Baseball Salaries in Moral Perspective

According to ESPN and local sports pundits Trevor Hoffman, the future baseball Hall of Famer and closer for the San Diego Padres since the early 1990s, has been treated shabbily. Despite all he’s done for that organization, the Padres offered him a paltry $4 million for next season. After he pondered this unacceptable proposal for weeks, the organization withdrew it altogether and negotiations ended. Hoffman had dreams of becoming a local hero in perpetuity, like Tony Gwynn. Not anymore, I guess. He’ll finish his career wearing a funny ball cap in someplace like Pittsburgh or Cleveland. This is our latest local soap opera. But wait a minute. Did someone mention four million dollars? Yes, and if you are among those who feel outraged by the cheapness of the Padres’ offer, maybe you need to get a grip.

Everyone knows that salaries of professional athletes are surreal. The real question is whether the current situation is insane or immoral. It may be both. Our willingness to treat these ionosphere paychecks as acceptable may be another sign that collectively we’ve lost our moral compass.

By all accounts Trevor Hoffman is a good man. And give him credit—he can throw a baseball really hard. I’ve looked down into the bullpen when he’s warming up, and he’s a cannon. His pitches seem to accelerate as they torque themselves into the catcher’s padded glove with a loud smack. And he can alter the trajectory of his pitches in ways that leave talented batters whiffing air. He’s been good at what he does, but it’s pure entertainment. What he does belongs with the art of juggling plates or swallowing daggers at the circus. It’s entertainment. Whether his team wins or loses is absolutely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. What he does to make a living represents the professionalization of child’s play.

Over the course of his years with the Padres I’m estimating that Hoffman has earned maybe a hundred million dollars. For this level of reward, he’s never had to put himself in harm’s way in Afghanistan or Iraq. He hasn’t had to race into burning buildings to save lives and emerge with his face and hands half burned off. He hasn’t had to live sacrificially, without money for a mortgage, to help orphans and outcasts in Calcutta. He hasn’t worn himself out researching a cure for AIDS or breast cancer, or had to sell his kidneys. He hasn’t found a solution to global warming.

No, he has amused us. And for this the amount of loot he has earned over the years, if assembled in small bills and coinage, might require a number of semi-trailers to haul it out of town when he leaves.

Anthropologists explain that cultures—our shared ways of doing life—are also signifying systems. In other words, they are powerful systems for signifying or determining what each and every thing is worth. They tell people what should be important to them—whether that is a thin body, good teeth, a BMW, a designer handbag, or a pair of LeBron James running shoes. This culture of ours is telling us that a major league pitcher’s work (in Trevor’s case, about 1500 pitches a year) is worth the equivalent of a whole year’s effort from more than a hundred compassionate, hard-working, well-educated teachers in our school system. And you can imagine how many good people it takes—people who get up at 5 am, head off to the bus stop in the dark in order to shout “welcome to Subway” five hundred times a day—to earn this amount of cash. Income disparities like this are an assault on the human dignity of all these little people. And we won’t even mention how many average annual incomes you’d need to pool in the desperate, struggling Third World to match that of even an average professional athlete.

We’re part of a calloused culture that says that what a ball player does for our amusement is worth more than all the efforts of all of these other people combined. You can extol the virtues of unbridled capitalism all you want, but to regard these sorts of income disparities as tolerable requires us deliberately to harden our hearts.

Think about this, and if you decide to keep going to MLB games, do what we do as a quiet protest against this nonsense. Buy a standing-room ticket for $6 and help restore sanity to a sports-mad culture that’s lost its way. And my advice to anyone who gets offered four million a year: Pounce on the offer immediately, then donate the bulk of it to worthy causes. It’s time to play ball!

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