By many reasonable measures, baseball has ceded the honor to football: Regular season football games (not to mention the playoffs) receive considerably higher television ratings and disproportionate media coverage, the NFL is a bona fide financial juggernaut with nearly boundless political protection and influence, and the game itself: timed with an elaborate halftime and pre-determined stops for advertisement are much better suited to casual American consumption.
But baseball still holds many arguments in its favor: It is, among the major US pro sports, still most usually the cheapest to attend — with many teams offering sub-$20 third-tier seats throughout much of the season and with 81 opportunities to attend a home game. When international travelers visit stateside for long exploration, they seem far more interested in seeing baseball games than football: a reminder that baseball is still globally connected to the “authentic American experience”.
Given the growing concern over sports related head trauma, it is also far more likely that baseball will exist in something resembling its present form in fifty years than football, which turns out CTE cases about as often as it runs beer commercials. All those things speak to the roots of baseball’s cultural relevance as a true American spectacle: ever-present, globally defined and long-lasting.
One other way that baseball is profoundly American, though — and perhaps the way it is most profoundly American — is in the limitless nature of its contract structures. Want to get paid to be a pro athlete in America? Well, you won’t do too bad in most any pro sport, but if you want to really get paid, I mean make serious, guaranteed bank, you want to be a professional baseball player. This has been true for nearly the entire history of sports free agency in the United States and probably won’t change anytime soon.
This, of course, leads to the occasional generationally ridiculous contract: some earned and others nothing short of insane. Up on the pedestal as this era’s object of contractual jealousy and disdain is firebrand slugger Bryce Harper, whom many are suggesting could earn upwards of a half-billion dollars — maybe even $750 million — with the Nationals or in free agency.
Harper — who is as well known for chiding the media about “clown questions” and their odd obsession with policing whether or not it’s okay for players to be excited during a baseball game as he is for his on the field performance — would thus become the most handsomely rewarded professional baseball player in the history of the known universe, something that seems a little weird to talk about for a guy that only hit .243 with 24 HR last season and whose 2016 WAR was a meager 1.6. But these things are complicated and that’s where we are.
The young Nationals outfielder would certainly not be the first ballplayer to accept an absurd amount of money in free agency: baseball is in fact rife with historic examples of this very thing.
Most historic, perhaps, is the $252M contract Alex Rodriguez signed in December 2000 to play (initially) for the Texas Rangers. At the time it was the most lucrative baseball contract in history, through which Rodriguez transitioned from a professional athlete into a personal brand, complete with private jet usage and personal office space. That contract has since been topped a few times, including the $317M A-Rod collected on his next contract with the Yankees, part of which the Bronx Bombers literally paid A-Rod just to go away.
Although A-Rod never carried the Texas Rangers to a playoff appearance and did not until 2009 help the Yankees win a world title, he put up Hall-of-Fame numbers through much of that time frame and — steroids set aside for a second — may have at least from that perspective been worth a reasonable portion of the money.
Mike Hampton’s 2001 contract, on the other hand, worth $121M over six years with the Colorado Rockies, was a legitimate disaster. Hampton won only 21 games in two seasons with the Rockies before being shipped off the Braves, basically never to be heard from again.
In 1998, Kevin Brown signed a similar deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, though by 2002 the injury prone hurler had become so physically wrecked that LA traded him to the Yankees, where he was ultimately and brutally clubbed to death by the curse-busting 2004 Red Sox in the most important ALCS in history.
While not the most lucrative of deals, the most insane MLB contract ever may belong to Bobby Bonilla and the New York Mets. In 1999, Bonilla signed a contract with the Mets that would have seen him paid for 35 more years — until 2035, far after his playing days and well into retirement. Bonilla cleverly retired just two years later, and when Mets owner Fred Wilpon attempted to renegotiate the deal to push off a settlement with Bonilla by about a decade, he ended up losing the money the franchise was setting aside for the payoff in the Bernie Madoff ponzi schemes. That is like hitting for the cycle of bad ideas and worse financial management, and now the Mets pay Bonilla an annual July stipend of over a million dollars, literally just to exist.
Not all large contracts in baseball history have been completely controversial or busts, though. Babe Ruth’s 1930 contract for $80,000 comes to mind, as he famously responded to criticism from a reporter that the demand was more than Herbert Hoover was tapped to make by saying he, “had a better year than the President.”
That contract, by the way, which was baseball’s most lucrative for 19 years (a time frame that is impossible to imagine today) was sold at auction in February for over $500K – more than six times the non-inflation-adjusted value Ruth received for signing it.
In 1976, the first year of true baseball free agency, Reggie Jackson signed a five-year, $3 million dollar contract with the New York Yankees, when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner apparently offered to include in the contract a fully-paid Rolls Royce — worth more at the time than the average MLB player’s yearly salary. Jackson helped turn the struggling Bronx franchise’s ailing 70s roster around and back towards championships. More than the contract amount itself, Jackson’s early free agency signing with New York forecast a fundamental change in the baseball landscape, altering the way teams would build their rosters and operate with one another ever since and ushering in the era of the MLB super-contract.
It is hard to imagine that if Bryce Harper signs a contract worth more than $500M or even up to $750M that he won’t be faced with overwhelming waves of criticism, which could be potentially lethal for a guy who has spent as much time sparring with the media about baseball as he has actually performing the job. But, whatever he is eventually offered, it will serve as the next reminder that baseball franchises occasionally lose their minds over contracts and imperil themselves with deals they can’t possibly hope to honor in the name of winning a World Series title. And who, I guess, are we to criticize? This isn’t domestic politics or foreign policy after all, and so whatever a crazy billionaire chooses to do with his money when it comes to baseball and not, like, the future of civilization I guess is up to them, especially if it makes the dog days of summer baseball a little more exciting for the fans of that organization.
It also raises the question: What could Bryce Harper do with all that money? As aforementioned: A-Rod turned himself into a brand, chartered jets and negotiated luxurious office space. He also bought copious performance enhancing drugs and wired generous amounts of hush money, but that’s for another article.
Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown mostly disappeared onto the golf courses and mansions they probably bought. Brown may have purchased bionic limbs for to replace the real ones that have surely fallen off by now.
Babe Ruth gave charitably to children but also blew loads of cash on alcohol, women and junk food, and blew even more still thanks to a boyish daftness and ill-tempered private demeanor. Reggie Jackson parlayed his historic contract (and subsequent historic performances) into a lifelong membership in the loud-mouthpiece ex-ballplayer Hall of Fame, of which he is a charter member.
But what would Harper, a soon-to-be modern gazilliontrillionaire and certified stupid millennial want to spend his money on? What could he, if he just went ape-shit and bought every toy and/or cool thing imaginable?
Well, he could buy 17 of the NHL’s 30 franchises (in cash), or take seven trips with the Russia space program to the International Space Station, or buy like 4,000 private islands. He also could pay for the healthcare of the entire state of Wisconsin (or something) or send tens of thousands of kids to good universities tuition free, but I’m expecting something more along the lines of flashy sports cars and unreasonably expensive haircuts because this is, after all, still the good ol’ USA. I suspect that Harper will handle his vomit-inducing wealth a little differently than last generation’s corporate baseball entity, A-Rod, whom seemed much more interested than Harper does in being a businessman over a ballplayer, but the jury remains out.
Whatever he will spend his money on down the road, that money also comes with an important lesson in baseball history learned by many of those who’ve been lucky enough to sign such lucrative deals: When the amount of money you make becomes the story, it becomes the entirety of who people think you are as a person and ballplayer, and when such absurd amounts of money are involved, people tend to also apply magical thinking.
What would be enough to satisfy the casual fan in a $500+ million dollar contract? A 60 home run season? Hitting .380 consistently? Routine 230 hit campaigns? All this, plus a World Series title? Could anything really ever quench the thirst and stifle the criticism?
This isn’t to say that I (as would almost anyone) wouldn’t trade lives with someone who might become a half-billionaire in a split second. I would. Go ahead and offer me, I’ll show you. Hell, I’d deal with the annoyances of semi-wealth for half a million dollars, let alone half a billion. But as we know through countless examples, uber-wealth as a professional athlete is often a cautionary tale.
Harper (and baseball) have some time still to work out his actual value, and I imagine that as we get closer either to the Nationals resigning him or Harper reaching free agency, the inflated salary talks might calm down just a little bit. The alleged financial investment is enough to literally bankrupt many franchises, and I think would spark renewed conversations about salary capping in MLB that neither owners nor players really right now want to have.
But what little we know about Harper’s future now is what we know about baseball in general, what we’ve always known, and what makes it so uniquely American even-still: It is a very, very good life to be a good MLB player. Most usually, someone is going to pay you way more than they probably should to be a good MLB player for them. And that, I guess, is still one piece of what remains of the American dream.