Baseball's Grand Scam

Is A-Rod's golden glove a golden fleece?

No wonder Nolan Ryan is doing painkiller commercials on the boob tube. He's hurting. After all, in his waning playing days back in the 1980s, the poor guy had to scrape by on a couple million bucks a year and live in a place with just nine bedrooms. Think of it. Best pitcher in the game, and those cud-chewing tightwads down in Texas wouldn't give him a lousy oil refinery or a set of Learjets. Every other Christmas, we understand, ol' Nolan slips down to the men's shelter and begs a frayed topcoat from the clothing drive.

Luckily, all that's starting to change. Social justice is coming at last to the big leagues. Take, for instance, the Texas Rangers' new shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, late of the Seattle Mariners. After the New York Mets declined to sign over the deeds to the Empire State Building and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, Rodriguez was still able to ink a pact (as the sports sections used to say) with the Rangers that included forty square blocks of downtown Dallas and the state governorship, which recently became vacant. Oh, and $25.2 million per year for the next ten years. That means he'll earn two and a half times the average annual major-league salary of 1975 -- for every day of the 2001 season.

Now Alex Rodriguez -- "A-Rod" to his friends, "Pay-Rod" or "A-Fraud" to his disgruntled ex-fans in Seattle -- is an excellent ballplayer, and the quarter of a billion dollars he dislodged last month from Rangers owner Tom Hicks is regarded in some quarters -- namely, his agent's hotel suite -- as a fair price for services rendered. Who needs a salary cap like the other sports have? After all, Rodriguez can strike a white ball with a stick of wood with regularity, and when the ball is hit to him, he usually catches it. Why not compensate him as though he were the Sultan of Brunei? Those eight-year-olds sitting in left field will just have to get used to paying $28 for Cracker Jack.

"In this free-agent market," Rodriguez agent Scott Boras says, "baseball should be proud of what happened." Proud of savvy, emergent teams like Texas and Colorado stepping up to the plate in the free-agent wars. Proud of teams improving their brand names. Proud of bringing the fans back to the ballpark. Certainly, Boras is proud. Getting ten percent of $252 million means he can trade in that '83 Honda Civic for something a little sportier.

Not everyone's so happy. For instance, baseball commissioner Bud Selig -- "Bud Lite" to his disgruntled ex-fans -- is beside himself about runaway player salaries, and he worries aloud that come October 31, 2001, when the current labor contract between players and owners expires, there will be a damaging work stoppage in major-league ball. Of course, damaging work stoppages in major-league ball are nothing new. Since 1972, the game has endured five player strikes and three lockouts that lasted a total of 369 days -- more than an entire year. Only a dozen beer-soaked amnesiacs in the bleachers at Wrigley Field have forgotten the 234-day strike of 1994, which resulted in the cancellation of the World Series and nearly brought the national pastime to ruin. It took half a dozen behemoths stuffed full of steroids and a new-era baseball with the aerodynamics of Flubber to herd the rubes back into the tent. But hundreds of thousands of them are still, well, what would you call it? Bitter? Resentful? Homicidal?

Obviously, another work stoppage would go over with the fans like a quilting bee at Yankee Stadium -- but a player lockout at the end of the 2001 season now looks inevitable, featuring so-called small-market owners going to war with the fat cats of the game over TV rights and their very survival. Here's a fact: Rodriguez's new contract equals three times the market value of the Montreal Expos, whose fans barely outnumber the peanut vendors.

During the same mid-December period that Rodriguez signed with the Rangers, outfielder Manny Ramirez hooked up with the Boston Red Sox for $160 million, and your own Colorado Rockies landed not one, but two top free-agent pitchers. Lefty Mike Hampton (who, by the way, dislikes working when it's cold) came from the pennant-winning Mets for $121 million over eight years, and Denny Neagle was pried loose from that other New York team for $51 million over five years. Little matter that pitchers -- even the best pitchers -- have the same chance of survival at Coors Field as infantrymen at Verdun. It was the notion that three ball clubs spent $584 million on four players that got Bud Lite, sports economists amateur and professional, and the small-market owners all worked up.

"The system has to be changed, and it will be changed," Selig announced. "The inequity in this system is now so apparent."

Having thrown that verbal Wiffle ball at the battleship bearing down on him, the commish offered a couple of quaint solutions. He suggested a "competitive balance draft," by which talent-rich teams would have to cede some players each year to less-talented clubs. He formulated a draft plan to keep star players from other countries from commanding giant signing bonuses. And he was grappling with the prickly issue of revenue-sharing, which dictates that rich clubs spread the wealth around to their poor cousins in the best interests of the game. Two explosive issues: the possibility that small-market teams will not allow their Big Brethren to broadcast games from their ballparks until they get a bigger chunk; and how to get poor clubs to reinvest those funds in better (meaning more expensive) players rather than taking profits. There's even been talk of simply liquidating the weak-sister clubs -- "contraction of franchises," it's called in baseball corporate-speak.

So much talk. At the very moment Selig was venting, the lowly Milwaukee Brewers, the team he owned before becoming commissioner, were giving so-so outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who roamed the Coors Field pasturelands last season, 22 million bucks for the next three years -- the richest contract in Brewers history. The Rockies were talking about a ten-year "lifetime contract" for star first baseman Todd Helton that would cost, well, let's not talk about it. Owners were cringing and agents were rubbing their palms together at the prospect that the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and the Cardinals' Mark McGwire, the game's premiere home-run hitters, will both be free agents next season and command who-knows-what on the open market.

For now, predatory agents like Boras, along with the highly paid players, continue to believe that monster deals like A-Rod's and Ramirez's underscore the economic viability of the sport. Baseball's money pie is bigger than ever, they say, and there's plenty to go around. But the doomsayers -- a much larger group -- say that Rodriguez's quarter of a billion was the straw that finally broke baseball's back in struggling markets like Montreal, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. The game could be forever ruined, they say.

Who's right? This season, it wouldn't hurt to keep our eye not only on the Ballpark at Arlington, where Alex Rodriguez will be making more than a thousand dollars a minute playing shortstop, but on Coors Field, where Hampton and Neagle will try to prove to Rockies fans who had begun to lose heart that the two of them are worth every penny of 172 mil -- that men with good arms and big hearts can get batters out even at 5,280 feet. Billy Swift, Bret Saberhagen and Darrell Kyle couldn't do it. Of course, they were only single-digit millionaires.

While we wait for spring and, come fall, another crisis, let's try to remember that no matter what you hear, money is not quite everything in baseball. To wit: A peek at Alex Rodriguez's personal Web site (www.arod.com) reveals that any eager fan can own a limitededition Mariners jersey personally autographed by the reigning Croesus of the major leagues for just $599.95. Hey, why not pass the hat and send one to poor Nolan Ryan? It might enrich his otherwise impoverished day.

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