Remember that time the world ended because baseball salaries slipped the surly bonds of reason and French kissed the sky?
The game had an acute case of Go Fever. A Sports Illustrated story titled “Rich Man’s Game” (subtitled “Baseball salaries are now out of sight”) described it thusly:
“The time has come when utility infielders drive Rolls-Royces and the superstars fly in private jets. Armed with bags of cash, the owners have abandoned the restraints.”
Looking at you, 1989. You with your fiscal insouciance, your standing weather report: “Showers of $1,000 bills, tapering off to sprinkles of blank checks.” We will not see its like again.
You say Bryce Harper, 13 years and $330 million? I say, who’s he? You say Mike Trout, with two years and $68 million remaining on his current contract, closing in on a 12-year, $430 million deal? I say, let’s retreat to 1989, when a body could wrap its brain around a convention-busting baseball gold rush.
It started shortly after the A’s swept the Giants in the World Series. Minnesota Twins dynamo Kirby Puckett became baseball’s first $3 million man — three years, $9 million. That got A’s leadoff batter Rickey Henderson, steadfast in his assertion that the money is the message, to thinking that he deserved more. Six days after Puckett’s windfall, he got it — four years, $14 million.
Rickey was the richest man in baseball for 72 hours. That’s how long it took Angels pitcher Mark Langston to score a five-year, $16 million deal.
“When salaries got to $1 million, I said that was the top,” Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston told SI. “Then it hit $2 million. Now, who knows?”
Two mil? If these Harper and Trout moneybags are as you have described them, then $2 million in this scarcely believable world of yours must be akin to tip-jar money or sofa change.
I can’t even fathom the forces that are driving contracts shin guard deep into six figures. There was no mystery in 1989. A series of arbitrators had taken MLB owners out behind the woodshed and whipped ’em good for their part in a series of collusions. That loosened the pursestrings a mite.
So did new TV contracts negotiated by CBS and ESPN scheduled to go into effect in 1990. That dropped more than $16 million in the coffers of each of the 24 teams.
Lunacy, we said then. Madness. Reading the manner in which Sports Illustrated ended its treatise smelled of the end of days:
“The play-money game goes on. Tony Pena had 37 RBIs last year? O.K., he’s worth $6.4 million for three years to the Red Sox. Candy Maldonado hit .217? Fine, the Indians will give him $825,000 next year. Gary Pettis knocked in 18 runs all season? Then $2.66 million over three years from the Rangers should do him fine.
“Step aside, Mr. Langston. The fun has just begun.”
The way you describe the future? On a paltry $3.2 million per year?
Not bloody likely.