This Month, a Baseball Rant—J. Conrad Guest

Make no mistake, I love the game of baseball. As a youth I dreamed of playing professional ball. Alas, it was not to be, and I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing other dreams.

Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie

Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie

A few days before the new season started, it was announced that my Detroit Tigers had signed the game’s premier hitter, Miguel Cabrera, to a contract extension that likely will keep the old English D on the front of his jersey for the remainder of his career. The cost to keep him in Detroit for the next eight years: $292 million. I read somewhere that that amounts to $48,000 per plate appearance, for playing a kid’s game. A few days later, the Angels signed Mike Trout to a six-year contract extension worth a reported $144.5 million, after which he reportedly stated he was pleased with the amount of money because it represented security.

I’m old enough to remember when Pete Rose signed a deal with the Cincinnati Reds for $750,000, only to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies a few years later for $3 million. If the standard of that bygone era was an obscene amount, to what does $31 million year amount? Most of us will work close to half a century and never earn $31 million for our life’s work.

What price can one put on security? In today’s economy, is three month’s worth of savings enough to provide security should one lose their job? If only one percent of a MLB player’s career spans twenty years—the average career lasts but 5.6 years—is any ballplayer worth $31 million dollars a year?

There was a time, prior to the players association, that the owners took advantage of ballplayers, to the point they, well, pretty much “owned” them. The players deserved a larger share of the gate; after all, without them, the owners wouldn’t have a product to peddle. But most players held jobs in the offseason, tending bar or doing menial labor. After they retired, they worked other jobs.

Ty Cobb, the game’s first super star, played 24 years of baseball between 1905 and 1928. In 1927, after leaving the Tigers, Cobb signed with the Philadelphia Athletics, earning $85,000—more than 12 times the average player’s salary at the time. Accounting for inflation, Cobb would earn $1.14 million a year for playing in today’s game—a steal considering he still holds a number of baseball records.

Yet Cobb never got rich playing ball. He amassed his fortune investing in General Motors and Coca Cola. At the time of his death in 1961, Cobb was worth $12.1 million. That’s equal to $94 million in 2013 inflation adjusted dollars.

In his will, Cobb set aside a quarter of his empire to establish the Cobb Educational Foundation of Atlanta,which has, as of July 2013, awarded more than $15 million in college scholarships to tens of thousands of poor kids in Georgia. He also donated a large portion of his Coca-Cola shares to build the Ty Cobb Healthcare System, which today is composed of eight full service hospitals and care facilities throughout Georgia. Residents of Royston, Georgia refer to Cobb Memorial as “The hospital that was built with a bat.”

I try not to lose myself in the petty squabbles between billionaire owners and millionaire players. If I did I’d likely stop watching the game, and I’m not willing to do that because it’s still a beautiful game, largely unchanged since the early part of the twentieth century, even if this year they expanded replay review. Football, with annual changes to the rules and what constitutes a catch or a penalty and instant replay, little resembles the game I grew up watching. The NHL eliminated the center line, added a trapezoid behind the goal, and changes from year to year what constitutes a penalty to create more scoring and protect the players from injury. Maybe there would be fewer injuries if they eliminated helmets because the players would show more respect for each other, like they did before helmets were mandatory; but that would slow down the game.

I understand the importance sports hold in our society. It provides a sense of community. During the Great Depression, America found baseball a distraction to its depression. But $31 million a year for playing a kid’s game? Who do you blame: the players for being greedy, or the owners for overspending to keep a player from jumping ship to another team? How about the television stations who overpay the league for broadcast rights? The fans for paying thousands of dollars for season tickets? Is blame even to be found? After all, I likely wouldn’t turn down a $31 million advance for my next novel if Second Wind could afford it. But I wonder if I could, in good conscience, accept that contract knowing that so many others work far harder for much less.

But the real reason for my April rant is this: when colleges and universities look to make budget cuts, it’s always the arts that suffer, never the sports programs. Are sports really more important than the arts? Truly, what is a society without culture?

Novels connect us to the past, both to writers who long ago passed away and to ways of life that are no more. Novels express feelings, ask “why?” or “why not?”, and define values and traditions. They communicate ideas, and some novels do nothing short of change the world. I recently read a Facebook post that put forth the notion: If reading bores you, you’re not doing it right.

Without art, a culture erases its own future history.

More and more Americans today confess to not reading novels, even while they admit to enjoying reading. I don’t know about you, but I find time to do the activities I enjoy.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In Death, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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6 Comments

Filed under Art, musings, writing

6 responses to “This Month, a Baseball Rant—J. Conrad Guest

  1. Nice essay, J.C. You’re right – sports and entertainment figures seem to reap rewards disproportionate to their social contributions. That probably says as much about us as about them.

  2. Yes, J.C. Yes, yes, yes. I especially appreciate your words as they come from a baseball fan. Yes!

  3. It appears that folks with a college degree who have more or less average jobs will make $2 million or less in their lifetimes. So, I fail to see why a ballplayer needs more money than half my neighborhood to have financial security even though he does have a very short career. For one thing, many of them also have lucrative endorsement deals, the potential of being commentators on TV after their playing days are over, etc. So, they get the money because they can. I don’t like it either, but I still like the game.

  4. Chuck and Heidi: Our fascination with celebrities is matched only by our delight of when celebrities fall.

    Carole and Malcolm: This was a difficult blog for me to write because I still enjoy watching the game, for a variety of reasons. It’s a tie to my youth, when I used to play sandlot ball and dreamed of a big league career. Also because it’s still largely unchanged since its invention. They lowered the mound in 1968 or 1969 and added the designated hitter rule in the American League. It’s a simple game: hit a round ball squarely with a round bat.

    I tried staying away from the game after the last player strike, but I punished no one but myself by depriving myself of the game. Little one person can do.

  5. Wonderful essay. For my family, soccer’s the sport, and I remember my granddad complaining they were ruining his game with money. My brother won’t watch anymore because it’s all about who can buy the best players. But my son loves to imagine which players he’d buy and how he’d build a team. Me, I just want my team to do a little better next year than this.

    • Thanks, Sheila, for stopping by.

      Yes, we often forget that sports are a business. Like any other business, bottom line is their goal. It’s certainly nice to get paid for what you love to do, but I haven’t forgotten that, as a boy, I played simply for love of the game. I’ve met many writers who claim they write because they love arranging words on a blank piece of paper or screen and that money isn’t their goal. Really? Would any writer turn down a fat contract with a major publisher? I don’t think so!

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