Players living the good life

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. – Three hours from the bustle of the lobby at baseball's winter meetings in Orlando, Dido's voice, a narcoleptic agent if ever there were one, filled an otherwise-quiet roundabout in another hotel lobby. At the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort here on the Gulf Coast, the centerpiece of the action was not a bar but an elaborate gingerbread neighborhood, apt for the meeting taking place down the hall.

Yes, life is sweet right now for the Major League Baseball Players Association, which also wraps up its biggest annual get-together today. Months ago, the union booked an expansive conference room in case it needed to hunker down for the possibility of a strike. With the five-year deal reached during the World Series, instead the union got to bask in the good fortune of the market correction that has led to some of the most exorbitant spending American sports has ever seen.

Not that they were laying in hammocks and being hand-fed grapes, by any means, but the player representatives and top officials did nod approvingly when assessing the first six weeks of the agreement.

"It's good to be a player and an owner right now," Chris Capuano said.

Capuano, 28, is the Milwaukee Brewers' player rep, and after a morning of meetings and golf, it was off to the spa for a massage. Capuano is also the owner of an economics degree from Duke and a voracious appetite to learn about the inner workings of the game that will, for the first time in 2007, make him a millionaire. He is one of many who owes thanks to the new collective-bargaining agreement, which the union will officially announce it has ratified within the next few days. And why wouldn't it?

Sometime before Christmas, Barry Zito is going to sign, probably for $100 million, making him the third player to reach the nine-figure plateau in a class that was projected to have none. No. 3 starters are now $10 million to $11 million commodities, players get $50 million guaranteed on account of one good season and, in a left-handed reliever's case, his $4 million salary translates to $5,822.42 per pitch he threw last season.

To combat the inevitable backlash of the seemingly undeserved being rewarded with Fort Knox-style booty, the union and baseball must work together – something at which they've gotten rather adept – to shift the public's growing resentment to a neutral culprit.

Success is the villain. Silly as that sounds, it's true. Five years ago, baseball reported an annual revenue of $3.5 billion. This year, commissioner Bud Selig says, the sport made $5.2 billion. Because salaries have not increased commensurate with the spike in revenues over the past five years, the market is correcting itself and returning some of the largesse to the players.

Either way, someone is getting rich.

If baseball wasn't selling tickets, raking in money from and expanding the reach of its operations worldwide, it wouldn't have the stability – and with it the risk-taking ability – to dole out such hefty contracts. While the market may re-correct itself next season, with a class full of legitimate stars, this offseason is simply a confluence of good fortune and good business.

"There is no way to combat the perceptions," Capuano said. "Anyone who meets the majority of us personally will know we play the game because we love it and it fascinates us. We have a good system in place to make sure a free-market system is at work."

With the money its constituency is reaping, the union has roared back strong after a few rocky years and is indoctrinating a new group of players who say they're already fortifying for the next negotiations – in 2011. They could only laugh at Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf telling Yahoo! Sports he's "already lamenting" the CBA. Although union chief operating officer Gene Orza declined comment on Reinsdorf's statement, the lesson to the players was obvious: Even in times of success, someone – and not necessarily an outsider – will lob tomatoes and hiss.

Such reminders always crop up, and they speak across generations, from union veterans Craig Counsell, Tony Clark and Mark Loretta to Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. The latter three, none older than 26, were among the youngest players at the meeting. Teixeira has already ascended to an influential committee position and could be the union's president by the time he's 30. He and Mauer are perennial MVP candidates, and lumping in Granderson, the three could make a combined $400 million on the open market when they hit free agency.

Part of the union's goal is to entice stars to take leadership roles by talking about the days of Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, pointing to future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine as among the most active players in the union in the last 20 years, emphasizing unity as a means to individual reward.

"The older guys harped on how important it was to us, the history of the union and what we needed to do," said John Buck, 26 and the Kansas City Royals' player rep. "I know it made an impression on me when they came to me, specifically, knew my name and said, 'This is integral, John. We need you.' And it must've been, because they wouldn't have given me the time of day otherwise."

The MLBPA isn't among the most powerful unions in the world because it is divisive. The embarrassment of its constituency's steroid problem and its leaders' tacit complicity seems to have elapsed, and no one can cry greed, since baseball will have its longest period of labor peace since 1972. Long has the union been painted as a band of scoundrels, and, yes, maybe it is taking advantage of trigger-happy owners lulled into false sense of security by high revenue. But the money is there right now. MLB, knowing full well that some are wells about to run dry, only hopes other revenue streams crop up.

Baseball locked itself into a long-term television deal this year. The cash cow that has become almost certainly can't multiply its revenues at the rate it has. And the international market is still there for the taking because, while lucrative, it's a difficult one to crack. Hey, the Boston Red Sox didn't bid $51.1 million to talk with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka simply because he can pitch.

That posting fee was the first real salvo of the offseason. Another came Wednesday, when Jason Schmidt became the second-highest-paid pitcher per year, next to Randy Johnson, and Zito figures to top both of them at around $17 million a year. By the way, Zito's earned-run average last season was 3.83, 23rd in baseball, and Schmidt's was 3.59, 13th overall.

"I certainly don't think things are out of control," Capuano said. "I know if you're not inside the industry, it might look that way, exorbitant. But the numbers are right in line with the revenues going to the teams, and they're keeping pace with the industry."

While the union and owners won't be taking a romantic weekend to Napa anytime soon, their relationship is amiable enough to let any hullabaloo about the salaries pass. In football, on the other hand, New York Giants linebacker LaVar Arrington recently said the NFLPA is "like organized crime." And NBA Players' Association president Derek Fisher told Yahoo! Sports that "I don't know if there's ever been a partnership" between basketball's union and owners. And the NHL lost an entire season because its salary structure had gotten so out of whack that it was spending 76 percent of its revenue on players.

Baseball, the picture of labor relations. How about that?

The union knows better than to celebrate. It still would prefer a few more percentage points of revenue go to the players – the split is now around 50-50 – knowing full well that a slight miscalculation here or downturn in the economy there could cripple a sport wedded to so many huge contracts. It doesn't mind engaging in its own bit of risk-taking, either.

When things are this sweet, after all, the sour stuff doesn't taste nearly as bad.

What to Read Next