Prince Fielder and All That Money in Baseball

When the news broke earlier this week that the incredibly fun and one-of-a-kind Prince Fielder‘s playing career would prematurely end, there were a lot of sad reactions, understandably, and a lot of shocked ones — and a handful of bad, bad, bad takes with regard to the amount of money Fielder is making, and will continue to make for some time. This was, I think, the very worst one:

Ed Werder on Twitter


As others have pointed out, it’s supremely silly to make this kind of comparison between two groups linked only by geography (and even there only loosely): it’s not as though the city of Dallas can’t pay its police officers because it’s paying all that money to players who play a sport in the employ of a private corporation in nearby-but-distinct Arlington.

But it’s not substantially less silly than the more generic “perspective, people!” arguments you see from time to time, which is probably something like what Werder was trying to get at: that it’s fundamentally wrong for athletes to make millions when nurses only make so much and firefighters only make this much and teachers work two jobs and so on. What this well-intentioned position ignores (or one of the things it ignores) is that huge amounts of money are already in professional sports–and that money goes to the players, because they’re a relatively small group of uniquely talented people whose skills play the biggest single part in generating all that money, and especially to the star players, because their skills are the hardest to replace. If not the players, it would stay with the owners, who certainly deserve a chance to profit from their investment, but whose major contribution is typically having money in the first place.

So when you’re saying athletes get paid too much, in a vacuum or compared to teachers or soldiers or nursing home workers, what are you saying should happen to all that money those athletes generate? I suppose the idea is that all that money doesn’t belong in sports. Maybe it should be distributed to the ushers and groundskeepers and beer vendors? Or maybe tickets and such should cost less to begin with (even though it’s well-established by now that they tend to be priced around, and often below, what fans are willing to pay), keeping that kind of money out of sports altogether?

That’s fine and all, but then your problem isn’t with athletes or what they’re paid, but with our economic system generally. You’re not (or not just) arguing for paying athletes less: you’re arguing for communism, for paying according to need rather than the value or scarcity of one’s work or skills, for forcing a private enterprise to charge what we collectively think they should rather than what the market will support. And okay, good for you! Valid thought! It’s just that the major sports leagues don’t quite seem like the ideal bedrock on which to build that particular revolution.

Maybe write your congressperson? Or run for Congress? Anyway.

So as long as we have both (a) wildly popular professional sports leagues and (b) capitalism, professional athletes are going to be paid a great deal of money, absolutely obscene amounts to you and me. But as long as (a) and (b) remain true, that’s exactly as it should be, that’s where it makes sense for all that money to go.

That’s all ignoring the unique part of this situation, of course, which is that Fielder now stands to make more than $100 million over the next four years from the Rangers and Tigers to not play baseball. Putting aside that he’d surely rather be playing than not given the choice (just watch that press conference if you’re not sure), and that his contract is the result of careful negotiation between two highly sophisticated parties, some people (like Werder) seem, for whatever reason, legitimately troubled that the Rangers have to pay him all that money when he can’t even play.

Mike–you remember him, nominally the co-proprietor of this nominal baseball blog?–has been doing a much better job of keeping up this writing thing than I have, and he has a post on MLB Daily Dish where he deals with this issue at some length. And I think he largely nails it, but I have to take issue with one bit. The headline is “Prince Fielder has earned every penny the Rangers still have to pay him,” and toward the end, Mike says this:

players get paid in free agency based on their past performance, not their future performance (and rightfully so, given how underpaid they are in years one through six).

I’d say players are paid based on their expected future performance, which is figured by applying a combination of their past performance, their age, their health, and a number of other factors. It’s a minor distinction of some importance here, because I don’t think you can fairly say that Fielder has “earned” that money. The Tigers didn’t give him that contract as a reward for past performance, but in the hopes (however wisely placed) that he’d perform similarly going forward. If it were really “based on their past performance,” Joe Mauer and Matt Holliday would be looking at huge paydays in the next couple offseasons, and that’s…unlikely.

Fielder was paid to play, and now he won’t be playing. The Tigers were committed to pay that money the moment pen hit paper on that contract (and the Rangers later committed to pay a shockingly small part of it), but it’s pretty hard to argue that the money was “earned” by Fielder until he played each of the seasons in question. He hasn’t “earned” that money, as I understand that word, and now he’s not going to.

But he still gets it, and it’s a great thing that he still gets it. And it’s not so much about Fielder (though of course it’s great for him, too), but the sport itself. Baseball’s contracts are guaranteed, and what that means is that the system has decided that this sort of risk is the team’s to take, and that means that occasionally a player will get what you might (kind of crassly) consider to be a windfall, and that’s okay. That’s the cost of security for the players, and it’s good for the teams, too: Fielder’s might be a bad example, but generally, these contracts are signed by a given team because if that team wasn’t willing to pay that much for that long, some other team would be willing to come very, very close. And if teams suddenly stopped being willing to guarantee years en masse (without the benefit of some crazily team-friendly CBA in the NFL mold–please, lord, no), there’d be no incentive for players to sign for more than one year, and no incentive to sign for a penny less than the very most that any team would be willing to pay for that one year. A Kershaw or Trout could easily clear $50 million a season, maybe more. There’d be very little consistency from year to year, because a very good team one season would have a very hard time keeping most of its players the next. Parity would be a distant dream, as the Yankees and Dodgers simply bought anyone they wanted each offseason. If guaranteed multi-year contracts weren’t good for baseball, in addition to being good for the players, they simply wouldn’t exist. This system works–better, I think, than any other sport’s.

So, Fielder gets his money. Not because he’s earned it, so much, but because that’s the way the system has declared it should be, and it’s a system that works really, really well.


About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.