— One of the many over-referenced Babe Ruth anecdotes involves a reporter who flips the pages of his notebook toward Ruth while asking about his $80,000 contract with the New York Yankees. "You’re making more than President Hoover," the man supposedly exclaims, as his eyebrows brushed the bottom of his fedora. “Why not?” Ruth replies, “I had a better year.”
If you adjust Ruth’s 1930 numbers for inflation, he’d be pulling in $1,085,245 today, which is about what the 2011 Yankees deposit in the bank account of relief pitcher Boone Logan. The House That Ruth Built still pays better than the House That John Adams Built; our current president’s salary is less than the league minimums for MLB, the NBA and the NHL. But whether you think Mr. Obama ($400,000) has had a better year than, say Astros third baseman Jimmy Paredes ($415,000) probably depends on which consonant — D or R — is stamped on your voter registration card.
The idea that even the most marginally talented pro athlete can pull a six-, seven- or even eight-digit salary isn’t new or noteworthy. There aren’t many people who’d be surprised to learn that their own net worth is less than Dwight Freeney’s french fries budget — and there are even fewer who still have the potential to get outraged about it. Those numbers won't get smaller, not when bigger deals are being signed, like the 8-year, $120 million contract extension Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald inked in August.
But sometimes trying to digest those numbers is harder than swallowing a lump of store-brand potato soup, especially when those of us who don’t play games for a living constantly have to worry about job security or a 9 percent unemployment rate or whether we should’ve splurged on that bonus pack of paper towels. Last year, U.S. per capita income was $39,945, slightly less than Fitzgerald made in the first two minutes of the Cardinals-Seahawks game Sunday.
Is he worth it? In the NFL’s whacked-out economic universe, yes. But I don’t get angry over the contracts of perennial Pro Bowlers such as Fitzgerald or All-Stars such as Kobe Bryant or Alex Rodriguez. I can’t handle all those dollars given to players who either consistently underperform — whose stat lines shrink as their bank accounts get supersized — or the players who stuff their lockers with Costco-sized boxes of Crazy. You know, like these guys:
MLB: Neither John Lackey nor Carl Crawford can take all the blame for the Red Sox's collapsing like discount dry wall. But when you’re being paid almost $16 million and $15 million respectively, you expect more than an 9.13 ERA and .250 batting average (.250 OBP) in the final month of the season.
Carl Crawford was plucked out of Tampa after a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, All-Star season. Now, after six months in Boston, he’s struggled through the worst year of his career, has apologized to the fans and is trying to convince everyone (including himself) he can be "the Carl Crawford that I know I am."
Good luck, buddy. I’ve looked more like that Carl Crawford than he has. If he’d played like this last season in Tampa, the Yankees might not have pretended to be interested in him and the Sox might not have taken the bait. The first of Crawford's seven years in Boston started with a .155 average, peaked at .304 in May and has remained below his career marks in the other decimal-pointed categories.
Meanwhile, Lackey is 26-23 in two seasons and still has the worst ERA in the league. He’s lashed out at the media, at unsolicited text messages and at pretty much everything else except his own inconsistent right arm.
Better investments: Between their two salaries, you could buy almost 239,000 copies of the Red Sox 2004 World Series collectors edition DVD set, which could be distributed to a full third of Boston’s population. Those six discs could be the closest any Sox player will get to the postseason and NO I DIDN’T CRY MYSELF TO SLEEP LAST NIGHT, THANK YOU FOR ASKING. Their combined $31 million would also be enough to keep 48,665 people fully Paxil-ed for the seven-month stretch between now and next April.
In the National League, the fifth-place Chicago Cubs must wish they’d kept receipts for both Alfonso Soriano and Crazyface Zambrano. Soriano's eight-year, $165 million deal was the largest in franchise history, but he hasn’t helped the Cubs erase 103 years of franchise futility. His numbers have steadily declined every season since 2006 — the year before he signed with the Cubs — and, despite a stack of HRs that year, he never has reached the potential he showed with the Yankees in 2002-03.
Carlos Zambrano should return his $18,875,000 to the Cubs, especially after he quit on his team, then literally did quit the team (before changing his mind) following a Chernobyl-level meltdown Aug. 12. He was placed on the team’s disqualified list immediately afterward.
Could anyone else act like that at work and not expect to immediately start Tetris-ing their personal possessions in a cardboard box before being escorted out of the building?
What’s being lost is that Zambrano used to be — and still could be — a well above-average pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s pretty much slammed his accomplishments and reputation against the water cooler too many times.
Better investments: The budget for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a middling $5.8 million. Zambrano should pay to re-shoot it three times over, casting no one but the voices in his head (and maybe the Original Cameron).
NFL: We’re less than a quarter into the season, so it’s hard to make snap judgments other than LOL MATT CASSEL LOL. After three straight losses, three touchdowns against five interceptions and a 65.5 passer rating, the Chiefs QB could find himself on the sidelines, recast as a $12 million paperweight.
Other than Cassel, one of my fave underachievers is San Francisco’s Alex Smith. He’s playing on a one-year, $5 million contract — slightly less than Matt Hasselbeck, slightly more than Ryan Fitzpatrick — but if the 49ers gave him more than a bag of gummy worms and a coupon for a free oil change, it would be too much.
As the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005, Smith was signed to a six-year, $45 million deal that was eventually renegotiated twice. The Niners have gotten zero on their investment: zero winning seasons and zero playoff appearances. The last time they played past Week 16 in the Jeff Garcia era in 2002.
After 57 games of a career punctuated with shoulder injuries and benchings, Smith has 53 TDs, 54 INTs and a 57 percent completion rate. He spent most of this year’s lockout-shortened training camp competing for the starting spot, which is an annual occurrence in San Francisco, right up there with the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and washing your skinny jeans.
Better investments: With $5 million, Smith could send 55,555 people to a Bay Area Red Cross CPR class, in the hopes that one of them would learn how to resuscitate his career. Or he could give $8 in meal money to each of the estimated 600,000 people who will attend Hardly Strictly this weekend. There they’ll see Merle Haggard, the only thing in San Francisco that looks more lifeless than Smith’s throwing arm.
NBA: Right now, the season looks almost as unlikely as Kobe Bryant learning Turkish so we'll look at last season's numbers, where one of the biggest, dumbest contracts belonged (and still belongs) to Orlando’s Gilbert Arenas. Arenas was the NBA’s eighth highest-paid player last season at $17,730,694 despite averaging 10.8 points per game on 36 percent shooting.
This season — if they actually suit up — he’ll make more than Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and, no, that won’t make more sense if you read that sentence a second time.
In 2010-'11, Arenas split his season between the Washington Wizards and the Magic, where he started two games and played the other 47 behind Jameer Nelson. The NBA’s measure of effectiveness is PER (Player Efficiency Rating) which tries to "sum up all a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance."
The league average is 15; LeBron James led with 27.34, while Arenas limped to an anemic 10.2, putting him between luminaries Willie Green and Alonzo Gee.
Better investments: Paying Chicago’s Derrick Rose ($6,993,707) to take his place. Or he could open 38 new Hallmark stores, ensuring that he had enough "Thank You" cards for Rashard Lewis and the Washington Wizards. That $118 million deal is the only thing that looks dumber than his own.
And Gilbert, if you have a few bucks left would you send it my way? I'm really getting sick of store-brand soup.