Sunday, March 07, 2010

Pop Quiz Time: Free Agents are (a) Stupid or (b) Hate Your Team (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

I hope Joe Mauer can eat a lot of cupcakes.

"Cupcakes" in that sentence means money. I have to substitute cupcakes for money when I talk about things like free agency, and money, because otherwise people don't really get my point, and they call me a communist.

(Which...sigh... I probably am, I suppose. But that's for another day.)

I talk about money a lot -- specifically, about how much money people have, and how much people make and how stupid it is that Ellen Degeneres will get paid a bazillion dollars to be a judge on American Idol, which is on top of what she gets paid for everything else, and even after that she still demands a "clothing allowance" of $150,000, something that's really stupid and that makes me want to just go ahead and be a Communist because while it would mean eating beets and being cold and standing in line outside the Kremlin for bread, at least there wouldn't be as many outrages like that.

See, if you say people have too much money, everyone says stuff like "How can you have too much money?" and "You're a communist!" and "I love Ellen and think she's a welcome antidote to Oprah's overwhelmingly bland and self-serving show." (That last one, I think, came from Ellen.)

But if you say someone has too many cupcakes, people shut the heck up about communism, and Ellen, and listen to your point, instead.

So I've long substituted cupcakes for money as an analogy, and I'm going to do that again today when I talk about why free agents are stupid, or hate the team they play on, or both. I'll walk you, and the stupid/hateful free agents, through it step-by-step, but, at the various critical points where money comes up, I'll be using cupcakes. Just keep that in mind.

Free agents are stupid, and/or hate your team -- and are killing their sport-- because they do stupid things like leave a perfectly good team for a perfectly bad team, even though the money...I mean cupcakes are irrelevant -- and in doing so, often times damage their careers, or their reputation, or their sport (although they probably don't care about that latter part that much) good reason.

Here's the thing: Why do people become professional athletes? If you answered "For the love of the game" then you're either a disingenuous free agent who's lying to the public, or you're an idiot.

Professional athletes didn't become professional athletes for the love of the game. They became pros for money. Think about how difficult it is to become a pro athlete, and how lucky you have to be. There are, at any given time, about 1,500 pro football players. There are about 352 pro basketball players* (*I'm assuming 11 players per team, 32 teams, and I don't care if I'm wrong about that because I don't really care about basketball as a sport.) There are, at any given time, about 800 pro baseball players.

That means, out of the three sports that actually count** (**NASCAR is not a sport; the other sports don't count.) there are less than 3,000 pro athletes at any one time. Out of a country with 302,822,068 people right this very second [1:41 p.m. 3/7/10], according to the US Population Clock.

You know what's awesome? While I typed that line, the clock went up to 302,822,072. Cool.

So 1 in 302,000 people will have a chance at some point of being a pro athlete. (This site puts it at 22,000 to 1, but they're probably counting sports that don't really count.) Those people won't just get to be a pro football quarterback; nobody just gets handed that job, as I've sadly learned in my life (I kept waiting my turn!). They have to work at it. They have to begin with the genetic ability to be a top-notch athlete and then work at it, constantly, practicing and working out and eating right and not doing stupid stuff like accidentally blowing their fingers off with firecrackers or something... and then when they hit the pros, they have to work even more.

They do that for the love of the game? Bushwah, as they used to say in those Great Brain books I read when I was a kid. If you love the game that much, just go play. Nobody practices 8 hours a day and gets injections in their knee to keep walking and takes a bunch of cheap shots in the NFC title game in New Orleans because they love the sport.

They do it for the money, and glory. That's it. That's why everybody does their job, and everything else: because we get paid to do it and because it makes us feel good.

Pro athletes are no different. That's the number one stupidity of free agency: Free agents all too often make stupid decisions, because they opt to go for money after it's no longer relevant, and in doing so, give up on the glory and hurt their teams and their sport.

...I mean, they opt to go for cupcakes after they're no longer relevant.

Pro athletes to come into the game one of two ways: As a highly-overpaid star who makes his money up front, or as an unheralded nobody. However their entry, for some athletes, there will come a time they will be offered big money. And that is when they will do something stupid.

The stupid thing that athletes do at that point is forget that they came into the league for money and glory, and in particular they forget that you can only eat so many cupcakes in this lifetime. When the time comes to cash in, they inevitably blow it and lose the chance to either be happy, or to make themselves the most popular and amazing -- and still super-rich -- athlete of all time.

Instead, they go for the cupcakes.

Consider Aaron Kampman. Aaron Kampman was a Green Bay Packer until this weekend. He was an unheralded nobody, coming into the league as a fifth-round draft choice in 2002. He's been with the Packers since then, until this weekend, when Aaron signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In doing so, Kampman left a team whose fans are crazy in love with their guys, a team that went to the playoffs last year and has been in the playoffs 2 of the last 3 years -- to join a team that has 12 wins in the last two years and which struggles to fill its own stadium for home games.

Did Kampman do that for glory? I doubt it: The Jaguars play in the AFC South, home to the Colts and the Titans; in 2005, the Jaguars' best year in recent history, the team went 12-4 and had to qualify as a wild card because the Colts went 14-2. The Colts and Jaguars have 44 playoff berths between them; the Jaguars have six.

Kampman was reported to be unhappy with the Packers' switch from an ineffective 4-3 defense to an ineffective 3-4 defense, a move that caused him to shift to linebacker instead of defensive line. It's interesting, then, that Jacksonville played a 3-4 last year (but promises to switch this year.)

So did Kampman switch because he didn't like the Packers' scheme? The lack of prominence (two years ago, Kampman was the toast of the NFL for his sacks)? Did Kampman switch for glory, in other words?

I doubt it: Nobody moves from Titletown and playoff berths to ... Jacksonville, and a perennial 3rd-place-divisional finish if they want glory.

No, Kampman obviously moved for money, or because he hates Green Bay. And maybe the latter is true -- that's one reason free agents move, if they hate their team -- but if it was money, then Kampman is stupid.

Kampman in Green Bay would have made probably a little less than he'll make in Jacksonville -- but "a little less" isn't, in this case, the difference between $80,000 and $85,000. It's the difference between, say, $9 million and $10 million.

Far be it from me to disparage a whole million bucks, but there is no difference between the two figures. Not in any practical way, not in any way that matters.

Here is where I have to switch to cupcakes, so as to keep your fingers off the button that auto-types communist when I make this argument.

Let's say Kampman was paid in cupcakes. And let's say Kampman can eat a lot of cupcakes. More than you or I could; more than you and I together could. Let's say Kampman can eat as many cupcakes as five people in a given day.

Heck, let's say he can eat as many as ten people.

With me so far? If Kampman can eat as many cupcakes, per day, as ten people, there is still a finite limit to the number of cupcakes Kampman can eat in his lifetime. After that number is reached -- after he has every cupcake he can eat in his lifetime, giving him more cupcakes doesn't make a whit of a difference in his life.

If Kampman can eat 100 cupcakes a day -- 36,500 cupcakes per year -- and if he lives 100 years, he'll need 3,650,000 cupcakes to get him through that lifetime. If he has 3,650,001, then that last cupcake goes to waste: it's irrelevant; he doesn't need it.

So if Kampman does something to get himself that extra cupcake -- the 3 million, six hundred fifty-thousand and first cupcake -- he's wasting his energy, because he'll never, ever, ever eat that cupcake.

And that's why there's no difference between $9 million and $10 million. And that's why Kampman is stupid, or hates the Packers.

Kampman turns 31 this year. If he lives to be 100, he'll need money for 70 years. Leave aside what he's already been paid. If Kampman is paid $9 million this year, that's all the money he'll ever need in his lifetime. $9,000,000, over a 70-year-span, is $128,571 per year. So Kampman, if he gets paid $9,000,000 just one time in his life, will be able to spend $128,571 per year for the rest of his life, even if he lives to be 100.

That's enough to place Kampman in the upper 50% of income earners in every single state, no matter how big of a family he might have. And that's not counting what he could have if he invested it in some safe, government-insured CDs that earn 5% per year.

One $9 million paycheck, and Kampman will never need money again. And the difference, over that 70 years, of earning Ten million? Not much: $142,857.14 per year -- or about $14,000 more per year. That's chump change; Kampman would earn that in interest if he invested his $9 million.

In other words, Kampman left a playoff contender in a city that loved him and where he was a big fish in a little pond -- to go to a place where he'll likely finish his career on a losing note and where the fans couldn't care less about the team.

Sound like a smart move? Not to me.

Take almost any big-name free agent, and the analysis is the same. And, yes, I'm including Brett Favre in that analysis: My idolization of him notwithstanding, Brett Favre is both stupid and hates his old team -- that's why he signed with the Jets, and that's why he signed with the Vikings. I firmly believe that Favre hates the Packers and wants to show them that they made a mistake letting him go -- and that he's stupid, because he's jeopardizing his legend -- he's already lost much of the aw, shucks aura that used to surround him, the just-a-good-old-boy gunslinger feel, as more and more stories come out about his attitudes, and he capped off what could have been a phenomenal season with another last-pass-thrown interception: Favre's gone from definite Hall of Famer to a guy who is now said to have ended everyone of his last three seasons with an interception. And he did it for money, or because he hates his team -- and he's already got more money than he'll ever need, too.

Sound like a smart move? Not to me.

There's only one good reason for a player ever to leave a team: just one: Glory. The chance to make a name for himself and elevate himself to one of the all-time greats, to set records, to win championships, to go down in history as the greatest something-or-other ever.

Glory has nothing to do with money, though, and in fact going for the money makes it unlikely that the player will get as much glory as he thought. That's something almost nobody -- athlete or regular guy -- understands. It's about the cupcakes: Making $3 million to play for a contender is the same as making $7 million to play for a loser -- except that in the former, you might get the glory and in the latter you definitely won't. That's what Aaron Kampman did, and it was stupid.

After a certain amount of money, it's all irrelevant, so taking $4 million in irrelevant money to move to a loser team hurts the chances of getting glory, while not helping an athlete's bottom line, not in any meaningful way, because it's more money than they need or can use.

Even when they don't move, free agents make stupid choices, hold up their own team for tons and tons of money -- thereby blowing their chance at glory, and blowing their chance at winning. And hurting their sports in the long run.

And that's where Joe Mauer comes in.

I know who Joe Mauer is because a few years back, I thought it might help me follow baseball and find baseball more exciting if I had a fantasy baseball team. Playing fantasy football had helped expand my horizon to the point where I followed, at least loosely, more teams than just the Packers and the Bills, and I thought maybe fantasy baseball would do that for baseball: give me a rooting interest in the game to help get me through the deadly-boring 162-game season that's too many games which last too long.

It didn't work: I still don't follow baseball that closely. But I do know who Joe Mauer is because he was my catcher on that team, and so I've off and on heard about Joe Mauer since then, his name catching my eye because of the fantasy team.

Most recently, what I heard about Joe Mauer is that he's looking for a big payday as a free agent and that he may move to the New York Yankees.

Joe Mauer, in his baseball career, has always played for the Minnesota Twins, a small-market team that by the weird economics of baseball has no chance of winning a World Series, not really. Here's his salary history:

2004 Minnesota Twins $300,000
2005 Minnesota Twins $325,000

2006 Minnesota Twins $400,000

2007 Minnesota Twins $3,750,000
2008 Minnesota Twins $6,250,000
2009 Minnesota Twins $10,500,000

Nice, right? Mauer's made $21,000,000 in his career -- most of it in the last two years. He's now rumored to be headed for the New York Yankees after the 2010 season, unless he reaches an agreement with the Twins to keep him there for 7-10 years. The speculation is that Mauer, a catcher, could make as much as $30 million a year if he's bought up by the Red Sox or the Yankees. So the Twins are talking about paying him a ton of dough to keep him there -- paying him almost Red Sox or Yankee money.

Whatever Mauer does, you can bet this: It's going to hurt the Twins, and it's going to hurt baseball, and it's not going to help Joe Mauer, not really.

Mauer doesn't need more money. Mauer's been paid $21 million already. He's 27 years old. He'll never need money again.

This isn't a matter of being communist, so don't bother saying "Who are you to tell him how much he can earn?" Remember: this is about cupcakes. Joe Mauer can only eat so many cupcakes in his life -- and he can only spend so much money in his life, no matter how hard he tries. At $21 million already, Mauer has $287,671 to spend each year for the rest of his life if he lives to be 100.

He could play for free for the rest of his career, and not be hurting; that is, he could refuse to take more cupcakes than he could ever eat, and still be okay.

I'm not advocating that; I'm not saying Joe Mauer should play for free -- but should Joe Mauer insist on being paid $10 million, or $20 million, or $30 million to play baseball?

No, he shouldn't -- unless he's stupid or hates the Twins. And baseball.

Look at each option:

If Joe Mauer leaves the Twins for the Yankees, or the Sox, he'll make $30 million a year, and he'll probably be in the postseason and he'll probably win a World Series. That's glory and that's not a bad thing; it's understandable that he'd want to win a World Series and I wouldn't think that doing this is the stupidest thing he could do. It's still pointless, because the $30 million he'll make is too many cupcakes, more than he needs, but at least he'd be moving to get a real shot at a Series. Moving under those circumstances means he simply hates the Twins.

Or that he hates baseball
. I'll get to that in a minute.

If, on the other hand, Joe Mauer stays with the Twins but demand and gets almost-Yankee money, then he's stupid and he hates the Twins (and still hates baseball.) That's because by demanding more money than he needs (or can ever spend), he'll end up crippling his own team's chances to win in the postseason -- and that's stupid and hateful. If the Twins pay Mauer $10 million, or $20 million, that's $10 or $20 million they don't have to pay other players, or to help get coaches, or scouts, or whatever it is that separates the Yankees from the Twins.

And there's not that much separating the Yankees and the Twins; the Twins make the postseason regularly, only to get shut-down by a big-money team. What separates the Yankees and the Twins is money; the Twins need more of it but won't get more of it under baseball's weird structure.

So what can the Twins do? And what can Mauer do? Create more money artificially: get players to play for less, by reminding them that there's no difference in the numbers they're talking about.

Mauer could opt to play for the Twins for, say, $5 million a year -- 1/6 what he'd bring in free agency. That would leave the Twins, who apparently have the ability to pay him $10 or $15 million per year, an extra $5 or $10 million to spend on other players -- players who would have to come to Minnesota to play for less money than they could get elsewhere, too, but players who could be made to understand that, hey, $5 million, $6 million, $7 million... it's all irrelevant. Once you're in the millions, the difference between this million and that million is negligible.

If that happened, the players would still get the money -- less, on paper, than they'd expected, but a meaningless amount less -- and they'd get the glory... and what glory. Imagine the love that would be bestowed on a player who came to Minnesota, foregoing $10 million to play for the Twins for $5 million, in order to help bring a World Series to Minnesota?

That player -- who would then have about as good a chance to win a World Series as anyone else, given that his team could then afford to get lots of good players, just like the big four in baseball -- would not only have all the money (cupcakes) he could ever use, would have not just a chance at the glory, but would go down in history as one of the most beloved and famous players of all time. Minnesota (or Milwaukee, or Kansas City, or any place) would roll out the red carpet for those guys, would adopt them, and would reward them with more fame and glory and love than they could imagine.

I'm not the first one to float such an idea: Sports Illustrated not long ago ran an article suggesting that LeBron James do something similar for the Cavaliers, playing for $1 a year. (This article reprints that SI column.) SI noted that Steve Jobs had long made the symbolic gesture of paying himself only $1 a year as a salary, and suggested that athletes think of themselves as corporations -- what would grow the brand in the long run, a couple of years of salary or the goodwill (and endorsements and the like) that come with such a phenomenal gesture as taking less money to help the team?

Some players take pay cuts to help the team -- Brett Favre did that in the past, before he was stupid, and some recent high-profile near-busts have taken pay cuts, too (such as 49ers QB Alex Smith cutting his salary.) Those cuts help prove my point: Players who have made their money in the past can afford not to make much money in the future, and should do so because once you've made your money, once your lifetime income is set, the only thing left to play for is the glory, and you'll have a better shot at that if you can surround yourself with good players.

But it's wrong to even think of it is as a pay cut, which is why I put it into cupcakes: How is it a pay cut to say "Joe Mauer, we'll pay you $5 million a year from here on out, and we're going to use the other $10 million we were going to pay you to get you a really good pitcher to help out, and maybe a good hitter, too." Sure, he's making $10 million now, but remember, once you're up over a couple million, it's all Monopoly money. Or cupcakes.

And it's wrong to think of it in terms of generating good will to generate more pay in the future. That's the wrong way to think, too. Sure, taking less money now could result in more money later, but that's just feeding into the stupid, strange way we think about sports and money.

Our society thinks about a lot of things the wrong way, and the way we think about sports and money is, for the most part, wrong in each case. We look at sports and idolize athletes for the wrong reasons: We idolize them for winning, or making a lot of money, or playing for the love of the game instead of looking up to them for the incredible amount of dedication and work and fortitude it takes to be a pro athlete. If we're going to look up to athletes, let's do it for the right reasons and celebrate the hard work.

And, more importantly, let's not let them off the hook when they make stupid decisions that show they don't understand money any more than we do, and when they do things that prove they're stupid or hate our team. Or their sport.

Because we also celebrate the wrong idea of money, and athletes show how. If we truly understood how money works -- if we truly understood that there is a finite limit to the amount of money you can use in a lifetime, and that any money more than that is, like a warehouse full of excess cupcakes, being hoarded and going to waste -- then we would look at free agency in sports, and our sports heroes, in the proper light. We'd look at them and say "What are you doing? Why are you going to that team? Why are you making our team pay you so much money that it hurts our chances of seeing you win championships?" We'd say "Why do you need $10 million this year, when nobody can spend that much money in their lifetime?"

We'd tell Joe Mauer, and Aaron Kampman, and every free agent, that they, along with the owners (and aided and abetted by us,) are a big part of the problem: Their demands for more money than they could ever spend helps keep some teams down and other teams up and keeps Milwaukee and Oakland and Seattle and Kansas City and Tampa from ever winning a World Series, while funneling more and more money through the big four baseball teams, for no good reason -- because if those players looked at reality, and said "I guess I can live on $4 million this year," which they can, and they'd never notice the difference between $4 million and $40 million -- and if they didn't hate their team -- they'd stay and play for "less," because the "less" isn't really and the "more" isn't really, either. There's no difference that matters between $4 million and $40 million.

But they don't.

We don't, either.

We think of money, and they think of money, differently than we think of every other commodity in the world. We never think that one can have enough money; just saying that seems to be heresy in the Western World. And because we can't wrap our minds around the concept of having enough money, we think it's okay that players like Aaron Kampman and Joe Mauer do stupid things that hurt their current teams -- making their team lose a good player for an irrelevant amount of money -- and which hurt their sport, by altering the economic landscape in a senseless way, tilting things towards rich teams even though the numbers are big enough that they no longer have meaning. Kampman sucked an extra million out of Jacksonville -- a million that could have been used to lure another good player there, or to lower ticket prices, or to otherwise help his team. It's a million that's meaningless to him, but his taking it means his team, and his new city, and his sport, are suffering by that much. Stupid.

And we suffer for it. We have our players go to other teams, and our teams go on being terrible, and we go on demanding salary caps and revenue sharing -- demanding that someone, somewhere, reduce their income even though we don't demand that this player reduce his income -- and we still find the time and the heart to idolize the players, players who are too stupid to understand they can only eat so many cupcakes, players who could take a reasonable amount of money to play and thereby increase not only their team's chances at winning but their own personal glory, but who don't do that.

That's why Joe Mauer's trip to the Yankees, or the Sox, for $30 million, even though it could get him closer to a Series, is still stupid and shows he hates the Twins, or maybe baseball: because Mauer would be making the move for money and glory -- but by taking the money, he tilts baseball more in favor of rich teams. He sends talent to teams that can afford to pay that extravagant, unnecessary, totally meaningless amount of money -- and the Twins can't match it.

The $30 million doesn't mean anything to Mauer, in those circumstances. He'll have $30 million in the bank already, and doubling $30 million is like having two warehouses full of cupcakes: You can't eat them all, making all the extras irrelevant. Mauer would be -- will be-- trading an irrelevant amount of money, something that benefits him not at all, not in any real, meaningful, way, for a more imbalanced baseball league, one which makes it even harder for teams to compete. Mauer's $30 million will ultimately be one more straw on the camel's back, one step closer to the end of baseball.

That's stupid -- it's stupid to let him do it, and it's stupid to not criticize him for it. So I will: Joe Mauer, if he takes more than a reasonable amount of money (and I think nobody should earn more than $200,000 a year, but I'm willing to let him take, say, $5 million), is a selfish person who hates the Twins and is helping destroy them, and baseball.

Stupid as it is, and even with my criticism, it's not going to change anytime soon -- the SI article didn't convince LeBron that he had enough money now, and most people reading this will decide that I don't get it and that I'm a communist.

And, next year, the headlines will say that Joe Mauer either went to the Yankees, earning $30 million meaningless dollars. Or they'll say that Mauer got $15 million or so to play for the Twins, money that he'll pocket when it could have gone to buy the Twins some other people so that when they meet the Yankees in the postseason, they'll win instead of getting swept.

I don't doubt that one of those two will be true. I have zero belief that Joe Mauer will do what's right for himself, the Twins, baseball, and society, that he will take a reasonable amount of money -- reasonable being a relative concept here. Mauer won't do that even though reasonable would still be $3 or $4 or $5 million, more money than he'd ever be able to spend, too. He'll opt for big-but-meaningless money with the Sox or Yankees, or he'll opt for not-as-big-but-still-meaningless money with the Twins.

Either way, it'll be bad for the Twins, bad for baseball... and not good for Joe Mauer, who will have a warehouse full of cupcakes and nothing much to show for it. His legacy will be that of one more pro athlete who didn't understand money and who opted to hurt his fans and his sport, getting nothing real in return.

Like I said: I hope Joe Mauer can eat a lot of cupcakes. He's going to have more than any person can ever finish, and he'll need something to do while contemplating the problems his decision, whatever it is, helped worsen for baseball.

Maybe he can share them with the free agents and highly-paid athletes around the league, and in other sports, as they congratulate each other on milking their fans, their teams, and their leagues ...for nothing.


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