Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ego Money

Three years ago, I watched Albert Pujols hit a home run at Turner Field. It was a towering shot into the home bullpen, and it was the difference in the Cardinals win over Atlanta. Despite my disappointment in the Braves lose, I counted myself fortunate to have seen one of the greatest players of my (or any) generation hit one over the wall.

After the last month, however, I don’t think of that moment with as much fondness as I used to. Pujols has shown his true colors, and they aren’t Cardinals red. In asking for the richest contract in baseball history, the first baseman has announced his priorities to the world and let us all know his loyalties do not extend beyond his front door.

When broken down into the simplest terms, Pujols request is laughable. Salaries in professional sports have increased astronomically during my lifetime, fueled by an athlete’s “worth” to the team. If profits increase due to a player’s performance, then it’s only fitting to compensate this individual with a percentage of the income. This is the simple premise of value in terms a business investment. A high school economics class would find this elementary.

However, “market value” has worked its way into the professional sports debate. Pujols will earn $16 million this year, which is already the largest portion of a $90+ million payroll. Using market value as his legitimate reason, however, Pujols is demanding the Cardinals pay him more than all other players based on the assumption he is the best in the league and his salary should reflect that. The Cardinals payroll is expected to increase to $100-110 million, and Pujols is asking for $30 million based solely on a desire to have a wealthier contract than Alex Rodriguez (which has been continually lauded as a disastrous deal) and to dwarf the contract given to fellow National League first baseman Ryan Howard (which has also been lauded as a disastrous deal). Not once has he or anyone else attributed his reasons to an increase in revenue by the team. In fact, according the ESPN’s Keith Law in a February 11 interview, interest in the Cardinals is maxed out. Busch Stadium is consistently sold out and St. Louis is perennially known as the best baseball town in America. A dramatic increase in profits is not expected, and St. Louis is left to decide if Pujols is worth losing money.

I find it highly unlikely St. Louis will double their profits from last year the way Pujols is looking to almost double his. The Cardinals, if they signed the deal he wants, would need to find money from other areas of the organization in order to afford their first baseman. Unless the team plans to have the biggest bake sale ever, this money will come directly from the fans. Ticket, parking, and vendor prices will all begin looking more like Yankee Stadium than Busch Stadium. (Who’s ready for $12 Budwiesers?!) ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd once suggested cities might implement “keep our best players” taxes. He said it in jest, but is this the only way to keep narcisitic athletes from running to New York, Boston, or Los Angeles? Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt summed up this sentiment in his statement in the (February 17 New York Times; “We’re not the Yankees.”)

Again, when broken down into the simplest terms, Pujols is asking Cardinals fans to pay more to see him play in order to stroke his ego and assure him he’s the best. My fourth grade daughter is more mature than this.

This statement, however, isn’t nearly as shocking as the baseball analysts and fans who are standing in line to support Pujols rationale. The iconic Bob Knight (who is close friends with Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa) came on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike to give his praises to Pujols and supported his desire to have the wealthiest contract. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian has said numerous times, “The Cardinals have to sign Albert Pujols.” And this is only the beginning of the drool fest that will begin at the end of the season, when other MLB owners will be more than happy to open their checkbooks to alleviate Pujols apparent struggles with self-esteem.

This melodrama is only a part of the crippling problem facing MLB owners today; Player contracts are out of whack. In Joe Posnanski’s February 16 column in Sports Illustrated, he profiles the devastating effects of some of baseball’s mega-deals. Barry Ztio to the Giants immediately comes to mind, along with Andruw Jones $18 million a year debacle with the Dodgers. (It still must make Atlanta’s Jon Scherholtz smile for letting him go.) But instead of learning the lessons from these mistakes, teams like the Nationals continue to give players like Jason Werth more money than any other team by an enormous margin.

Call a spade a spade. If you want to play for the highest dollar, then come out and say it. Don’t dance around the issue and claim you want to retire a Cardinal. It’s embarrassing. The man is an icon and is on pace to break more than a few batting records, but no one is irreplaceable. Even Beyonce knows this.


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