Like I suspect most of you who are reading this site, I inhale way too much information about sports. When you care about sports, when it becomes your passion, you really can't stop. Researching and writing this column is my job, but when I'm finished with it, I won't go off to read Proust, or garden, or do some woodworking. I'll go read some more about sports. The number of hours in my day that revolve around sports -- that involve me diving deeper into sports than the people who actually participate in them -- is the sort of matter that's going to depress me on my deathbed, but now, it is just the natural order of my life. There is always something to absorb.
Of course, the downside to this is knowing too much. And if there's one thing I know too much about, it's athlete salaries. That's information I'd be a lot happier living in ignorance about.
Now, I don't care, as a concept, that athletes make so much money. Athletes are overpaid, when compared to teachers and nurses and soldiers -- heck, when compared to janitors -- but only in a public utility, value-to-humanity sort of way. In a purely capitalist sense, they're probably underpaid, at least on the superstar level; LeBron James will make $17.545 million this year, but on a truly open market with no salary cap and absolute free agency, he's worth at least double that. (At least.) I tend to begrudge owners a lot more for their income -- far more likely to have come from the public till, and far more likely to have been the result of inheritance, blind luck or malice than any money any player ever earns -- than I do players. Athletic careers are short. They should get what they can, while they can.
No, my frustration with knowing athlete salaries is not how much they make in comparison to the rest of the planet; it's how much they make compared to their actual production. If Ryan Howard is making $20 million while hitting 45 homers, more power to him. If he's doing it while hitting .184 against lefthanders, it feels like a crime against the state. This doesn't make me unusual. That bum is overpaid is a fundamental sports jeer, about as prevalent as you suck anymore. But it's important to remember that the amount of money a guy is getting paid off the field does not, in fact, actually affect what happens on it. It can be difficult to separate it.
Let us take, for example, Barry Zito. Over the last six-plus years with the Giants, Barry Zito has been a perfectly average pitcher, maybe a little below average, but with a value increased by his durability. (Only once in his first six years in San Francisco has he failed to make at least 32 starts.) He has gone 61-70 as a Giant, with a 4.41 ERA in more than 1,000 innings. Those aren't terrific numbers, but they're not awful numbers either. In a world free of salary context, Zito would just be a guy. It's handy to have some Just A Guys around. Particularly when they have postseasons like last years, when he saved the Giants with 7 2/3 shutout innings in NLCS Game 5 and followed it up by outdueling Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series. Barry Zito has done a lot to make San Francisco Giants fans happy.
But this is obviously not the context in which Barry Zito is considered. No, Barry Zito is, and probably always will be, judged by the insane contract the Giants gave him six years ago: seven years, $126 million. (I was on vacation in Buenos Aires when that contract was signed and I assumed they'd gone ahead and converted the money into Argentinian pesos.) What he does as a player is dwarfed by the knowledge that he is not earning what he is paid. When Giants fans watch Barry Zito pitch, they do so with the background that he is somehow stealing money from them. It can make it difficult to cheer for him. Even when he helps their team win.
Vernon Wells is another good example of this. Vernon Wells is an above-average baseball player, not quite what he once was, but certainly better than your basic replacement player. But because of the insane contract (also seven years, $126 million) the Blue Jays gave him -- and the fact that, somehow, that contract was traded twice -- Wells has become a league-wide joke. When the Yankees brought him in this offseason, it was considered the ultimate sign that the franchise was in disarray, that they were so desperate and so depleted that they brought him in. Vernon Wells? The Yankees? Man, now you know they're toast: You realize how much that guy makes?
Funny thing, though: Wells has actually been terrific. Now, he's not really as good as he has been for the Yankees so far, but he's not nearly as bad as everyone was acting like he was. He is, essentially, the same player he always was: All that changed was the contract. He went from an underrated player to a dramatically overrated, almost loathsome, player, because of the size of his direct deposit every two weeks. The context of his on-field performance changed, but the performance itself barely did at all.
It makes me wish I knew nothing about salaries at all. My dad is like this. He loves baseball as much as he loves anything other than his grandson, but he doesn't know how much money players make (other than a vague notion of "too much") and he doesn't care. He watches his team on the field, and then goes about his daily life when they're not on the field. He doesn't know about Super Two status, or buying out years of arbitration, or mutual option clauses. He just likes his team and wants them to win. This is the purest way of watching baseball. It's delusional, of course, but what about sports isn't? I wish I didn't know. I wish it didn't matter.
(That wind you feel is Alex Rodriguez vigorously nodding his head in agreement. Sorry, Alex: I can't change nature.)
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