Grand Salaries Are Ruining the Grand Old Game

SINCE Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott put baseball back in the headlines last month, it may also be time again to look at what greedy players are doing to America's pastime.

Ms. Schott's racial insensitivities may be in dispute. But the soaring salaries paid to major league players are not. The salary-escalation is enough to make rooting for the home team seem a mockery.

Take Barry Bonds. He's the hotly sought after free agent who recently cinched a $43 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. Leaving his old team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who could afford him any longer, Mr. Bonds will get more than $7 million a year for the next six years. And don't forget, that is for six months work per year.

Doug Drabek, also leaving his beloved Pirates, will get close to $5 million to throw his frisky "slider" for the Houston Astros during a four-year contract. No, not $5 million for four years; that's $5 million per year.

Then there's injury-prone Dodgers outfield, Eric Davis, who has has signed with Los Angeles for another year at $1 million. Mr. Davis is also reported to have been given an added incentive to stay "healthy." For every day he's listed on the active player roster, he will be paid a bonus of $5,494.50. This works out to another cool million if he avoids tripping over the deep shag carpeting in plush hotel rooms on the road.

And how about Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg? He's signed a 4-year contract that will pay him $7.3 million a year.

And the list goes on. In the past two years, major league baseball salaries have doubled. This past season, the average - not the highest, just the average - salary paid to players was over a million dollars: $1,028,667, to be precise.

It's becoming routine for, say, a Jose Guzman - newly signed starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs - to land a 4-year contract worth close to $14.5 million.

The arbitration system, by which players either get the salary they've sought or else the one the club owners are offering, is said to be what's causing the salary-escalation. As a consequence, small franchises such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Seattle Mariners can't keep up with the bidding war.

In the past three seasons, Seattle Mariners' salaries to players tripled from $8 million to more than $24 million. According to team owner, Jeff Smulyan, he's losing $10 million yearly. There is no way Mr. Smulyan can triple his revenue to keep pace.

Okay, so the affable Barry Bonds is a stupendous player who batted .311 last season, slugged 34 homers, and is inarguably one of baseball's finest left-fielders. But $7 million a year in salary? Isn't that out of hand?

Nor is it likely to stop there. One can already predict a raft of players coming out of the batter's box the next time salary negotiations are taken up, demanding to get better than Bonds got.

Baseball is one of the last real meritocracies left in America. In baseball, it is not who you know but what you can do that counts. Nowhere else can a kid from the sticks who doesn't know a pronoun from an adverb make a million dollars a year for 6 months by throwing sinking fastballs at 98 miles-an-hour.

Its meritocracy has endeared baseball to generations of Americans. There is a small boy still lurking in the grown man who finds in the grand old game a refuge, of sorts, from the world's ravages. Where else but in baseball is stealing highly condoned and rewarded? Where else but on the baseball field does America's supreme self-confidence remain untarnished?

But if the spirit, if not the future, of baseball is jeopardized, it is most likely because of the astronomical salaries players are demanding. Where is it written that ball players should be paid two-hundred-times more than, say, research scientists whose work stands to remedy the ills that ravage mankind?

If major league baseball will remain a meritocracy, the bidding wars must cease. Otherwise, the players will be living off of past glories, and the fans will be taking out a second mortgage just to buy season's tickets.

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