, and I found myself investing less and less of myself into it. At the same time, I'd moved into a more significant role with BP, helping to push the website to a daily content schedule. In late 2001, I elected to leave UCI with an eye towards working on BP, essentially for free, full-time. It was my opinion then that the only way BP could cross over and become a going concern was for the site to become a daily destination with regular features, and the only way that was going to happen was for the site to have a full-time managing editor.

Now, that's a snapshot of four major career decisions by one man in a span of about six years. My experience isn't unique. Every person, in managing their career, balances a host of concerns in deciding what job to take, or to not take. In the cases above I was thinking of money, health care, my upcoming marriage, my long-term goals, my daily satisfaction with the work, with the people in the office. The only person who might have grasped all of those factors and how they balanced, other than myself, was Sophia.

Over the next two months, we're going to do a lot of writing about these types of decisions, except that these are ones being made by talented baseball players. We're going to speculate that this guy will go here because he wants the most money he can get, or the other guy will sign there because he's from that team's area. We'll assume that an agent, rather than a player, is making the decision. We'll note that one team's manager had a free-agent star in the minors, or that a slugger has always hit well in a particular park. There's no end to the number of rationales you'll see to explain why these marriages will or will not happen.

We have no idea what we're talking about. I don't say that just as an informed outsider; I mean, none of us, no talking head, no beatwriter, no columnist, no analyst will have more than a general read on where 100-odd free agents will sign, because the decision these players are making is an intensely personal one that considers factors we cannot know. Baseball players are just like the rest of us; they have wives and children and friends and family. They like specific places, big cities or small towns. They like warm weather or cold, surfing or skiing, the change of seasons or none at all. They have friends scattered about the country, and perhaps more important, their girlfriends or spouses have family and friends scattered about the country. I lived in and around LA for nearly half of my life for no real reason other than that my wife's parents were there. You think there are free agents without concerns such as that, or a half-dozen others?

Even the players themselves may not know how they're going to sort through all of these factors. Consider the top prize in the market, one Carsten Charles Sabathia. Sabathia is 28 years old, an age by which I'd made three of the transitions discussed above. For Sabathia, though, this is the first time in his life that he'll have the opportunity to more than negotiate a salary. He was 17 when the Indians selected him with the 20th overall pick of the 1998 draft, and now, a decade later, he'll be able to choose his employer, his organization, the city in which he'll work and, presumably, live and raise his family. He's never had this choice, or any one like it before, and as much as we'll write about how he's from Northern California, and how the Yankees are likely to meet or exceed any offer, or how he must want to play for a winning organization, and boy, did he seem to enjoy hitting… I mean, let's face it, we're all just guessing. How a man sorts through the various factors in making this decision, how he balances the concerns of his career, his family, his preferences and, of course, money, is impossible for others to know.

It's hard to relate a decision like Sabathia's to the ones we make in our own lives because his seems so much easier. Clearly, the amount of money in play make the choices that Sabathia, or Mark Teixeira, or Ryan Dempster have to make easier in some ways, but they also define the terms a bit more clearly. You or I might leave thousands of dollars on the table in exchange for something else, or trade off other things for that cash; these guys are dealing in the tens of millions, and as popular-no, populist-as it is to hand-wave away that money on the margins, it's different when it's yours. How can you turn down a million or two million dollars a year just to live in a certain place, or work for a certain person?

The difference is in scale, not in kind. The career decisions we make are intensely personal ones, and our reasoning is our own, perhaps shared with a loved one or an agent, but not beyond. What we see from the outside is a fraction of the factors, and at that, perhaps not the most important ones at all. So as we head into the latest free-agent season, and the speculation starts, sit back and realize that, as much as we try, no one knows anything.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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22 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

UngratefulDead

Plus, none of us have tens of thousands of people lining up to call us greedy if we take that 10% higher offer...

Nov 09, 2008 10:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

But we wish we did.

Nov 13, 2008 11:23 AM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

Great article, Joe. However, one very significant difference between professional baseball players and us "normal" folk in making such a decision is that the job is virtually identical regardless of which "company" they choose to work. Sure, the colleagues vary, as does the venue. But the hitting, the fielding, the pitching, they're the same. I don't think you can say as much for most of the career choices we have to make.

Nov 09, 2008 11:09 AM
rating: 4
 
Richie

Good distinction, here. Occupationally speaking, they know alot more about what they're getting into than most all of us do.

Nov 09, 2008 15:39 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Swartz

We are not talking about a job offering five or ten thousand dollars more a year in a lot of these cases. A lot of the time, the winning offer wins by millions of dollars. If players don't want the money for themselves, many of them have charity work that they believe in and it's hard to justify taking a lot of money away from those causes by taking a chaper deal. Few people have powerful unions whispering in their ears to take the most money, but baseball players do. Their deals affect their colleague's deals, and that also makes it hard to turn down more money. For these reasons, I think baseball players are more likely to go to the highest bidder than other auctions of even other high skilled labor.

Furthermore, the winning offer often wins by offering the same annual value, but with more years. Moving is costly both literally and emotionally, and the opportunity to avoid moving-- both by signing a backloaded contract and by explicitly agreeing to no-trade clauses-- is also a valuable factor in free agent agreements as well.

Nov 09, 2008 12:54 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

I don't understand the "union" thing at all. If I'm CC, why should I give a rat's sass about what the union thinks about my contract? What're they gonna do, boot me out?

This strikes me as very much an 'urban myth' type of thing. Agent Bill (especially) and Player Joe want to grab every last nickel while for PR purposes pretending that Joe so badly wants to play for the Tuscaloosa Tugboats that he'd leave oodles of money on the table if he could. But that darned union just won't let him. Of course the union officials play along with that. Just part of their job of serving their member players.

Nov 09, 2008 15:47 PM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Remember when Arod was willing to take a pay cut to be traded to the Red Sox? The Players Union was the entity that stopped the deal- their rationale (stated publicly) was that it would hurt the rest of the union members by setting a precendent for such things. They were probably right in defending their membership's best interests, but they clearly were doing what swartzm describes.

Nov 09, 2008 19:59 PM
rating: 0
 
James Martin Cole

I keep hearing this example, but it's not at all applicable to CC being strongarmed into taking the most expensive deal. A-Rod was trying to renegotiate an existing deal; that's very different from choosing which deal to sign. The issue in renegotiation (especially renegotiating for less money) is that it sets a precedent that owners could take advantage of with players less accomplished than A-Rod.

Nov 10, 2008 04:09 AM
rating: 2
 
EricJ

When I started reading this I thought it was a resignation and goodbye letter. Don’t ever scare me like that again.

Nov 09, 2008 20:33 PM
rating: 1
 
SaberTJ

Me too, I am glad you're sticking around Joe. Great article.

Nov 10, 2008 05:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Christopher Miller
(88)

I thought exactly the same thing, since I remember the first time you left BP, and the subsequent email from you about your newsletter. This had the same tone....

Nov 10, 2008 08:45 AM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

I hope CC stays with Milwaukee.

Nov 09, 2008 21:08 PM
rating: 1
 
ElAngelo
(942)

There's a story I heard about a famous player that switched teams a few years ago; while the media and fans lambasted him for taking the money and running, the truth apparently was that his wife said she and their kids were moving to State X, and it was up to him to join them or find another family. He moved. I think there are a lot more decisions like this than we'd like to acknowledge.

Nov 09, 2008 22:46 PM
rating: 1
 
phnath

Joe - While I agree with your general premise, I think you're somewhat offbase - professional athletes' careers follow a very different trajectory than you or me. Let's see where the paralells are similar or different

Getting drafted - perhaps the stage that's most like the rest of us. We go to college or build other marketable skills and try to get a good first job.

In the minors - also pretty much like us. For all but the first few round picks, they're in "entry level positions" trying to prove themselves and get a break.

Pre-free agency - largely a continuation of the above, with the exception of a few super-stars who can parlay their performance into a multi-year contract that guarantees lifetime financial freedom.

Post-free agency - here's where I don't agree with you. While I will change jobs many times over my 40 year career, its all one contiguous (if disjointed) career. Ball players have at most 5-15 years to accumulate extraordinary wealth. Even the better players get only 1 or 2 shots at a "big" FA contract.

By their mid-late 30's they're done and have to find "real jobs" like the rest of us - presuming of course they need to work at all. As free agents, do players factor in their families, bosses, weather, etc like the rest of us? Of course. But I think they also know they've got a finite window of opportunity to maximize their nest egg and (understandably) make decisions based on contract value more than you or I do when considering our next job.

If I had a 10 year window to make 10X what I could the rest of my life, I'd pretty much go wherever the money took me. I suspect most people and most ball players would do the same. - Pete

Nov 10, 2008 07:25 AM
rating: 1
 
Richie

In particular in ARod's case, I believe there was a union-MLB contractually negotiated rule of some sort that you couldn't renegotiate down. Supposedly Boras asked the union to waive the rule (could they have even done so, legally speaking??), the union said no, and Boras said 'goshdarndoggoneit, I sure tried'. And if you believe Boras sincerely asked the union "please help me give back millions of my client's dollars", then I have this nice bridge a half-mile from my house which can be yours for a low low price.

If ARod and Boras had sincerely wanted to give the Red Sox $$$ back, they could've tacked an extra year onto the end of the contract at a massively-discounted salary. Nothing the union or anybody could've done to stop it. They may pretend otherwise, but it's the union's and the agent's jobs to so pretend, to take PR hits on behalf of the players. Part of what they get paid for.

Didn't Griffey leave a boatload of money on the table when he signed his contract to move to Cincinnati? Nobody remembers it anymore 'cuz he immediately broke down physically, so the contract looked ugly anyway. But at the time Cincy got a massive discount, and no one stopped Junior from giving it to them.

Nov 10, 2008 08:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Cory Schwartz

I'm disappointed that no one has pointed out so far that Denver has excellent schools.

Nov 10, 2008 09:14 AM
rating: 2
 
leez34

What?

Nov 10, 2008 10:54 AM
rating: -1
 
John

That was Mike Hampton's reason for choosing to sign with the Rockies....

Nov 10, 2008 11:55 AM
rating: 0
 
FRL

Of course it's always about the money, except when it's about the schools (Hampton) or what God told you (Pettitte), or any of the other bullshit reasons guys use to hide the fact it was just about the money. We know why they take the extra money, it's human nature, just quit pretending it's about anything else. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (Wakefield), but they are really few and far between.

Nov 10, 2008 13:30 PM
rating: 0
 
stinkypete

Tim Wakefield is a knuckleballer, I don't know if they count.

Does anyone else remember Turk Wendell trying to sign a contract to play one season for $.99?

Nov 11, 2008 12:00 PM
rating: 0
 
Mike Kastellec

Excellent article Joe.

Nov 12, 2008 11:58 AM
rating: 0
 
brucegilsen
(999)

A fundamental difference is that these players are going to have financial security that most of us can never dream of wherever they end up. They don't have to make choices that might make the difference between financial security and no financial security. The marginal value of the 100th million dollar simply pales in comparison to the first several million.

Nov 23, 2008 20:30 PM
rating: 0
 
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