Because Alex Rodriguez's mega-contracts skewed the idea of what's reasonable and rational with baseball and money, it's been easy to attribute the last four months of insane dollar figures to a sport gone wild. Only it's not that. It's something bigger, something more meaningful, something that, unlike A-Rod deals, aren't outliers.
Baseball is changing, evolving into a massively moneyed game in which a group spends $2.15 billion for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or the Cincinnati Reds, the team with the smallest television market in MLB, guarantees Joey Votto $251.5 million for the next 12 years. Or Matt Cain, he of the career 69-73 record, nets the biggest deal ever for a right-handed pitcher with $127.5 million over six seasons.
The economy stopped growing. Baseball's never did. And it won't anytime soon.
The $200 million contract? Price of doing business with a superstar. The multi-billion-dollar TV deal? Every big market will have one. Mega Millions numbers in a stick-and-ball game? Get used to it.
All of this was coming, and it was obvious when the league and the players' association once again completed a collective-bargaining agreement with next to no acrimony. Almost 20 years ago, the sides couldn't agree on the color of grass. Throughout this year, they overhauled the sport's labor structure more than at any time since the contentious 1994 negotiations, and both sides came out of it not only without bruises or scratches but with hosannas for the other party.
What, you thought they liked each other all of a sudden? Of course not. As much as they succeed when they work in concert, their financial missions are diametrically opposed: owners want to make as much money as they can – and one of the best ways to achieve that is by depressing salaries – while players want to do the same by convincing owners of their importance.
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For labor peace to go on two-plus decades meant the parties recognized the coming explosion in money and the need for both parties to play nice. And so it went: Votto doesn't get the second-biggest contract ever without the Dodgers increasing every team's value by 25 percent, and the Dodgers aren't worth $2 billion-plus unless their television contract is worth twice that, and their TV money isn't silly unless the Los Angeles Angels fetch $3 billion for theirs, and the Angels don't get their largesse without Albert Pujols, and Pujols doesn't sign for $240 million unless the Texas Rangers usurp the Angels by leveraging their TV rights into building a powerhouse, and the Rangers don't get that idea unless the New York Yankees gild their lily with the YES Network, a stroke of genius that placed heft behind baseball's buried treasure: local television.
Votto's deal makes as much sense as a 12-year deal can – which, for a 28-year-old, isn't all that much. He is a spectacular player, a good citizen and should be a Red for life. This contract is a lot like Joe Mauer's eight-year, $184 million pact. Votto has two years remaining on his current deal and added a 10-year, $225 million contract onto it, according to USA Today. Mauer was a full year from hitting the market at a time when the Twins were anticipating new revenue streams. Minnesota had a new stadium and TV deal, and Cincinnati's local TV rights could multiply from a reported $10 million to $30 million or $40 million when they're up in 2016.
Still, the risk in big-money contracts is elephantine, and the risk in contracts greater than six or seven years is even larger. Derek Jeter's 10-year, $189 million deal, the previous standard bearer for extensions, worked. Neither of A-Rod's 10-year deals has – not up to the $250 million and $275 million thresholds. Todd Helton's nine-year, $141 million extension, signed when he was 27 years old, looked great until age and injuries rendered him simply an effective player, not a mega-contract monster.
Votto's agent, Dan Lozano, set the new market with Pujols' 10-year deal, and Prince Fielder followed with a nine-year, $214 million cash bomb, and now baseball must live with the reality that the second-biggest team in one market, another team in a recession-depressed city and one more team in the Midwest with among the 10 lowest revenue streams have given out the three biggest non-A-Rod deals in the sport's history.
Welcome to the real Moneyball.
Take, for example, Cain. His record is obviously misleading; he is indeed an excellent pitcher crushed by awful run support. Still, among right-handed starters with at least 700 innings since his rookie season in 2005, Cain ranks 10th in adjusted earned-run average, behind, among others, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver – all of whom, by the way, he will earn more than in average annual value. Such is the product of patience; Cain was a year away from free agency and bet his arm would hold up. The Giants rewarded him with a five-year, $112.5 million extension. Halladay, Hernandez and Weaver let their teams buy out free agent seasons – and nine-figure paydays – for the guarantee of their grandchildren's grandchildren never having to worry about money.
[ Big League Stew: What does Matt Cain's deal mean for Giants' Tim Lincecum? ]
For every precedent-setting contract, there are dozens that fall in line with the previous norm. That's why the Pujols and Fielder and Votto and Cain deals all coming within months is so seismic. And, of course, why Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten buying the Dodgers for almost twice as much as all of MLB generated two decades ago will be seen as baseball's Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment of this financial eruption.
The signs were there, and the Pujols and Fielder contracts were like warning sirens before the big one hit. And there it came: the bailout that made Frank McCourt a damn near billionaire, made the Dodgers relevant again and made baseball teem with excitement, for this business that when Bud Selig took over struggled to bring in a billion dollars a year was now booking more than $7 billion annually, and that'll be $8 billion soon enough.
This kind of money tends to sicken the average fan who has to pay $40 a ticket and $20 for parking and $10 for crappy beer. And yet people do, nearly as much as ever. The market for teams and players reflects only what those who watch the game will support with their wallets and eyes. Turns out they support a lot.
Every team but three – the woebegone Mets, high-spending Phillies and about-to-be-flush Angels – made money last season, according to Forbes' latest valuations. Twenty-two made eight-figure profits, and a dozen of them were above the $20 million mark. The sport is so overflowing with cash, it doesn't know what to do with it. So teams keep it.
On fans go, wondering what happened to their sport. Nothing, really. Owners like to make money. So do players. The numbers got bigger. And here the sport is, not at any sort of crisis. On the contrary, actually. Flusher than ever, celebrating with its buried treasure, at a détente paid for by you, the fan, the viewer, feeder of the madness.
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