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Baseball contracts can be off the wall

They are often full of clauses that offer incentives tied to performance, not to mention serious perks.

February 09, 2009|Kevin Baxter

A.J. Burnett's new contract with the New York Yankees is not only for top dollar -- he will receive $16.5 million in each of the next five seasons, making him the sixth-highest-paid starter in baseball -- it is also concise.

The agreement is a sentence long and contains neither perks nor bonuses.

Which is very much an exception to the norm.

At a time when the national unemployment rate is high and hopes for a quick economic rebound are low, major league baseball salaries seem even more out of whack than usual. Utility infielders are paid more than corporate chief executives and even the greenest first-year players are guaranteed a minimum annual salary of $400,000 -- same as another rookie of some renown, President Obama.

And that's not even counting extras such as bonuses for staying in shape (um, aren't these professional athletes?), the use of private jets, country club memberships, personal trainers, invitations to movie premieres and language classes.

It's a practice baffling even to those who sometimes negotiate the clauses.

"I've honesty never really understood those things," said veteran agent Barry Axelrod, who remembers one team offering a player a new tractor to get a deal done. "When you're making that much money, you can go buy what you want to buy.

"Instead of saying, you know, 'Buy me a John Deere tractor,' just negotiate an extra $50,000 in there. I'll go buy the tractor."

A comfortable bed is apparently something else, though. So the Atlanta Braves, who will pay pitcher Derek Lowe a fortune over the next four years, also agreed to give him a hotel suite whenever the team is on the road. The same bonus applies for Milwaukee's Trevor Hoffman, Philadelphia's Raul Ibanez, Tampa Bay's Pat Burrell, Cleveland's Kerry Wood and the New York Mets' Francisco Rodriguez.

"We're living in a fantasy world," said Axelrod, a San Diego-based agent who represents the Padres' Jake Peavy, among others.

But, he's quick to add, "Our job is to maximize what these guys earn compared to what their peers earn."

And sometimes that requires a few creative twists.

For example, in addition to the hotel suites, Hoffman, baseball's career leader in saves, gets four first-class round-trip plane tickets from San Diego to Milwaukee. The Boston Red Sox will give rookie Junichi Tazawa two round-trip tickets between Boston and Japan.

Tazawa, who was also paid a bonus of $1.8 million simply for signing his contract, will have to settle for traveling in business class, though the Red Sox are also throwing in an interpreter for the summer.

And that's somewhat economical for a Japanese player. Last year, the Cleveland Indians promised pitcher Masahide Kobayashi eight business-class plane tickets, a car, a $25,000 moving allowance and a personal trainer in addition to an interpreter while the Dodgers, in a show of one-upmanship, gave Hiroki Kuroda eight first-class plane tickets, an interpreter for his family, a personal trainer and masseur, and a $30,000 moving allowance while also agreeing to pay his visa fees.

We'll spare you the details of the recently amended contract catcher Miguel Olivo signed with the Kansas City Royals. But suffice it to say it's nearly as lengthy as a Stephen King novel and has more side deals than a backroom political endorsement, including 10 bonuses for games played and another 10 based on plate appearances.

Such incentives have become common in recent years, agents say. And they make sense for both sides since the club is protected if the player fails to perform while the player is rewarded if he exceeds expectations.

However, some clauses seem a bit strained. Houston Astros reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who doesn't have a hit in 14 big league seasons, will get $25,000 if he's the best-hitting pitcher in the National League this season. Seattle's Tyler Walker, 8-12 over the last three seasons, will receive $150,000 if he's the American League most valuable player and $100,000 more if he's the World Series MVP.

But at least those are real awards. When Alex Rodriguez negotiated his $252-million contract with the Texas Rangers, he had a clause calling for a $150,000 bonus if he was selected MVP of the division series.

There is no MVP in the division series.

"Every time I talk to my dad, he says the same thing: 'Why are these players getting so much money?' " Miami-based agent Juan Iglesias said. "And I always tell him the same thing: because the teams are giving it to us."

Indeed, the Yankees promised more than $422 million to three players this winter and have paid more than $1.14 billion in salaries over the last six years

No wonder they won't worry about bonuses.

"Every once in a while when I get to the end of a negotiation, I stop and realize what we've been talking about and where we ended up [and] I kind of go 'Wow,' " said Axelrod, who is in his third decade as an agent.

"I remember turning down offers from time to time that we didn't deem to be quite where they needed to be, and then sitting back and going, 'Oh my God, we just turned down $52 million. Am I crazy?' "

Not with clubs usually willing to up the ante.

"Is Wayne Newton worth $100 million a year in Las Vegas? Or Celine Dion? Is Tom Hanks worth $25 million a movie? I don't know," Axelrod said.

"[But] it's what they pay."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

--

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