Enter the era of the $49,000 at bat

Alex Rodriguez's $252 million baseball deal spotlights imbalance between rich and poorer teams.

It took exactly two days for pitcher Mike Hampton's blockbuster $121 million deal to become chump change.

The Colorado Rockies had put together what looked like an astounding offer: $15 million a year for eight years. When pen was put to paper, it was the second-largest contract in the history of sport - falling just short of a 1997 basketball deal.

Now, it's a distant fourth.

The Texas Rangers' signing of slugger Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract has staked out a new standard in professional athletics - one that may imperil the very foundations of America's pastime.

Certainly, landmark contracts have always been met with concern and derision. Four years ago, some sportswriters scoffed at Shaquille O'Neal's $120 million pact with the Los Angeles Lakers as shocking and irresponsible.

But the Rodriguez deal makes that one look positively Little League. Next season, the coveted shortstop will make more money than all the players on the Minnesota Twins or the Milwaukee Brewers or the Kansas City Royals.

It's an apt comparison. As big-market baseball clubs like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers spend untold millions to secure the game's premier players, teams in smaller cities make do with the scraps.

No team has folded or moved since 1972, when the Washington Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers. But more teams report that they are losing money, and with Rodriguez's $27-million-a-year salary as the new benchmark, the future prosperity of Major League Baseball is as clouded as it has been since the days of the strike in 1994.

"Baseball has to deal with its financial imbalance," says Andrew Zimbalist, author of several books on the economics of sports. "Something needs to be done, and this is one more piece of evidence that baseball is out of whack."

The Rodriguez deal is unprecedented.

*The $252 million the Rangers will pay Rodriguez is $2 million more than owner Tom Hicks paid to buy the club in 1998.

*It's equal to what the Pentagon recently agreed to pay to keep a satellite phone system in orbit.

*Today, 18 of 30 teams are valued at less than $252 million, including the Chicago Cubs, according to Forbes magazine.

*Based on last season's statistics, Rodriguez will make about $49,000 per at bat this year.

*His yearly salary is enough to pay for all of the Boston Ballet's expenses this year (with about $9 million left over).

Since free-agency began to take hold in the late 1970s, the rise in salaries throughout the sports world has been astronomic. But the trend has been perhaps most apparent in Major League Baseball. Just 10 years ago, for example, Jose Canseco was the highest-paid player at $4 million a year.

NOW $4 million is an insult. Darren Dreifort - a second-tier pitcher who had a career year in 2000 with 12 wins and 9 losses - signed yesterday for $11 million a year. And that's not even mentioning Manny Ramirez. Perhaps baseball's most productive hitter in the past four years, he, too, signed yesterday: $160 million, eight years.

Most days, that's Page 1 news.

Today, it's a footnote.

There's mounting evidence that baseball simply can't afford to keep spending like this. In July, a panel that included former Sen. George Mitchell and political columnist George Will announced that, according to their findings, only three teams had turned a profit since 1995. The notion that a team like Kansas City could ever sign a player of Rodriguez's stature is laughable.

"This has been going on for quite some time, and I don't see any improvement," says Spencer Robinson, former general manager of the Kansas City Royals and now chief operating officer. "I'm not sure what the solution is to equalizing the playing field."

At a summer meeting, owners didn't reject the idea of throwing out two teams in 2002.

The primary reason for baseball's woes, analysts agree, is a lack of firm direction. While the National Football League has a strict salary cap and forces the biggest teams to share a lot of their money, Major League Baseball is a Wild West of free spending. Clearly, baseball is capable of overcoming its troubles, with a century-old tradition and solid fan support. But observers are wary of the precedent set with Rodriguez.

"Some owners are making mistakes," says Lawrence Hadley, an associate professor of economics at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "You can't build a team around one star player in baseball. You might be able to do that in basketball, but not in baseball."

Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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