What Great Athletes Want

Former Kansas City Royals All-Star and Hall of Famer George Brett throws out the ceremonial first pitch during the 83rd MLB All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Tuesday night before the All-Star Game, I took a few minutes to admire the statues along the right-field concourse - George Brett, Dick Howser, and Frank White -- and heard a young man say this to his companions:

You know why people hate LeBron James? Because he could have been like George Brett, but didn't.

Brett did spend his whole Hall of Fame career with one team; James didn't.

What's wrong with this "analysis"? Plenty. But let's hit just the high points.

I'm not inside LeBron James's head, but I'm guessing he fled Cleveland for Miami, broadly speaking, because of some combination of these items:

a. He wanted to earn a giant pile of money, and

b. He wanted to play for a team with a good shot at a championship.

I suspect that George Brett, in the late 1970s when he might have become a free agent and left the Royals, wanted almost exactly the same things. Which he got from the Royals.

What the younger set might not know is that the Royals, like the Reds and a few other small-market franchises, used to spend about as much as anyone. In those days, the prices for players were relatively tiny, while the percentage of a franchise's revenues deriving from local broadcast rights were also relatively small. Most of the money came from national television rights - with the revenues split evenly between the clubs - and ticket sales. The Royals drew exceptionally well, and so their revenues were solid and they could afford payrolls that generally ranked among the highest in the majors. One of my favorite facts: In 1990, the Royals' payroll was the highest in the major leagues.

My point? It's possible that George Brett, just because he was George Brett, would have stayed with the Royals through anything, even if he'd reached the majors 20 years later than he did. It's possible; Mike Sweeney stayed with the Royals for as long as they wanted him around..

But what seems more possible is that Brett stayed in Kansas City because, during most of the years in which he could have commanded top dollar, the Royals actually paid him top dollar. He also stayed because, during nearly all of his time as a productive player, the Royals were competitive. As Brett noted on ESPN during the Home Run Derby, they reached the postseason seven times in 10 years (1976-1985). Then came the long drought, but the Royals were still in the hunt in most of Brett's later seasons. I would be willing to bet that nearly every year of his career, George Brett a) was making about as much money as the market would have born, and b) entered spring training figuring his team had a reasonable shot at winning the World Series.

I'm not saying LeBron James is George Brett. I'm saying that LeBron James and George Brett have something fundamental in common: Like most professional athletes, they want to knock the stuffing out of everybody else. And, while they're at it, make a shit-ton of money. And both of them have done it.

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