January 25, 2004

Mo' Money

Until Ivan Rodriguez decides if he wants to play in Detroit or for a team that might win 70 games again during his lifetime, there probably won't be much in the way of interesting baseball news to report on.

In the mean time, Rodriguez's situation allows me to comment on something I have always wondered about regarding how free agent athletes choose their new teams. In Rodriguez's case, he reportedly has a four-year offer for $40 million on the table from the Tigers. For the sake of argument, let's also assume he has at least a couple other offers on the table from other teams (Mariners? Cubs? Marlins?), perhaps for fewer years and almost certainly for less money.

Now, it's certainly possible that Ivan Rodriguez is excited about playing the next four years in Detroit, for a team that went 43-119 last season and hasn't finished above .500 for a decade. Maybe he likes the city, maybe he likes the team, maybe he thinks he can turn the franchise around. I think it's probably a lot more likely that he isn't at all excited about the possibility of calling Comerica Park his home through 2007.

Assuming the truth about Rodriguez's feelings regarding playing for Detroit are closer to the latter of those two options, here's my question... Why would he even consider signing with the Tigers?

I understand they might be offering him the most money, but so what? According to Baseball-Reference.com, Ivan Rodriguez has been paid $66.5 million over the course of 13 major league seasons. Let's say he's been horrendous with his money and he only has half of that left. Is the difference between the $10 million a year Detroit is offering and the $5 million a year he can almost certainly get with any number of other teams really enough to make someone with $30 million in the bank play somewhere he doesn't want to play?

Hell, even if he is flat-broke, without a penny to his name, is there really enough of a difference between $20 million over 3-4 years and $40 million over four years? Are millions 21 through 40 really enough to make you go to work everyday at a job you don't enjoy as much as you would somewhere else?

I suppose it's a lot different to actually be in Ivan Rodriguez's shoes. What would I say if someone offered me $40 million to do something, but the job or the company I would be working for weren't particularly appealing to me? Well, I'd certainly take it. But what if, at the same time, I had another offer, for let's say $20 million, and I felt that job and that company would be much more rewarding to work at?

It often seems to me that free agent athletes get caught up in the numbers. Perhaps it is because they have their agent whispering things in their ear about how much they are worth. Perhaps they see other players they know signing for huge money and joining new teams, and they get caught up in doing the same. Or perhaps it is simply human nature to want to get the most money in a situation like free agent athletes are in. Who knows.

Last year at this time, Jim Thome left the Cleveland Indians to sign a big free agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Thome often professed his love for Cleveland and he had an offer on the table from the Indians for multiple years and enough money to buy several small nations. In fact, I am fairly certain they offered him at least $60 million to stay. Yet Thome chose to leave the only team he had ever played for and join another team, in another league, hundreds of miles away. All for some extra money that he'll probably never spend.

Of course, Thome's case is a little different than Rodriguez's. For one thing, the Indians were in the beginning of a rebuilding period and Thome's decision to join the Phillies probably had a lot to do with that. The Phillies finished in third-place last year and, had Thome stayed in Cleveland, the Indians would be a serious contender for the AL Central title in 2004, but I suppose that's irrelevant. Still, it was an interesting situation and an interesting decision, and certainly dozens of athletes in baseball and other sports have done similar things as free agents.

To put this athletes and free agency thing into a "real" world situation is somewhat difficult. For most people, getting offered significantly more money to work somewhere means there isn't a very tough decision to make. If you've been working someplace for $30,000 a year and you really like it there, but another place that you don't like nearly as much offers you $50,000 a year, it's usually a pretty easy decision. When you're making $30,000 a year, another $20,000 makes a massive difference in your way of life.

On the other hand, when you've made $66.5 million over the last 13 years like Rodriguez or your current job is offering you $60 million to re-sign with them like Thome, is it really worth changing jobs and going to a place you may not enjoy as much, just so you can grab some extra millions?

I know this sounds very cliche, but when you've made as much money by the time your in your mid-30s as Ivan Rodriguez or Jim Thome, I think you'd be much happier in life basing your decisions on something other than money. You hear all the time about how much a player loves playing in a certain city and then you see those same players leave to sign a big contract with another team just as often. It always seems strange to me.

All I'm saying is that if you're in your thirties and you've made $50 million by playing baseball already, the difference between a contract offer for $60 million and one for $80 million probably shouldn't impact your decision at all. What can a person possibly buy with that extra $20 million that they couldn't have already gotten with the $50 million they earned already?

I wonder how many players who have left a good situation for a big free agent deal with another team end up regretting their decision. I also wonder how many of them who do regret the decision would say that money was the biggest factor in why they made that choice in the first place.

Money is an extremely important thing in life and it can do a lot of things. In fact, I'm not even sure I buy that line that "money can't buy happiness." Quite frankly, I think enough money can buy a whole lot of happiness. But when you've already got millions upon millions of dollars, why not just take a little less money to play in the place you think would make you the happiest?

So I guess that's my advice to Ivan Rodriguez, although perhaps it is too late. If you think you'd be happiest playing the next four years in Detroit, go ahead and take the offer. But if you think you'd be a whole lot happier in Seattle or Chicago or somewhere else, you should seriously consider taking whatever small amount of millions those teams are offering.

I think if Rodriguez signs with the Tigers, he's going to end up regretting his decision. Come next September, when he's squatting behind the plate in Comerica Park, calling pitches for Mike Maroth and trying to help the team avoid its 100th loss, I bet that extra couple million bucks isn't going to seem so important.

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On a semi-related note...

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