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It's time for baseball to put cards on table

December 08, 2008|BILL SHAIKIN | Shaikin is a Times staff writer.

FROM LAS VEGAS — It's the symbolism, stupid.

As Americans lose their jobs and homes at a frequency unseen in decades, baseball convenes today for its annual holiday shopping spree in Las Vegas.

The setting, according to the hotel website: "Contentment and opulence are the hallmarks of your Bellagio hotel luxury experience." The pitch, according to baseball executives from the commissioner on down: Believe us, times are tough.

The retort is the same one Congress used on the auto executives that flew to Washington in private jets: It's hard to believe you amid all that luxury.

It's not the economy. It's the symbolism.

The General Motors boss could have walked to Washington, and his company still would be suffering. Baseball could hold the winter meetings in a dorm at UNLV, and the Angels still could make Mark Teixeira a millionaire 150 times over.

Teixeira hasn't signed. Neither has CC Sabathia, or Manny Ramirez, or Francisco Rodriguez, or Rafael Furcal, or more than 150 other free agents.

Yet any evidence that the economy is dampening salaries appears strictly anecdotal, at least so far.

By the time the winter meetings started last year, 26 free agents had signed, for contracts worth a total of $377 million, with Alex Rodriguez and his $275 million still to come.

So far this year, 17 free agents have signed, for $127 million -- with nine of those players signing for either a similar annual salary or a pay cut.

But Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster is the only All-Star in that group, which includes eight setup men. The group also includes shortstop Edgar Renteria, who signed last week with the San Francisco Giants for two years and $18.5 million.

The Detroit Tigers dumped Renteria after a poor season and declined to offer him salary arbitration, even without another shortstop in place, yet the Giants signed him at basically the same salary.

"There's your evidence," said Dennis Gilbert, the former agent for Barry Bonds and now the special assistant to Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "It looks like things are almost status quo."

Exhibit A is still just one exhibit. For Exhibits B and C, Teixeira and Sabathia could clear $300 million between them.

Gilbert isn't hanging his hat on Renteria -- or Teixeira or Sabathia, for that matter -- but simply pointing out that baseball will not necessarily fall into recession mode just because Bud Selig asked Paul Volcker to warn the owners of the perilous economic seas ahead.

"The evidence is, are players taking less to sign?" Gilbert said. "You have to wait for all the evidence to make a determination. So far, the evidence isn't clear."

Scott Boras, the agent for Teixeira and Ramirez, has seen all the evidence he needs, in the record revenues about which Selig crows -- $6.5 billion last year, up from $1.2 billion in 1994.

Contracts for broadcast rights, sponsorships, luxury suites and naming rights generally extend for many years, and baseball launches its own cable channel -- the MLB Network -- next month.

"There's a lot of hay in the barn for teams to deal with," Boras said. "I don't think our industry operates as a short-term reflection of our economy.

"I've never gone into a negotiation saying, 'Because the economy is at a high, I need 20% more for my athlete.' "

Yet, according to a USA Today survey, more than half the teams are freezing or cutting prices on season tickets. The Dodgers initially offered a price freeze as a special offer that would expire Sept. 5, but they extended the offer indefinitely as the recession deepened, Chief Operating Officer Dennis Mannion said.

"The baseball industry is driven by the paying fan," Gilbert said. "There are an awful lot of paying fans out of work, or not getting the bonuses they're used to getting, or not making as much money as they were."

It's too soon to assess that impact. Neither the Dodgers nor the Angels require fans to complete payments for season tickets until January, and even then the assessment might be murky.

If a Dodgers fan chooses not to renew his tickets, for instance, is it because he lost his job, or because he is upset that the team might not re-sign Ramirez, or because Jamie McCourt inspired him to put his money to a more socially valuable use by donating it to the L.A. City Department of Parks and Recreation?

By the time spring training rolls around, it might still be too soon to assess the toll of the recession on player contracts.

If Francisco Rodriguez gets pretty much the same offer from the New York Mets that the Angels gave him last year -- three years at $34 million -- is that the recession at work, or the more fundamental economic concept of supply and demand?

Rodriguez wants a big deal to close, but so do Brian Fuentes and Kerry Wood and Trevor Hoffman.

If Furcal can't match the $13 million a year he made from the Dodgers last year, is that the recession at work, or that he is 31 and coming off back surgery, or that two clubs already have filled shortstop needs with Renteria and Khalil Greene?

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