It is being reported that the Los Angeles Dodgers are about to sign an extension with new right-fielder Mookie Betts, acquired over the winter in a stunning trade with the Boston Red Sox, for an estimated 12-13 year contract at about 35 million dollars a year.
When I was giving my lecture to the Smithsonian about baseball this week, I mentioned writer Bill James’ argument that baseball is not “just a business” as detractors like to say. He has pointed out that because baseball’s market does not treat it as a business, but as a pastime, entertainment, a cultural touchpoint and a community institution, baseball teams are not run as rational businesses. Indeed, they are frequently run irresponsibly and incompetently, based on emotion and sentiment.
‘Twas not always thus. In the early days of professional baseball right up the end of the Calvin Griffith era in Minnesota, many teams were run as the sole sources of income by their owners, though by the time Griffith died, he was the last of that species. Beginning with Tom Yawkey’s purchase of the then perennial doormat Red Sox, however, the baseball owner as community philanthropist was born. Yawkey was a rich lumber tycoon, and he spent money lavishly on Boston teams to win games and make fans happy. He certainly increased the value of his sports franchise asset, but from a business standpoint his management was often irrational.
The Dodgers contract with Betts is in this tradition. Betts is a free agent after this year; that’s why the Red Sox traded him, because he was going to put himself up for sale to the largest bidder. The Dodgers sensed that the virus-truncated season changed the equation for them and the player: Mookie, one of the most talented, productive and likable players in the game, would not have a chance in 60 games to enhance his value, and each year passed for a player is depreciation. Betts will be 28 this season, and most players peak at that age.
However, there is no way that a 13 year, 380 million dollar contact for a single player makes business sense. The Dodgers probably know this, too. The team has more money than almost any other franchise. It is already the best team in the National League, and has been for several years. It is probably the best team in either league, with or without Mookie Betts. Management has apparently concluded it can afford to be irrational.
But businesses can never afford to be irrational, and a baseball team run irrationally won’t succeed in the long run as a pastime or community institution either. Thirteen years will take Betts into his 41st year. The odds against any player, even the very best, like Betts, being able to play at a high level after they pass 35 are daunting, Most baseball players are retired before that age, because they can’t play well any more, and younger, cheaper players are ready to take their jobs.
Right now, three baseball teams, all in the American League, have aging, one-time superstars playing at a sub-par level in their line-ups, hurting their teams and being paid over 20 million dollars a year—and they all have years left on their contracts. In the practice of past eras, they all would have been released years ago. Their contracts, however, make that too great a sacrifice to make. It is not a coincidence that all three of the teams in this situation—the Baltimore Orioles, the Detroit Tigers and the Anaheim Angels—are losing teams with little prospect of getting better any time soon. That is the likely fate the Dodgers are charting for themselves in order to have the pleasure of Mookie Betts’ company for the next three to five years in which he is still a great baseball player, barring any injuries that make that period even shorter.
Here is another problem. Baseball teams have run up against an inflexible reality: at a certain point, when a player is wealthy enough, the team has no leverage over him. A player is financially independent after a single season at 20-30 million dollars. Many players have already earned close to a quarter a billion dollars in salaries alone, not counting promotional deals and the other money that comes stars’ way. This why several players decided not to bother with the 2020 season at all: it was only going to pay them 8-10 million dollars.
Such wealth turns players into monsters; it breeds The Saint’s Excuse, also known as the Star Syndrome. Players start out as nice guys, modest, accommodating and slowly devolve into selfish, arrogant, entitled jerks.
Maybe Mookie Betts will be one of the exceptions.
I hope so.