Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Paying To Watch Out-Takes

I think I must be part of a very small minority of sports fans when I say that I do not care how much money athletes make. Of course salaries are ridiculous; so what? Of course I was outraged that the Mets would sign Oliver Perez for $12 million a year--until I saw that Bud Selig made over $18 million in 2007. Of course I don't like it, but there are a lot of things on this planet that we shouldn't like that are much more important than individual incomes.

My feelings on the subject run deeper than that. I honestly don't believe that any person's income is anybody else's business (unless it's an issue of getting paid the same for doing the same work). What you make is between you and your employer, and the same goes for me. My father used to say, "The best things in life are free; the very best things cost a helluva lot of money." I do just fine with the best things. Some friends of mine are currently on a four-month around-the-world cruise. Yes, I wish my wife and I could take the same trip (if I hit the lottery, we will). But that won't stop us from appreciating the next beautiful sunset we see.

I am baffled by sports fans in general, and baseball fans in particular, who resent players for receiving huge salaries. Part of it is simple jealousy. They're getting paid to play a game, a game that the rest of us somehow imagine we could've succeeded at with a slightly different karma, and nobody should make that much money from a game. Fans forget the fact that the average major-league career lasts only four or five years. Fans also forget the fact that the players have trained and worked hard to get to the top of their profession and earn whatever reward they can gather in their limited period of peak performance.

Why do fans forget? It's very simple: because we spend so much time watching them fail. The very best hitters in baseball history have "succeeded" only one-third of the time. The very best pitchers give up baserunners and runs all the time. Even the almight Derek Jeter's scattershot throwing arm can betray him in the last inning of a must-win WBC game and give the other team three unearned runs. Even the best hitters fail with the bases loaded and the game on the line. Even the best pitchers groove a pitch at the worst time and surrender the game-winning hit. Every single event on the baseball field involves both success and failure. When we think of a player's salary, we concede that he has his successes, but it's all too easy to point to his failures and wonder how he can take his paychecks to the bank in good conscience.

Think of athletes as entertainers, because that's all they are. Now think about movie stars. Today's "A-List" actors and actresses make at least $20-25 million a movie. A movie takes a few months to make. Let's say that Will Smith's next movie takes six months to make, the same duration as a baseball season. That's a lot of takes, and he'll screw up a lot of them, fumble a word, miss his mark, look the wrong way, and so on. But we won't see those on the screen. We'll only see the best version of each scene and each speech. It will be meticulously edited to make Will Smith shine at all times for 100-120 minutes. Every movie is a highlight reel. Do you think you could take one season's worth of what Alex Rodriguez does on the field, pick out all the best spots, skip the strikeouts, the double plays, the errors and all the mistakes, and distill them into a carefully edited 100-minute film which makes A-Rod look as perfect as he thinks he is? Of course you could. Anybody could do that for any major-league player. Even a montage of Luis Castillo's greatest moments on the field would make him look a candidate for Best Supporting Second Baseman.

Marilyn Monroe was notorious for driving people crazy on the movie set--and not the way most of us today would think of her driving us crazy. She would show up late, not know her lines, need to psyche herself up to do the next take, mess it up, go into a funk, have to be coaxed back to the set, miss her lines again, and on and on for hours or days at a time. Countless scenes required dozens of takes, and many directors and fellow actors were pushed to the breaking point and vowed never to work with her again. But did movie-goers know about this? No. Do people today know about it? No. People only cared, and still only care, that what we eventually got to see on the screen was enchanting and wonderful. It often took forever to get her to do something that lasted only a matter of seconds on the screen, but it didn't matter. We did not have to watch her out-takes. Nobody would question her earning whatever the movie moguls paid her. Nobody today questions Will Smith's income. We just enjoy watching him on the screen. We don't have to watch his out-takes, just his highlight reel.

But it's very different with baseball fans. We see all the out-takes, and we pay to witness what is inherent in the game: failure. We need to get over it. That's why I highly recommend my approach; I just don't care. I accept the out-takes for what they are, the inevitable balance-sheet of the great achievements I also get to witness.

I also recognize that complaining about high salaries has always been a part of baseball. A hundred years ago, the guys who played in the 1880s groused about the current crop of players being preoccupied with money and not being content to play for the love of the game as they had. This was when few players were making more than $3,000 a year. In the 1920s, the players from the Deadball Era were outraged that the new players didn't seem to care about the game the way they had, that it was all about the money. That's because some of the players were making more than $10,000 a year. The pattern has repeated itself over and over again, but until the last 20-30 years it was all hogwash, because until free agency came along, it almost never happened that a player was overpaid. While the reserve clause existed (until 1976), players had zero bargaining power (their only weapon was the holdout, but all that meant was that they could exercise the option of retiring if the team that owned them didn't make an acceptable salary offer), and teams didn't pay them a penny more than they had to.

Look at it this way. Take the more than 16,000 players who have played in the major leagues since the 1870s. Calculate the money each player would have earned if salaries were based on some equitable formula measuring his success on the field and a fixed, reasonable percentage of his team's revenue. If you could do those calculations for the 100 years' worth of players who were systematically screwed by the team owners because of the reserve clause, you would wind up with "X" dollars owed to the players. My feeling is that if you could determine a factor by which players in the free-agency era have been overpaid (based on how they perform on the field), you would wind up with a total figure in the general neighborhood of "X". In other words, it has taken 20-30 years of overpaying a generation of players for us to be able to say that "over the entire course of baseball history, players as a group have earned what they deserved." There were at least 500 players from the 1920-1940 period who were deprived of their just desserts, who now balance out what Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez are being overpaid. So I can't go berserk over A-Rod's salary without also being outraged that Lou Gehrig never made more than $40,000 in a season. Somewhere in the great wheel of karma, these inequities are being straightened out, but I'm not about to lose any sleep resenting A-Rod for accepting a salary which another businessman chose to offer him.

That brings up another perspective. Gene Carney, a baseball historian who has been spending time lately looking through the salary records here at the Hall of Fame, pointed out to me that judging by salaries you would think that major league baseball was a not-for-profit industry before the 1970s. Most raises were incidental, a few hundred dollars a year here and there, maybe a few thousand dollars if a player led the league in major statistical categories or won an MVP award. An outstanding year was treated as an aberration not worthy of any special monetary reward, and when it did prove an aberration the salary was slashed back to the usual parameters. Keep in mind that most of the time, a player's salary this year is more of a payment for what he did last year than what he's going to do this year, since last year is measurable and this year is uncertain. Gene, who spent many years in the not-for-profit realm, notes that the reward is supposed to be in the work itself. The same is true here at the Hall of Fame, also a not-for-profit institution.

It is not true in professional sports, and it has never been true in major league baseball, despite all the disclaimers from players who insist they would have played for nothing, and all the disclaimers from owners who portrayed themselves as sportsmen willing to lose money just for the prestige of saying they owned a team. The owners instituted the reserve system in 1879 (!), as they openly declared, to stifle competition and reduce salaries. The tug-of-war has existed ever since. Until 1976, the players' end of the rope was greased and leverage non-existent. Since the reserve clause ended, the players have had the best of it.

The bottom line for fans is this: only in the current decade did the owners and the players have it so good that they couldn't avoid admitting that there is more than enough money to go around for both sides. The charade is over. Players are making tons of money, but the owners have made so much more that they can afford to overpay their talent. The catch is that we, the fans, are paying for a lot of that excess. We're going to ballparks in record numbers, paying higher prices for tickets, concessions, and everything else that is gradually turning an outing to a major league game from a family experience to a corporate tax write-off. It will be very interesting to see what happens to attendance this year, when the recession will cause all constituencies to think twice (or more) about going to the ballpark. If we think the players (and the owners who collect our money before turning some of it over to the players) are making too much money, stop giving it to them. Stay home, watch the games (relatively) cheaply on television, listen to them (very cheaply) on radio, enjoy the action on the field, and stop caring that the bum who just struck out is making more this month than you'll make in a lifetime of honest toil. Believe me, you'll be happier that way.

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