The Chris Davis Saga: How Much Money Is “Enough”?

Chris Davis is under there somewhere...

Chris Davis is under there somewhere…

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.

You. Me.

* 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.

24 thoughts on “The Chris Davis Saga: How Much Money Is “Enough”?

  1. Love the post, Jack.

    I use to look at the Fenway Park parking lot for players and occasionally still do. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s you could walk down Van Ness Street and observe player’s cars through a wire fence with no screening to prevent wandering eyes. Or you could get an aerial view by standing on the walkway behind the grandstand on the first base side. Nothing remarkable, but the years have certainly changed the types of vehicles.

    In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was common to see a Buick, Chevrolet and Ford with the rare appearance of a Cadillac. Players were not rich and often – even a star player – would have off-season employment. The union was still in its infancy and Marvin Miller was twenty years away. The first recorded listing of average salaries is 1964 and that was for $14,863 and that would translate to $128,143 in 2015.

    The average salary for an MLB player for 2015 is in excess of $4 Million and the minimum salary is $507,000. Both figures represent a staggering growth in compensation that certainly makes income inequity seem viable when baseball (and other sports) are discussed regarding compensation. This, of course, is funded by the fans and even the non-fans via tickets, merchandising and advertising.

    In 1917 Ruth – then of the Boston Red Sox – hit only two home runs and accounted for a meager 14 RBI, but still showed some hitting promise with a .325 average. Ruth was primarily a pitcher finishing 24-13, leading the American League in complete games and posting a 2.01 ERA. Ruth was rewarded with a contract for $7,000 for the 1918 season and that in today’s dollars would translate to $119,976. Certainly not servitude, but less than the highest paid player, Ty Cobb, who received $20,000 from the Tigers.

    In 1960, Willie Mays was the highest paid player in baseball with a salary of $80,000 or about $639,000 in 2015 dollars. That last inflation accounted figure is still substantially below the average player salary for 2015 and about 25% higher than the minimum salary for MLB players. And then consider the pension and health care benefits.

    When changes in baseball are discussed I take a different tack since it is not about equipment, diversity of players, new venues and a myriad of other topic’s, but all about the money. That has been the most staggering “improvement” in the game from my perspective.

    Looking at Ruth, I would wonder just what a salary for a player who it 1918 earned his keep with a league-leading 11 home runs and a 13-7 pitching record? Then toss in the two wins in a World Series. No doubt you could use some of the metrics such as WAR and determine his current worth.

    “I think he’s (Marvin Miller) the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years. He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player – and in the process all professional athletes. Prior to his time, they had few rights. At the moment, they control the games.” – Commissioner Fay Vincent

    With Miller and subsequent free agency, an escalation salary trend took place and much was the willingness of owners to attempt to outbid one another. Free agency may have been a fiscal motivator, but even more so was the process of arbitration that has also significantly contributed to salaries. Miller was a unionizing magician who simply handed owners their lunch in negotiations and with saying sayonara of the reserve clause.

  2. Jack, you already touched on it at the end of your post, but I had the idea in mind already as I was reading through, and still wanted to get it out. You’re correct, every cent spend on Davis is a cent not spent elsewhere. So, in some respects, it becomes more about me (Davis), and less about the team (not that I view him as selfish; I actually like him greatly). Most ball players claim to desire winning above all else; I do not know if Davis has made the same claim, but it’s reasonable to presume that he has. The extra $1.5M per year he’s going to make now (vs the original contract offer) means the team faces a steeper uphill climb to upgrade their pitching and RF, both of which are still in desperate needs of upgrades. Say goodbye to Yoenis Cespedes.

    I, too, hate the idea of telling someone how much “enough” is (or telling someone else how to spend their money, for that matter), but if Davis is all about the team, this would’ve been a good time to put his money where his mouth is.

    Interesting side note about the contract: The way it’s structured, he’ll be receiving deferred payments until 2037, when he’s 51!

    • You do see some players, like Dustin Pedroia, apply Showalter’s thinking. He told the Red Sox and his agent, “I want to finish my career with one team, in Boston, so get it done.” He got a 100 million for 7 years, which, he said, was plenty. He knew he could have gotten more, maybe 20 million more, if he had gone into free agency and followed the money to Seattle or LA. Smart guy. Kirby Puckett did the same thing with the Twins.

  3. Weaver was another one who left a lot of money on the table. Been several more. Puckett had reached a verbal agreement with Boston on a contract, but flying back to Minnesota he had second thoughts. Loved the Twins City area.

    Alex Gordon is reported to have delayed signing hoping the Royals would make an offer that he felt comfortable with and they did.

    I believe the KC Royals had several lifetime contracts for players such as Frank White and George Brett. Amounted to some type of team employment upon retirement.

    The opt-out clauses are real interesting and are a solid win for player/agents.

    • I’m pretty sure Gordon could have had more. Good for him.

      I didn’t want the Sox to sign Kirby. I hate it when teams lure away the face of a franchise.,,,a hangover from when the Yankees signed Louis Tiant. It’s why Boston fans never forgave Johnny Damon.

  4. Presumably, the owners wouldn’t pay this if Davis wasn’t going to generate at least 161 million dollars and one penny of revene. So, if they paid him $80 million, where would that other $80 million go? To the owners? As between the players and the owners, I’d rather see it go to the players.

    Now, you might say that they could lower ticket prices or lower their advertising rates so their sponsors’ products wouldn’t cost so much. But that would require you to not attend baseball games. Which I don’t. Despite the fact that I love baseball.

    • Not the point, though. Are you saying its a player’s duty to make sure he takes away as much money as possible from an owner because they deserve to pay? The issue is, what’s best for THE PLAYER and what’s best for the player is, past a certain point, to use his power to achieve something more than just the biggest paycheck. In the case of the Orioles, the money not spent on him can be spent to make the team better, which indirectly benefits him.In the O’s case, that extra 80 million would go to a really good left-fielder, so their offense would have a chance of compensating for the team’s iffy pitching.

      • Yes, a player, an electrician, an accountant, acting in a rational economic way, will charge what the market can bear.

        You say that the Orioles could have used that money to better their team. But clearly the Orioles thought the best option for their team was to pay Davis that much money. Paying him 80 million if he’s worth 160 results on a windfall to someone.
        I could subsist on a lot less money than I make, we all could.
        Is it immoral for me when that’s how the market has valued me?

        • Who said anything in this topic was immoral? Letting other people determine where you work and live based on money alone when you already are getting over 20 million a year is stupid, that’s all. It’s not immoral to act stupidly. It’s just stupid, and life malpractice.

            • And that’s stupid. You, presumably, are waiting for your paycheck because you need it to pay for something you need, in the present or future. Whether his check is for 2 million a month or 1.89 million a month…or even if it comes at all, has no impact on his life, health, happiness or anything else.

              You are willfully refusing to understand a pretty obvious fact. He can do anything he wants, because he is financially independent. Anyone who has made as much as he already has, and is guaranteed of an 8 figure salary for multiple years, is. Not doing what maximizes his autonomy and happiness in order to amass more money than he can spend (and pay a bigger slice to his agent) is idiotic. What part of this is so hard for you?

              • Jack, I really want to understand your position. I really do. You are obviously very intelligent. I’m no MENSA member, but I consider myself of reasonable intelligence. I take what you say seriously and try to understand.

                You say that his check has no impact on his life, health, happiness or anything else. But it must have some impact, or he wouldn’t have insisted on it. Maybe he wants to buy his own franchise someday (in which case he hasn’t made nearly enough money yet). Maybe he wants to buy his own island. Maybe he wants to set up a foundation and he has a certain amount that he wants to use as an endowment. Or maybe he wants his net worth to be 9 figures instead of 8 figures. It’s not for me to pass judgment on the logic of those choices.

                I have been blessed with enough money to pay my bills as they come due, to go out to eat a couple times a week, and take a couple nice vacations a year. But I am also busting tail because I want to do all those things and retire at 60. Maybe that’s stupid to some people.

                • Virtually every one of these blue-collar multi-Millionaires make their employment decisions based on who offers the most money. All of them are aspiring philathropists? As I said in the post, none of them are. The union, their agents (who have a conflict of interest) and pure ego, as in “I want as much as THAT guy got” are the primary reasons for insisting on more when more is meaningless. Occam’s Razor is on my side here. The simplest explanation is greed and slewed priorities. Your alternatives are not similarly common or likely.

                  I also presume that BucK Showalter, who has managed Davis for three years, knows him well, and that he wouldn’t have said what he said if Davis was building a cancer clinic.

  5. Red Auerbach and Larry Bird’s agent were putting together Bird’s first professional contract. In the last session, the agent proposed a bonus if Bird should make the All-Rookie team. Finally exasperated, Auerbach said to Bird, “Larry, we’re making you the highest paid rookie in the history of the league. For that much, we’re assuming you’re going to be All-Rookie.” And Bird said, yeah, let’s sign.

    • Bird also reportedly got very excited about winning a pre-NBA All Star game competition for which he won a few thousand dollars. He was asked why he was so thrilled, when it was pocket change for him. He said that he really couldn’t comprehend figures the size of his salary, but the prize money he could relate to. I bet he’s not atypical.

      • And a jackass. I have a proud moment with Angelos. When Cal Ripkin broke Gehrig’s record, the O’s held a mid-game ceremony. I was in the stands, in box seats. Joe DiMaggio spoke, as did others. But Angelos annoyed everyone by making his own, long-winded, self-congratulatory speech. It’s fair to say that nobody wanted to hear from him that night. The crowd was waiting for Cal, and Angelos droned on and on. I had had it: I waited for a perfect pause, with the stadium silent, and yelled out “BORING!!!” at the top of my lungs. In some clips it could be heard on television. I’m certain Angelos heard it, and our section of the crowd cheered.

        I’ll ask for this moment to be on my gravestone, along with breaking up a serious business meeting by emulating John Belushi’s pencils up the nose gag in “Animal House.” My life has meaning.

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