Monday, February 09, 2009

Ryan Howard really doesn't have to worry about his family.

Another thing that (sort of) amazes me is the degree to which sports stars have managed to remain largely unscathed, above the fray, amid all this class envy* that envelopes society like the suffocating midday haze of a Los Angeles August.

There was a time when people majorly begrudged athletes their lofty salaries, especially when some jackass started whining about being underpaid. Much as it pains me to say, my favorite anecdote involves one of my all-time-favorite players, the superlative long-time Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin (now retired, shown below). Lark was in a contract dispute with
the Reds, and though I don't remember the exact amounts involved, they're not really material. The point is that the team was offering, let's say, $4 million, and Larkin wanted, let's say, $6 million. (That's per season, for those of you who don't follow sports closely. And that is very low by today's standards for a player of Larkin's caliber.) Both sides had dug in their cleats, so to speak. So Lark calls a press conference and actually says, when asked about it, "Hey, I gotta think about my family." As if you can't keep the kids in Pampers for $4 mill.

The reason I'm mindful of all this is that the reigning World Champion Philadelphia Phillies just re-signed their marquee player, Ryan Howard, to a deal that will pay the slugger $54 million over the next three seasons. (See what I meant about Larkin's piddling salary?) And the reporting in the Philly media was celebratory bordering on giddy. Sports journalism, of course, is very different from regular journalism
or should be, anywaybecause it's assumed that local sports journalists root for the home team, and will therefore chronicle every development that bodes well for Our Guys with a note of glee. There is not the slightest pretense of anything resembling objectivity, and local fans would scream bloody murder if there were. (More likely they'd switch channels and watch a "friendlier" sportscast, which is what the stations fear.) Still, under the circumstances, you would've expected a small note of irony or even mild sarcasm**something that says to the viewing public, a fair number of whom are trying to figure out if they can afford to keep the expanded cable package for another month, "Yeah, we know this is ridiculous and maybe unconscionable in real-world terms...but hey, it's what the marketplace is today, and you do want the team to win, right?" There was none of that. There was no sense that paying a man $54 million to play baseball*** might be a little bit hard to take in light of everything else that's going on. And you know, I'd have expected The Big Guy himself, the recipient of this largess, to be somewhat squeamish about his contract. Not quite. Howard merely said in a statement that he's "happy to have this done" so he can focus on playing baseball now. Exactly as if he were a union rep who'd just negotiated his workers an extra $3.68 an hour.

(Hmmm. I wonder what A-Rod's focused on, right about now?)

But you know what? Pitchers and catchers report this week, so it's all good. Life begins again.

* and please, my use of that semi-loaded phrase should not be interpreted to mean that I side with the rich folk. If you read this blog at all, you know that's not the case. It's just a convenient short-hand for describing the climate nowadays.
** Bear in mind, I say this because this is sports journalism we're talking about, not "the regular kind." Sportscasting is laden with sentiment and opinion, often very strong opinion.
*** oranother way of looking at itabout $90,000-a-strikeout over the life of the contract, since the Big Guy whiffs around 200 times per year, along with all those homers.


Voltaire said...

My own "cure" for this kind of excess is quite simple: I have no interest in professional sports. Why watch a bunch of rich people earn their paychecks?

Steve Salerno said...

I agree in principle, Volty. No question about it, it's a sickness. But one from which I don't want to be cured. Isn't that sad?

RevRon's Rants said...

"Why watch a bunch of rich people earn their paychecks?"

I assume you don't go to movies, rent videos, watch television, or read any bestsellers, right? :-)

Just pulling your chain, Voltaire, but the reality is that the "top dogs" in any profession make obscene amounts of money (or at least they appear obscene to those of us who make far less, yet support their largess).

Anonymous said...

I don't care how you slice it or explain it, these guys are overpaid prima donnas. I like baseball as much as the next guy but, it drives me crazy when I hear and read about the money. I try to avoid that whole aspect, and now it comes out that more and more of them are cheaters besides. They ought to penalize A-rod a huge chunk of that contract he signed!

Steve Salerno said...

Carl: That raises an interesting point that you don't see discussed very much. I have mixed emotions about the whole steroids thing, as I've described at length both on the blog and in pieces for the L.A. Times and elsewhere. But let's assume that baseball's declared stance on juicing is the proper one, and remains the enforced one: What to do, then, with people like Barry and Jason and Mark and Sammy and Roger and now, maybe, A-Rod? If it's proven that they did, indeed, achieve a great deal of their success by cheating, then shouldn't baseball (or the individual clubs or whoever) sue to recover a goodly portion of the associated salaries? And in, say, A-Rod's case, assuming he's proved to be a juicer, shouldn't this potentially void his long-term deal with the Yanks, or at least subject that deal to renegotiation? After all, the Yanks are paying that kind of money not just for his stats, but also for his luster, his star quality, his image, which gives a guy like A-Rod significant "value-added." I would think that a club could argue that his undisclosed use of 'roids constituted unfair bargaining if not outright fraud--if, that is, the allegations are proved.

Noadi said...

I have no problem at all with people in healthy industries being paid loads of money. If the market can support their salaries that's wonderful. So I don't begrudge athlete, actors, authors, etc. who are in demand making lots of money.

I have the same perspective when it comes to healthy companies who are able to pay their execs big salaries.

I only get pissed off at huge salaries in industries/companies that aren't doing well. Especially if they are also taking government money to keep afloat. Of course if one of these CEOs take a huge paycut and brings the company back to profitability and success then I think a healthy bonus is in order.

Dimension Skipper said...

I used to be a lot more into sports than I am now, a whole lot. Now if I watch an event it's strictly for the game itself. I try not to thnk about the money involved, be it for the players, owners, sponsors, whatever. I no longer read the sports pages either and if I do glance at'em it's only rarely to check standings or game times. If there's a hint of financial reporting to a story, I quickly skip it.

I accept that pro athletes make a lot of money. I accept that there are a lot of top-flight athletes who are extremely good (maybe even the very best) at what they do. And I accept that nobody who plays a game for a "living" could possibly even approach being worth the money they're paid (in general). So I simply ignore that aspect as best I can and I think I've gotten pretty good at it.

For what it's worth, I think Howard is at least a decent guy as far as I can tell and he seems to enjoy playing the game. He'll actually smile once in a while on the field or when doing an interview (instead of acting all supercool and aloof, above his teammates and certainly above the fans). I could be wrong, but that's my impression of just him.

Extremely coincidentally I've been reading the latest Frederik Pohl career-spanning "best of" collection Platinum Pohl and I just finished the story "The Celebrated No-Hit Inning" (©1956 by King-Size Publications, first published in Fantastic Universe, September 1956). It touches on and extrapolates many of the points that have been belabored about sports (especially baseball) as far back as the Ruth Era (at least). It's only a 10-pager, Steve, so if you could manage to come across it in a bookstore somewhere, you might enjoy giving it a quick skim, if not a full read.

Although I really have no idea as to your reading tastes, but how many SF baseball stories are ya ever gonna come across? I really do think it'd be up your alley given the subject matter and where Pohl takes it. Surprisingly, it didn't even seem all that dated to me (except for one very minor reference to records, meaning the LP kind).

Steve Salerno said...

Noadi: Thanks for joining us.

I certainly see your point. My only quibble where baseball is concerned--and I don't know how closely you follow the realm--is that it has gradually become, like most spectator sports, an elitist pursuit where only major companies and/or major earners can actually afford to participate fully (i.e. attend games). I think Yankee Stadium is a good case in point. The salaries paid out (and other associated costs) have driven the overhead so high that the "average Joe" is absolutely priced out of the market when it comes to taking his/her family to a ball game--all the more so at the new Yankee Stadium. What was once Everyman's Game has become just another diversion for the rich and famous. And because a city like New York has plenty enough rich and famous types to support the Yankees even at high cost, there is really no need for the team to make any concessions to the poor slobs who happen to be avid Yankee fans (like, say, most of the folks who live in the Bronx, where the team is technically located). And lest we forget, those poor slobs constitute the overwhelming majority of fans.

OTOH, if somebody offers me a million dollars for my next book...I won't likely turn it down. ;)

Anonymous said...

Fans only seem to get irritated when a star player takes off for another team for a big contract; if he re-signs or extends with the current team, all is well. Just wait for the fireworks when LeBron James becomes a free agent. He could sign the first $ half-billion contract in sports history.

You bring up the reason why I really liked last year's baseball season - the AL team in the world series (Rays) had a total payroll smaller than the left-side of the Yankee infield. I couldn't name three of the Rays' starters; yet I loved the fact that a bunch of no-names beat the Yanks and the Sox on the way to the Series.

How did Howard do in the playoffs last year? Didn't he hit around .100 or so?

Cal said...

There can be some fan outrage at times. Latrell Spreewell of the NY Knicks a few years back balked at a stupendous contract offer from the team a few years back saying, "I got to feed my family." This was after making a tremendous amount of money to that point.

More recently, Gilbert Arenas of the Washington franchise of the NBA was signed to a "max" contract last off-season despite concerns over a knee injury he suffered. At the time of the signing, Arenas and the team indicated he would play a full season. Then in late summer, the team he would be out until Christmas re-habbing. The fans were outraged because this is supposed to be a play-off team. Arenas' response was, "Why is everybody trippin'?" Now it's nearly mid-February, he hasn't seen one minute of playing time and the team is the worst in the NBA. Attendance at home games have plummeted.

Here's my solution to baseball's HR problems: 1) move the fences back to 450 in right and left field, and 2) make the umps call the strike zone the way the rule book states and not have some postage-stamp sized zone. Because we don't know right now if players are using substances that can't be detected by current technology. The cheaters will always be ahead of the detectors.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal: I'd completely forgotten about Sprewell. Now, did he say that before or after he choked his coach? I don't follow hoops that closely, but didn't they give the guy (Arenas) a physical?

DS: Yes, at least Howard hasn't yet become his own hype machine. When they begin talking about themselves in the third person, like Ricky, that's when you start to worry. Also I'll look for that Pohl thing, though it sounds sooo familiar; I must have read it somewhere along the line.

Anon 4:09: Howard was spotty against the Brewers, but came back strong against the Dodgers and Rays. I agree with you about enjoying when the small-market teams surprise people; too bad MLB and the networks don't agree. I think everybody in baseball (by which I mean in baseball) this year is salivating over a Dodgers-Yanks World Series, especially on the heels of Torre's book. Something like that, they could promote into a Genuine Event. You'd see both starting lineups on Larry King, alongside ol' Sully Sullenberger.

Cal said...

Spreewell choked his coach years before his cry about getting paid.

Arenas had to be given a physical. In some ways the team had to sign him because the fans, at the time, would have been in an uproar if they didn't. But sometimes a team has to go against the fans wishes to succeed. Look how the Yankee fans bashed Torre when he was hired as manager in '96.