BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS began, before the Pirates clinched and the Rangers disappointed again, money dominated the baseball conversation. The talk centered on Robinson Cano, the Yankees' star second baseman and future free agent, who reportedly was seeking a contract in excess of $300 million. Throughout the league, sources -- the kind who green-light such commitments -- privately contended that baseball had finally tired of the jaw-dropping megadeals that have defined both the free agent and steroids eras. They pointed at those Yankees, who were ruefully saddled with monster contracts. Speaking publicly, Magic Johnson, veteran businessman but rookie baseball owner, made it clear that Cano would not be pursued by the Dodgers, who are spending slightly less than the Federal Reserve.
The playoffs seemed to only reinforce the anti-blockbuster sentiment. St. Louis reached the World Series with 18 homegrown players. Boston, although more of a free agent team, won the pennant with competent midlevel signings like Shane Victorino and Koji Uehara -- not with Alex Rodriguez deals. And as Cardinals rookie starter Michael Wacha emerged as an October star, you couldn't help but think of Albert Pujols, who, for about 80 times the salary, has been a dud in Anaheim. So was Josh Hamilton in the first year of his five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels. Not coincidentally, Anaheim missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
It was also hard to miss that the big-spending Dodgers lost in the NLCS to St. Louis in part because Matt Kemp, the one righthanded batter who actually avoids swinging at balls in the dirt, missed the entire postseason with injury -- offering little return on LA's eight-year, $160 million investment. And in Detroit, Prince Fielder completed the second year of a nine-year, $214 million deal by having yet another miserable postseason. In 39 career postseason games, his batting average is .194.
Sensible signings, both in compensation and length, are the new winning paradigm. And yet ... and yet ... the new paradigm will undoubtedly revert to the old one. After the Dodgers crashed out of the playoffs, it appeared they were negotiating a $300 million deal, not for Cano but for someone even riskier: a pitcher, ace Clayton Kershaw. And even if Cano or Kershaw doesn't reach $300 million this offseason, it's clear someone else will soon. It's the way it is. Whether the topic is education, prisons, trash collection or Social Security, there is this pervasive myth that private business knows best. Yet throughout the private industry of sports, execs shake their heads at the seeming financial irresponsibility of contracts -- right before another crazy deal is announced.
The larger issue isn't why teams are seduced by the allure of the reckless contract when history has proved that winning a World Series doesn't require a $200 million payroll, but instead why fans find these deals so offensive. At play is that bizarre tantric dance among teams, players and the paying customers. Fans resent stars for receiving enormous salaries, even as they buy their jerseys. Yet they find little fault with the spenders, the owners, who make money in the real world only to be reduced to little boys when they buy sports teams. The team is the extension of the individual ego, and nothing screams status more than having money and spending it out of sheer excess. I once asked Oakland GM Billy Beane why these deals still existed. "Because," he told me, "the attitude is that someone else will pay for it later."
That most fans aren't bothered by this attitude is another example of American fickleness toward business. So is the fact that fans advocate salary caps to protect teams from themselves, then somehow return to their regular lives promoting unregulated free markets that they seem not to want in sports. Meanwhile, teams justify vanity purchases by suggesting that the financial power of their markets makes giving Kershaw $300 million good business. Never mind that the numbers show long-term, bloated contracts rarely work. To many owners -- and to the great benefit of the next round of big-ticket free agents -- winning on the field is just one way to determine the final score.