The Real Cost of Spiraling Baseball Salaries

by Jeff Siegel

In 1976, the Chicago Cubs traded all-star third baseman Bill Madlock to San Francisco, furious that Madlock wanted a $300,000 contract. This off-season, Madlock’s former team signed Alfonso Soriano, a good offensive player but not much else, to an eight-year, $136 million deal. Or, to put it another way, Soriano will make in three games for the Cubs about what Madlock did for the entire 1977 season.

My, how times have changed.

What little order existed in the salary marketplace apparently vanished this year. An ordinary player like pitcher Gil Meche got $55 million, while Barry Zito, who has had a fine career but wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team three years ago, signed with San Francisco for $126 million. And, just to make sure everyone understands how outlandish these numbers are, consider two things. First, these contracts are guaranteed, so these fellows get their money regardless of what happens. Second, sales for the Pizza Inn restaurant chain are about $50 million a year. Which means Zito has a chance to be worth more than a company with 370 locations and thousands of employees.

This being the United States, the tendency is to blame the ballplayer. Jeff Suppan, who got $42 million from Milwaukee despite being a mostly a .500 pitcher in 11 seasons, was supposed to politely decline the Brewers’ generosity and offer to play for what the team thought was fair. This is a particular refrain in the media, which almost never asks any questions about how the owners can afford to pay such ridiculous sums.

The answer, of course, is because they can. It’s not like they’re spending money they don’t have. Ticket prices are at an all-time high (a standing room ticket to see the Boston Red Sox in 2007 will cost as much as $25), while the owners and their executives have learned how to squeeze every nickel from non-ticket sources like stadium naming rights, marketing partnerships, and product licensing, including fantasy baseball. Ultimately, fans will pay for this excess in even higher ticket prices, squeezing out everyone who can’t afford $110 for the top Giants’ ticket in 2007. You can already see some of that in baseball stadiums these days, where the crowds are more corporate than ever and there are increasingly fewer non-Anglo faces. This seems like a more important issue than whether a very unknown relief pitcher named Jamie Walker got a $12 million deal.

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