June 17, 2011
Milling about the club level of Ripken Stadium on Monday morning, awaiting the Aberdeen IronBirds' media day activities to begin, I was surrounded by members of this year's team who had been requested by myself and other attending journalists to sit and answer our questions about the upcoming season, and being in the presence of so many professional ballplayers at the beginning of their careers began to make the normal thoughts bounce around in my head, the foremost among those being, "wow, these guys look so young up close." At the relatively advanced age of 31, I don't feel snotty saying a 19-year-old looks like a kid, but, lest I come off condescending, I will add that they are big, strong kids who play baseball better than 99 percent of the world.
The other, more serious thought, and I'm not going to quote my inner voices twice in the same column, was that regardless of their draft ranks, or their scouting reports, or the signing bonuses they received, or how well they played in their previous station, all these young men have a long, hard road ahead of them if they are going to reach the pinnacle, and that the majority of them won't get anywhere near the major leagues.
To illustrate how many athletes fall by the wayside before making it to the top of the ladder, look up your favorite player on baseball-reference.com, click on his minor league statistics, and go back through the rosters of the teams he played for before his big league debut. The players' names that are bolded eventually made at least one appearance in an MLB regular-season game, and if you check out their career stats, chances are they were only called up to the show once or twice before being sent back down to languish in the minors for the rest of their playing days. I'm just estimating here, and I might be a bit off, but it looks to me like one half of the people that make it to Class AAA ball get a shot in the MLB at some point, about three-quarters of them have careers that last five years or less, another 20 percent stick around between five and 10 years but have unremarkable statistics, and most of the rest have long, semi-distinguished careers that don't land them in Cooperstown.
Sorry for getting a bit carried away with the illustration, but I think about these things a lot, especially when the all-too-common, "athletes aren't what they used to be," conversations start. They usually begins with someone griping about modern salaries being ridiculous, which I'll touch on shortly, and that slides into how pros used to play ball strictly because they loved the game, and that any monetary gain was secondary to their participation, with the implication being that today's players aren't there out of any sort of love or respect for their sport, but rather they start off with a 27.5 million, 10-year, Alex Rodriguez type contract in their eyes.
Let me start with the money issue, simply because I'm so sick of hearing about it. Seriously, when someone starts in with "if Willie Mays played today, what would they pay him?" my eyes roll involuntarily. Though the average salary for a major leaguer has doubled in the last 20 years, and is 30 times what it was 50 years ago (those are inflation-adjusted figures), the players that earn their spot at baseball's highest level have earned exceptionally high wages since game's infancy. Need proof? Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn, who set the all-time Major League record for single-season pitching victories by winning 59 games for the Providence team in 1884, was asked if he got tired pitching every day (he finished the 1884 campaign having tossed 678-2/3 innings and 73 complete games), and he answered with this macho, money-oriented reply: "Tire out tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From four in the morning until eight at night I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge. Tired from playing two hours a day for 10 times the money I used to get for 16 hours a day?" Forty-six years later, when Babe Ruth drew the ire of some for negotiating an $80,000 salary with the Yankees, thereby exceeding the yearly income of then U.S. President Herbert Hoover, Ruth said to a reporter, "what the Hell has Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did." Another four decades down the line, Bob Gibson explained to eminent baseball writer Roger Kahn his passion for the game, saying, "I love the competition. Me with the ball. The batter with the bat. All the rest is [crap]. Except I like the money." All three of those fellows have plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and they worked harder than you can imagine to get there, but all three were also aware that they were making quite a bit more money than Joe Lunchpail.
As for modern players loving the game less, I'm just going to say I flatly disagree. Of the 15 or so IronBirds present at Monday's media blitz, about half attended college, and didn't earn a dime from baseball until they were in their 20s, but that doesn't matter, because they and the guys who got snagged right out of high school are all playing professional now for the same reason: Because they made it their life's goal to get to the big leagues, because they've worked hard at becoming top-rate ballplayers, and because they love the game. I'm sorry, but you don't get picked up in the fifth round of the MLB June draft because you're on some cynical, "gonna get that paycheck," mission. What's more, the players making up this year's IronBirds roster, though they're being paid pretty tidy sums for men their age, will need to work harder than they ever have if they want to move up the ladder, and I'm sure they know it. Jay Witasick, the C. Milton Wright graduate who went on to pitch for 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, said this during a phone interview he and I conducted: "When you get to the low minor leagues, you're basically living at the ballpark. There's not much going on outside of it. You have to work, every single day, limit the distractions, and try to get yourself prepared for the next step, because you don't have a lot of time to prove yourself."
That sounds like a lot of work to me, and I don't think you can make that step Witasick mentioned unless you're pretty passionate about the game.
Do athletes deserve to get paid as much as they do? I'm not going to answer that directly, but rather point to a movie scene I like. In "Unforgiven," the revisionist Western film, Clint Eastwood's Will Munny, pointing a shotgun in the face of Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett, is about to send his foe to the hereafter with a barrel full of buckshot. Daggett says, "I don't deserve this," to which Munny replies, "deserve's got nothing to do with it." The fact is that athletes, through a multitude of factors, are making pretty ridiculous amounts of money now, and short of reinstating the reserve clause, or passing a constitutional amendment that caps salaries, we're not going to see a return to the good ol' days, when everyone supposedly played for something other than money. What hasn't changed, however, is the amount of work it takes to get to the top level. It's just as hard to make it to the Major Leagues now as it has ever been, probably harder, and watching the young men in IronBirds uniforms is a prominent reminder of that.
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