I have too many political issues on the runway, and I’m about to be buried in snow. This seems a perfect time to reflect on Chris Davis, the slugging Baltimore Orioles first baseman who just re-signed with the team in a seven-year, $161 million deal. Yes, he’s a baseball player, but the ethics issue here is not confined to baseball, or even professional sports.
Two weeks ago, it looked as if Davis and the Orioles were at an impasse. The team had, we were told, offered a take-it-or-leave-it 150 million dollar package, and Davis and his agent had turned it down. Davis’s manager, Buck Showalter, told the press that he had asked Davis, who by all accounts loves playing in Baltimore,”How much is enough?”: “I asked Chris during the season, ‘Chris, when you walk into a Target store, can you buy anything you want. So, how much is enough?'”
Sportswriters, not being reflective sorts, even the smarter ones, who are always taking the players union’s position that the more money a player can squeeze out of fat cat owners the better, jumped on Showalter. Said CBS writer David Brown, “Showalter trying to shame him into taking less — so that ownership can keep more — is shameful in itself. Why isn’t Showalter asking Angelos ‘ How much is enough?'”*
Showalter, who is one of the most intelligent and perceptive people in the game, was not trying to shame Davis. He was trying to get him to think; he was trying to impart some wisdom…and some ethics.
I used to have an annual argument with my mother’s only leftist sister—I’m sure she’s a Bernie Sanders fan–who would say that the huge salaries being paid to baseball players were “disgusting” and “ridiculous” because nobody “is worth that much money,” teachers are paid a fraction of that and are much more valuable to society, and nobody “needs that much.” I told her that the first part of her complaint was simply, factually, economically wrong. A baseball player is the indispensable component of a multi-billion dollar industry and a culturally important form of diversion and entertainment, and deserves a fair share of what his talent and labor creates. That’s the market system working. Jay Leno, when he hosted the Tonight Show, was making in excess of 20 million dollars a year, at that time more than any baseball player. The salary accurately reflected his share of the money the show made for NBC. He was, by definition worth that money (or more), and so is a baseball star. The fact that Aunt Bea didn’t value their talents was irrelevant. She wasn’t paying the salary.
The second part of her brief, which we hear all the time still, is that a teacher is more valuable to the culture, and thus should earn more than a baseball player. This is willfully ignorant. Aunt Bea has been a teacher, I have been a teacher, many millions of American have the skills, knowledge and ability to be teachers, plus a lot of actual teachers who do not have those qualifications, but teach anyway. There are, at any given time, about 800 major league baseball player, counting those who are injured. Among them, there are less than a hundred superstars–the Jay Lenos, unique talents that are difficult to find and who win games and sell tickets and jerseys with their exploits. Of course they make a lot more than teachers: it is simple supply and demand.
Moreover, Americans care more about professional sports and other entertainment than they do about education. Sorry. It’s true. Baseball stats guru and philosopher Bill James made the point with cancer research, but it applies here: we spend, he said, far more money on sports related expenses, spend more time talking and thinking about sports, reading about sports, caring about sports, than we do on cancer research. That’s just a fact of life. The relative salaries in those fields reflect our priorities as a culture.
My Aunt’s last point, unlike the first two, is not subject to direct disproof. It’s a progressive, socialist, Communist, Christian, humanist point of long-standing: why seek more money that you need? As a general proposition, I dispute the right of anyone to tell someone else what they need. Discovering what one needs is part of the journey of life. It is not a question that should be answered and imposed on anyone by someone else, a faith, a philosopher, a government agency or Bernie Sanders. This also comes up in Second Amendment debates: nobody needs a gun; nobody needs a semi-automatic; nobody needs an arsenal, we are told, by people who have no interest in guns whatsoever and who can’t imagine wanting or needing one. I have also been told that nobody needs children, live theater, and ethics.
You are welcome to your stupid, ignorant, lazy opinion, now get out of my way.
That is not to say that the question isn’t one that should be asked—by a friend, a relative, a baseball manager or by yourself to yourself— when you may be warping your life in the pursuit of money above all else. Baseball players are pushed by their union to seek the highest salaries possible, and to sign with the team offering the most money. Those who follow that directive are often acting against their own self-interest. That was what Showalter was trying to get Chris Davis to consider.
Unless he has some dread addiction, owes money to the mob, or invests with Bernie Madoff’s clone, Chris Davis, who has made just under 27 million dollars already in his career before he is 30, is not hurting for money. He has a wife and daughter, who were reasonably secure for life before he signed the recent contract. Nobody was saying that Davis would be a greedy bastard if he didn’t play for free, or that he shouldn’t seek fair compensation based on what similar players in his sport were being paid. Showalter’s argument was that Davis was playing in a city that he already lived in and that made him happy; he had a team and a fan base that was perfect for him, and a park that fit his power and swing. Since he was sure to get a lot of money, and since 150 million was almost certainly more than he could possibly spend, why make maximizing his salary his only objective? Davis had the luxury of choosing where his family would live and where he would work, and instead he was going to let that choice and his autonomy be forfeited to the highest bidder–to what end?
What values are being served by such priorities? At some point, and I would assume it comes well before 20 million a year, the marginal utility of each additional dollar is negligible. Players in Davis’s situation always say that they have to maximize their income “for their kids,” to which I say, “Oh, give us a break!” If you want to ensure that your child grows up useless, by all means set them up with a 30 million dollar trust before they are 18. Now, if a player says, “I need as much money as I can get, because I’m using it to feed starving children in Africa” or “I’m using it to build a hospital like St. Jude’s,” or, like Red Sox great Pedro Martinez, “I’m spending it on building roads and schools in the Dominican Republic,” that’s a reasonable, thoughtful allocation of priorities. I have seldom heard a player say these things, however; for the most part, elite athletes are terrible at giving away their money. Davis probably does shop at Target. The difference between 160 million and 150 millions is just an abstraction to most athletes.
It’s all moot now, of course. Davis got his contract, and also ended up where he wanted to be. Still, Showalter’s question was a legitimate and valid one, and not just for him. Corporate CEO’s. Workaholic lawyers. The Clintons.
* I couldn’t fit this in the main post, but the Angelos question, which I have seen raised by other sportswriters, is misleading, illogical, dumb, and a classic apples and oranges confusion. Orioles owner Angelos is running a business. Every cent he spends on Davis is money he can’t spend in other ways to strengthen the team. Unlike Davis, his need for cash is real: he’s competing with teams like the Yankees and Boston that have huge TV deals and larger fan bases. Furthermore, the question of how large a priority one should place on earning more money and the question of whether one should be prudent about how one spends what one already has are completely different. I expect baseball writers–especially smart ones, like NBC’s Craig Calcaterra, who also used this false analogy, to understand that. This is just their rich-hating, inner Bernie talking.