— Given the state of the economy — the technical term for it is “in the crapper” — you’d think that this would be a terrible time to be a free agent athlete. If you’re one those folks who are always grousing about how much money baseball players make to scratch and spit in public, you might even be cheered by that prospect.
If you’re a Boston fan, you are definitely hoping and praying that baseball owners will decide that they can’t afford to pay Manny Ramirez the scores of millions Scott Boras, his agent, is going to request. And how grand would it be to see Manny and other overpaid jocks have to take a pay cut?
I hate to spoil your fantasies, but it’s not going to happen. The premier free agents — Manny, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Francisco Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe and a few others — are going to get the same obscene amounts of money they would have gotten if the economy was still booming.
They will because baseball’s economy is about to start working the way the national economy has been working. It’s a trickle-up situation, and the guys at the top will rake in the bucks while the game’s middle class gets squeezed and the minimum-wage guys at the bottom of the pile are lucky to get scraps.
A lucky few will benefit from the Yankees clearing a lot of cap room and needing to field a contender in their new 50,000-seat luxury box. The Mets also have a new stadium to justify. The Red Sox will also spend and the Cubs are desperate to do anything to break a century-long losing streak.
Other owners will join in the bidding. They may be more selective than they’ve been in the past, but they have little choice. For one thing, there’s never been an owner with pretensions of winning who could resist the right free-agent superstar. But more important, they need stars to sell tickets. This is more true in a tight economy, when consumers have less disposable income and want to get the most bang for the few bucks they still have. If they’re going to spring for a ballgame, they want to have a reason to go to the park.
In such times, it’s more vital than ever for teams to field winners and give the fans stars. So guys who can make the difference between second or third place and the playoffs become more valuable than ever. Manny single-handedly carried the Dodgers into the playoffs, and some owner is going to convince himself the moody slugger can do the same for his team.
K-Rod is arguably the premier closer in the game, and if you’re a team like the Mets, who missed the playoffs because you couldn’t get the last three outs of too many games, you’ve got to consider busting open the bank vault to sign him.
Sabathia and Burnett can anchor a rotation and make everybody better. Teixeira is one of the best first basemen in the game and a real difference-maker. These guys are all going to get their money because they can put a team in the playoffs. They’ve got nothing to worry about.
But there isn’t as much money in a contracting economy, so the dollars that go to the superstars are going to have to come from somewhere. And the way owners will cope is by low-balling the free agents who are role players and not game-changers.
There are going to be veteran journeymen who have moved up the pay scale who aren’t going to be able to find work. There will be so-so middle relievers and utility infielders with career .243 batting averages who will find themselves replaced by cheaper players from the farm system. And there will be decent players who are going to be signing for less than they were making.
This will happen because owners aren’t as dumb as a lot of fans think they are. They may not all know how to put together a winner, but they know about money. They also know the economy’s hurting, and so are the people who buy the tickets that pay the bills.
A number of teams have trimmed some ticket prices for next year while others are either not increasing prices or keeping the price increase down. They know that fans are increasingly strapped, and they don’t want to price the paying customers out of the stadiums. And as the economy suffers, sponsors are less willing to lavish money on teams.
Owners are faced with a dilemma. They have to cut expenses, but they have to put a product on the field that will compete for a shrinking pool of entertainment dollars. So they’ll still spend for the big names, and they’ll save money on the bottom of the roster.
If that means teams with less depth than the managers and general managers would like, that’s the way it will have to be. But no game and no team can thrive without stars, especially in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
So Manny and CC and K-Rod will get their money. It’s guys like Willie Bloomquist who have to worry. But if you’re a fan, you don’t care because you don’t even know who Bloomquist is. And in this economy, you’ll probably never know, because when GMs start looking around for places to trim expenses, it’s guys like Bloomquist, a 31-year-old banjo-hitting infielder, who are going to be the first to go.