Spare A-Rod. It's the Spoiled Owners

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The $252 million dollar man: Rodriquez

Alex Rodriguez doesn't make a lot of money. Scott Sheldon makes a lot of money. He's Rodriguez's new backup at shortstop for the Texas Rangers and plays for the league minimum, $220,000 a year, which still puts him in the top tier of wage earners in the U.S. That's a lot of money.

A-Rod makes an absurd amount of money. He makes Doctor Evil money. But that quarter-of-a-billion-dollar contract isn't his fault, or even that of his attack-agent, Scott Boras. The big culprit behind ballooning salaries is owner greed. Rangers owner Tom Hicks has made the calculation that in today's marketplace, buying a star like A-Rod (and, in pairing him with big-time catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the Rangers have now cornered the market on All-Star Rodriguezes), like signing Bruce Willis to open your movie, is a better return on an investment than spending that money on half a dozen lesser players who between them wouldn't generate the buzz in a season that his new shortstop will generate in a day. Stars mean butts in seats, butts on couches and butts buying hundred-dollar "A. Rodriguez" Rangers jerseys.

And owners, at least the ones fortunate enough to hold elite teams, can afford it. For those teams, the combination of mammoth TV contracts, revenues from new stadiums and the sale of stadium naming rights have left them flush with cash. If the players didn't get a big chunk of that, it would all go to the owners, most of whom couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat.

You may ask yourself, "How did we get here?" In a series of rulings in the late '80s an arbiter said that baseball owners colluded to flatten player compensation. Their hands caught in the cookie jar, the owners were forced into the worst labor agreement in professional sports. It allows free agents to command whatever salaries they please from any team willing to pay them. The problem is that only a handful of players really benefit from this system, while the average player suffers.

Last year, the average salary in major league baseball soared to $1.8 million, but that admittedly staggering figure is misleading since it only represents the total of all baseball salaries divided by the number of all baseball players. A more telling number: the median player's salary, that is, the salary of the player who has the same number of people making less than him than people making more. That figure lingers beneath the million-dollar mark. That means that for every A-Rod or Manny Ramirez, there are a dozen serviceable full-time outfielders and middle relievers sliding by on a lowly CEO's salary. Even Rodriguez's new teammate Raphael Palmiero, in defending A-Rod's contract, pointed out that it doesn't put the Rangers among the five highest payrolls. That's because, with a median player salary of $800,000, the Rangers are weighted with players at the bottom of the pay scale.

But there's good news on the horizon for the majority of players in the middle, for teams like the Montreal Expos that can't afford to field a competitive roster, and for the average working-class fan who gets a rash when he realizes the $6 hot dog he just bought is subsidizing the new catcher's villa in Monte Carlo: Baseball is facing yet another work stoppage after the 2001 season, and if they don't want to lose everything, players and owners will come up with a smarter, more equitable labor agreement, one that might curtail the incidence of the $252 million shortstop.

The labor strike of 1994–95 devastated fan enthusiasm. Leaguewide, ticket sales still haven't returned to their pre-strike levels despite the thrilling Sosa/McGwire home-run-a-thons of 1998 and 1999. At some point it'll sink in to the owners and the MLB Players Association that another lockout will deliver a potential death blow to the game that'll threaten the trough its players feed from. The question then is whether labor and management emulate financially healthier leagues like the NFL and NBA that impose salary caps and provide more generous revenue sharing.

And of course A-Rod isn't entirely innocent. There's plenty of greed and ego involved here as well. "There are three reasons Rodriguez wants 20 million," says Mark Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports consultancy Sportscorp. "One: He thinks he can get it. Two: He wants it. Three: He's a competitive man and he wants to make more than anybody else in the game."

The NBA has solved this problem of a player maxing out his value simply because he can. The league has a salary cap and a salary floor, so each team is in a position to field a competitive team, while rich teams are compelled to keep their payrolls beneath the GDP of Southeast Asia. There's also the "Larry Bird rule," allowing players to re-sign with their team for any salary up to a predetermined single player maximum (currently $17 million per year for a league veteran), even if it pops the salary cap — which builds something baseball fans are screaming for: team loyalty. This system also soothes that competitive zeal to be the highest-paid slam-dunker on the planet by assuring the superstars that no player could possibly earn more than them.

That may not help fans staggering under the average $140 tab to take a family of four to the ballpark. But if baseball can come up with a system where fans in every city feel they really have something to hope for, there will probably be a whole lot fewer complaints about the price of peanuts and Cracker Jacks.