On Putting MLB Salaries In Perspective – Because We Need To

The plight of this year’s free agent class has delighted some fans who hold fast to their belief that MLB salaries are way out of line, and finally the chickens are coming home to roost. That may be, but it barely scratches the surface, and a fresh look is needed to keep things in perspective.

For seventy-five percent of its lifetime, MLB salaries in baseball were determined on a year to year basis, much like the rest of us. A player was paid the following year based on his performance the previous season, for better or worse the players knew how that part of the game was played.

Joe DiMaggio, the premier player of his time and according to baseball lore, once walked into the office of Yankees co-owner, Dan Topping, after a particularly good season with this greeting, “Howdy, partner.” And he meant it. Except it didn’t go that way, and DiMaggio would have to wait until after his playing days to score big money with his Mr. Coffee commercials.

Depending on how you look at it, the Devil or Angel of MLB salaries took baseball to another level when Curt Flood challenged and won a Supreme Court case in the early 1970’s which negated the reserve clause tying players to teams for a lifetime and opening the door to free agency. That door swung fully open when George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees “stole” (if you want to go there) Jim “Catfish” Hunter from the Oakland A’s, signing Hunter to a five-year $3.75 million contract.

Did you get that? Five years for less than a million dollars a year, which as you might guess is in the neighborhood of the MLB minimum annual salary of $545,000 today.

It’s all about perspective and where we have been that allows one to understand the present. Lord Acton once said, “Those who refuse to understand the past are condemned to relive it.” And I suppose the question I have is, do we want to bring baseball back into those Dark Ages when players were (virtually) slaves, and driving beer trucks during the offseason instead of conditioning themselves as players have the luxury of doing today?

And is it vital to begrudge MLB players, who total only 700 in a country with a population of 350+ million, many of whom can only look with wonder at how a human being can hit 101 on the gun with the first pitch he throws in a Spring Training game (Noah Syndergaard)?

Baseball is all about numbers, so let’s throw some “analytics” and numbers out there. Here, for example, is a list of the top earners in professional sports for 2017:

    • Lewis Hamilton: $46 million. …
    • James Harden: $46.6 million. …
    • Stephen Curry: $47.3 million. …
    • Kevin Durant: $60.6 million. …
    • Roger Federer: $64 million. …
    • Lionel Messi: $80 million. Salary/bonuses: $53 million. …
    • LeBron James: $86.2 million. Salary/bonuses: $31.2 million. 
    • Cristiano Ronaldo: $93 million. Salary/bonuses: $58 million.   (New York Post)

Notice anything peculiar about that list? I did – two things. One, there is not a single MLB ballplayer on that list, and two, I don’t even know what sport some of these athletes play.

Which raises an interesting point, which is that as fans of baseball we are largely insulated from the broader world of professional sports unless we have precious time to multi-task on multiple sports.

Thus we hear of a three-year deal signed by Jake Arrieta with the Philadelphia Phillies for $75 million, or the ones approved by J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish for a whopping six years and we tend to say wait a minute, there’s something out of whack here. A million dollars a start every time Arrieta steps on the mound (30 starts for $30 million this season)?

But again, it’s all about perspective. We go to a theatre complex to be entertained for two hours – one time – and we don’t think anything (or maybe we just don’t care) of the fact that the actors in those films grossed this kind of money in 2017.

  • Shah Rukh Khan: $38M. …
  • Tom Cruise: $43M. …
  • Robert Downey Jr.: $48M. …
  • Jackie Chan: $49M. …
  • Adam Sandler: $50.5M. …
  • Vin Diesel: $54.5M. …
  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: $65M. …
  • Mark Wahlberg: $68M.  (CBS News/

Do you see an MLB salary for a player this season equal to the bottom of the barrel on this list at $38 million? I don’t think so. So you see, it’s all relevant. The President of the United States only recently (in 2001) was given a raise to $400,000 a year. The Joint Chief of Staff makes only $15,800 per month, and that’s after a minimum of twenty years of service.

This is not bound to be one of my more popular pieces. And many of us I’m sure could do a lot with a half-million dollars MLB players earn as opposed to what we struggle with now.

But that view is off base when one considers our ability to throw a 97 mph cascading slider for a swing and miss, or putting the sweet spot of our bat on a 98 mph fastball that follows an eye level changeup at 89.

I, for one, have empathy for a player like Mike Moustakas, who has been humbled into settling for a pay cut of $2 million while signing with the Royals for one year. He waited six years for this moment, conceivably telling his family and loved ones, “Our day is coming,” and then all of a sudden because of things beyond his control, it’s not.

$6.5 million (Moustakas this season) is nothing to sneeze at. I get that, and many of us would give anything to be in the position this young man is.

But the history of baseball is important. As someone with six decades of following baseball, I see the evolution of the game in ways, which I suppose, many younger readers cannot easily grasp. It’s a pendulum, and while once it was swinging in favor of players reaping outrageous contracts, it’s a new day today in MLB.

The fear I have, though, and it’s one I hope more fans have at the moment, is that this offseason breeds a far-reaching change in MLB salaries in general.

What we had proved not to be good for the game with contracts literally given to players like Josh Hamilton (Angels) and Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees) weakened the game, and what we’ll get will prove to be just as unsettling for MLB if the trend goes on to next season when such marquee players as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and perhaps even Clayton Kershaw enter the market as the free agent class of 2019.

The negotiated agreement between players and owners is in place until 2023, so there’s no recourse at the negotiation table over the next few years. But at the same time, public opinion will weigh heavily.

The middle is always the best, right? Our country is built on compromise. Never has it been needed more than in major league baseball as we move forward.

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