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Do baseball players make too much money?

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A one-sentence rebuttal to an oft-used argument. (Surrounded by hundreds of other sentences.)

Players are ruthlessly taking food out of this guy's mouth - Credit:
Players are ruthlessly taking food out of this guy's mouth - Credit:
Marc Serota

Baseball economics used to be a much hotter topic. Back in the late '90s, the strike was recent history, and the Yankees were winning every World Series. Bob Costas wrote a best-selling book, Fair Ball, that addressed the plight of the small-market teams, who were essentially eliminated before each season started. At least, that was the thinking.

In the 13 seasons since the release of Fair Ball, though, half the teams in baseball have won at least one pennant. It turns out the Yankees winning every World Series was kind of fluky. Almost every team in baseball is satisfied with their ballpark, and the two or three that aren't can still make money, thanks to revenue sharing.

Also, Major League Baseball is rolling around in cash like a chinchilla in sand. Look at that little feller go. So no one really argues about baseball economics anymore.

But if the economic health of baseball isn't in doubt, the economic health of everything else still is. Which means high-salaried players are going to attract attention. Justin Verlander just signed a $180 million contract. You might not have health care. There's a disconnect there, at least on the surface, and about once a year, someone's going to write something decrying the overpaid ballplayer. This year's entry comes from Slate's Edward McClelland. The description under the article's headline:

The grotesque rise of baseball salaries reveals everything that’s wrong with the American financial system.

You can figure out most of the rest from there, though at least a CTRL-F search for "teacher" comes up empty, which is a pleasant surprise. The thesis is this: Ballplayers didn't used to earn much more than the average American worker. Now they do, even as the average American worker is struggling. And to show why this is bad, there are comparisons. What ballplayers made in the '70s compared to now. What ballplayers make compared to the median American salary now, and what the gulf was in the '70s. What the highest-paid ballplayers made compared to the lowest-paid ballplayers in Hank Aaron's time, and what the gulf is today.

None of which really explains why it's bad for ballplayers to make so much. It just shows that things are different now.

In this case, "different" means higher salaries for players. And just as some people were disgusted by the rising salaries in the '80s, '90s, and '00s, some will be disgusted in the '10s. And the '20s. And the '30s. So you're always going to see these articles. Yet the arguments are diffused by a single sentence:

If the players didn't get the money, it would just go to the owners.

In the 1,500+ words written by McClelland, the word "owner" or "owners" is mentioned once:

(Players) didn’t start earning their true market value until they were allowed to negotiate individually with owners—the antithesis of collective bargaining.

That's … almost presented like a bad thing. And before the players were allowed to negotiate individually with owners, most of the money went to the owners.

That wasn't such a big deal in the '70s, when teams regularly drew under a million fans, and there weren't huge cable contracts or team-owned networks. Still, the point remains. The money wasn't split three ways between the owners, players, and Doctors Without Borders. The bulk of it went to either the owners or the players. Most to the owners. Now more of the pot goes to the players. And because it's a giant pot filled with emeralds and doubloons, the players are doing quite well.

But if the players didn't get the money, it would just go to the owners.

"Owner" appears just once in the article, but there is also a mention of CEOs:

The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1.

Interesting comparison. Also, a useless comparison. Because if you believe the gap between CEOs and their employees is a problem in America, isn't baseball an example of an industry where the trend is going the right way? If the players didn't get the money, it would be funneled up to the top of the organization. In the given example of CEOs and employees, that's exactly what happens. So … good work, baseball players?

The problem with these comparisons is that baseball isn't the real world. There is no comparison for baseball. Try to invent one without devolving into ridiculousness. Okay, so there are 30 Walmarts in America. And there are laws that protect Walmart's monopoly, which means there aren't any Targets. But those 30 Walmarts can be run only by people with Ph.D.'s who graduate in the top one percent of their class from the top 10 universities. And the Walmarts are in competition only with each other, which means …

... a ridiculous scenario all around, of course. Baseball players shouldn't be compared to the average American worker. They're specialized, elite talents in an entertainment industry that's sitting on a money spigot. And I feel like I should mention this at least once: If the players didn't get the money, it would just go to the owners. You can argue that owners should get a larger share because they take the investment risk. I'm not sure I'd agree, but that's at least a consistent argument. Saying that players should make less because it offends your sensibilities isn't quite as compelling.

It would follow that the real problem is too much money being being spent on baseball in the first place. But if the sport vanished tomorrow, baseball fans wouldn't take the money they were going to spend on tickets, put it in an envelope, and mail it to a bus driver. That money would go to movies or basketball games or video games or something else to fill the void. And the odds are that it wouldn't be divvied up with the talent quite as evenly. It would just go to the owners of those industries.

This isn't to suggest that everything's perfect and equitable in baseball when it comes to money. The players and owners are doing well, while minor leaguers are indentured servants with a Powerball ticket. The Giants just released Andrew Kown, who was a fifth-round pick by the Tigers in 2004. The 30-year-old pitched 10 minor-league seasons, and he might have earned as little as $3,000 in some of those seasons. If he can't latch on with another team, he'll enter a real-world job market that doesn't need the only skill he's been developing for the last decade.

Now that's a problem within baseball's weird, incomparable world. The industry is thriving, but only for the people who aren't spit out the other side after a decade of trying.

But back to the idea that major leaguers make too much. If you look at baseball as a normal industry filled with normal people, you're going to come up with the wrong conclusion. Baseball players make a lot of money. But ... wait for it ... if they didn't get it, it would just go to the owners. Instead of the rich getting richer, it would be the really rich getting really richer. Owners would be the only people whose lives would be better if baseball players suddenly made police-officer money.

How that affects you or me, I have no idea.