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Mark Teixeira & Baseball's Fantasy World

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The United States is in an economic crisis. No one knows its magnitude - not at the White House, not at the Treasury Department, not at the Federal Reserve, not on Capitol Hill, and least of all on Wall Street; whose principals, by their opulent lifestyles and moral rot, are hugely to blame for the nation's financial chaos; a free market philosophy that at it's core would have appalled Adam Smith.

Most Americans get it, the consequences of uncontrolled greed and unregulated markets. People understand with each passing day their economic lives are less certain than the day before.

But there's a group of people who don't get it. They are professional athletes, their agents, and, oddly, sportswriters.

To Scott Boras, the hard driving agent for some of baseball's biggest names, the real world of the economy should not affect the make believe world of professional athletes. Everyone else may be facing financial calamity, jobs lost and homes foreclosed, 401 K's devalued and college plans on hold, but that should not affect the income of major league players.

In Boras' world the eight-year, $180 million New York Yankees contract he successfully negotiated for Mark Teixeira, is altogether justified. For him it's not about the collapse of capitalism but getting the best deal for his players. Paying Mark Teixeira $22.5 million a year to play baseball is not a moral equation; it's about business and money - and there's no other equation.

Manny Ramirez, following his trade last season from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers, had a phenomenal second-half. Without Manny the Dodgers would not have won the National League West and gone to the League Championship Series. He changed the dynamic of a so-so baseball team into something exciting and redoubtable - and the team saw a significant up-tick in attendance.

The Dodgers want desperately sign Ramirez. But he wants a lot of money and a long-term contract. If Teixeira is worth $180 million over eight years, how much do you think Ramirez is worth? Manny is going to the Hall of Fame; we don't know that about Teixeira.

Frankie and Jamie McCourt, the owner of the Dodgers, want Ramirez to re-up with their team, but they have to go through, you guessed it, Scott Boras. But the McCourts are not the Steinbrenners and the Yankees. They do not have a cash cow named YES Network, as the Yankees do. The McCourts are also wary of long-term contracts, especially when a player is 36, as is Ramirez.

The Teixeira signing and the uncertainty of whether the Dodgers can afford Ramirez, brought to mind a recent media dust-up among LA sports writers, especially in the Los Angeles Times, over comments made by Dodgers President Jamie McCourt.

The McCourts, having committed the Dodgers to building 50 "Dreamfields" for Los Angeles area kids, held a news conference at the site of the first field. A Times' reporter quoted Ms. McCourt as saying, "If you bring somebody in to play and pay them, pick a number, $30 million, does that seem a little weird to you? That's what we're trying to figure out. We're really trying to see it through the eyes of our fans. We're really trying to understand, would they rather have the 50 fields?"

From the angry reaction by sports writers you would have thought Ms. McCourt had lost her mind; that despite degrees from Georgetown University and the Sorbonne, the University of Maryland Law School and MIT (and a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem), the woman is clueless; that she lacks a fundamental understanding of baseball and its fans, and that clearly she is out of her league as co-owner of the Dodgers.

Even the Times' highly regarded sports columnist, Bill Plaschke, got into the mix, by asking Ms. McCourt, "So, philosophically, you think it's wiser to invest in charity than championships? If you really believe this, should you even own a baseball team?"

Her answer, "We love owning the Dodgers more than ever, that has nothing to do with it, I was just talking about how buying players for high salaries seems insensitive when you contrast it with buying these dream fields. The difference is so stark, so vivid."

Plaschke couldn't let that pass, so he asked, "Then why did you even imply otherwise?"
"In these tough times," Ms. McCourt said, "with so many people losing their jobs, isn't it fair, philosophically, to at least ask about the dollars?"

Ms. McCourt's existential question (her Sorbonne professors would be proud) demonstrates a profound insight into the real world, not a world of make believe. She understands sports do not exist in a separate universe; that as economic travail upends the market place and ravages Main Street America, professional athletes must also expect consequences.

Now, on why some sports writers have joined agents and players in not getting it:

Plaschke labors in a profession in peril. The Times, one of the nation's best newspaper, finds itself in Chapter 11, with no certainty how that ends; hence the oddity of Plaschke's puzzlement over the value of community v grossly over-paid ball players. Rather than taking Ms. McCourt to task - a cheap hit, by the way - he should have celebrated her philosophical musing. He and his colleagues in the sports writing game should embrace Ms. McCourt for raising questions people in professional sports should be asking - including players, agents, fans, and, yes, reporters.

We have come a long way from when Roger Kahn on $12,000 a year covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune, while Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcomb, and other players of that era, made only a few thousand more.

Khan, who wrote the best book ever about sports, "The Boys of Summer", says of those treasured days, "We were friends. We lived in the same neighborhoods, knew one another's families, picnicked together, car-pooled together, but now ballplayers are all millionaires - and they don't hang out with reporters."

And, he might have added, neither do they hang out with fans.

We won't go back to the storied days of baseball a half-century ago, but perhaps if others owners and Commissioner Selig pursue the issue Jamie McCourt appropriately raised, we may achieve a new equity between players and fans, between the few who makes millions playing a game and the many who labor to survive America's economic nightmare.

Surely, if that happy day occurs, even Bill Plaschke would be pleased.


George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at gmiitro35@gmail.com.