Multimillionare ballplayers grow on trees these days. Each year, however, the one with the largest contract seems to bear the heaviest burden of proof, both individually and collectively for his fellow major leaguers.
This year, Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers is the man under the microscope.
Even free-spending Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has questioned the wisdom of giving the rangy shortstop a $252 million, 10-year deal, easily making A-Rod, as he's widely known, not only the highest-paid baseball player, but the highest paid athlete in any pro sport.
Rodriguez could take some comfort in knowing that Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts will make more this year, an estimated $51 million, according to Parade magazine's annual salary comparison of a cross section of Americans. On the other hand, there's little comfort in the fact that President Bush, the Rangers' former part owner, will make only $400,000 as the leader of the free world.
While casual baseball watchers may be dumbstruck by Rodriguez's out-of-the-ballpark salary, it doesn't really jar many keen observers of the game, including some of the very fans who ultimately pay the freight in the form of increased ticket prices. (Texas has hiked the cost of a single-game admission about $2.)
Joe Siegler of Garland, Texas, for example, says A-Rod's contract doesn't bother him because it's too astronomical to comprehend.
"It's all Monopoly money to me," says Siegler, who maintains a fan website (rangers.siegler.net). "A-Rod could be making $1 million, $5 million, $25 million, $50 million, or $375 million, and it would be the same to me."
However numbing the dollar amount of Rodriguez's contract, the real question is what makes an athlete so valuable in a team game like baseball.
Pitchers initiate the action and are considered the key to the outcome of any single game. But starters only take their turn in a pitching rotation every fourth or fifth game and seldom go the distance.
By contrast, a shortstop like Rodriguez is an everyday player who plays a vital role in a key defensive position. "Shortstop has been judged to be the second-toughest position to play," says Jeff Bower, senior writer for the Baseball Prospectus.
The position-by-position importance of everyday players has remained constant for many years, Bower says. From most important defensively to least, the list looks like this:
3. Second base
4. Center field
5. Third base
6. Right field
7. Left field
8. First base
What's interesting, Bower says, is that when you rank positions by offensive production, this list is basically reversed. Last year, for example, first basemen as a group were the most productive batters and shortstops the least productive.
"Rodriguez hits like an upper-echelon first baseman," Bower observes.
"If he were a left fielder, he'd still be an all-star; the fact that he's a shortstop and hits like that makes him one of the ultra elite," says Doug Pappas, who chairs the Society for American Baseball Research's Business of Baseball Committee.
Even among Hall of Fame shortstops, few hit for both average and power, yet Rodriguez does both. Last season, he batted .316 with 41 home runs. And just as impressive to insiders were his 100 walks, which speak to his discipline at the plate.
When you examine A-Rod's performance in two complex statistical categories (Equivalent Average and Equivalent Runs), which attempt to properly weigh a player's offensive impact, Rodriguez was the best everyday player in the game last year, Bower says.
And A-Rod stands to improve.
"He's going from Seattle's Safeco Field, a pitcher's park, to The Ballpark [in Arlington, Texas], which is a hitter's park," Pappas says. "All else being equal, I think his [hitting production] should rise about 10 percent."
A ballpark's dimensions, altitude, wind conditions, and hitting background all factor into how "friendly" it is to a batter, Bower says, as does temperature.
"The warmer the temperature, the further the balls fly," he explains. "This is a big factor in why Texas is a good hitter's park, and why Safeco isn't."
Rodriguez not only possesses a strong arm, he has the speed and reflexes needed to field this demanding position. According to The Scouting Notebook 2001, published by Stats Inc., he enjoyed his best defensive year in 2000, when he committed just 10 errors and led all major-league shortstops with 123 double plays.
Being such a complete player, and still only 25 years old, was bound to make A-Rod one of the most highly valued free agents ever, the experts agree. "At 25, he's only beginning to reach his peak," Bower says. "Furthermore, players of his caliber tend to retain their skills longer...."
The big question is whether Rodriguez can make the Rangers a winner. During the franchise's 28 years in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it has made the playoffs just three times (1996, '98, and '99) and never advanced past the opening playoff series.
Pappas says that according to Total Baseball, a respected reference book, no player can mean much more than seven additional wins to a team, but that number can be "huge" in terms of making or missing the playoffs.
There's no doubt that A-Rod's arrival already has created an incredible buzz.
"He's done what [Rangers owner] Tom Hicks really paid him for - to draw attention to the team," says superfan Siegler.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor