High Salaries: Why? Albert Pujols; Bob Albo; Daric Barton; Mark De La Rosa; Barry Bonds
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 23, 2011

23FEBRUARY


PROBABLY NOTHING upsets older fans more than the incredible salaries players get today, because they can see how it’s driven up ticket prices. Anybody over 50 can easily recall such things as 90-cent baseball seats. They’re a little expensive nowmore now.

In the mid-‘70s, when ticket prices were rising – and remember, this was before free agency – I wrote that baseball was killing itself. It had always billed itself as the family sport and now it was pricing itself out of the reach of many families.

Two things have happened since I wrote that column: Ticket prices have gone much higher and baseball has set attendance records. That’s true in other sports, too. The NFL hit a speed bump last fall when attendance declined because of the economy but barely felt it because of their huge TV revenues. Pro basketball and hockey, with the highest game ticket prices in sports, continue to prosper. Even those teams which have not been successful in recent years – you can see one of them at the Oracle Arena in Oakland – still do well. The Warriors crowds have been near sellout (some have actually sold out) despite a conspicuous lack of success for almost 20 years.

And when a team is successful, you see the kind of ticket-buying frenzy that has surrounded the Giants lately.

So, who’s buying these tickets?

Some are going to businesses, which use tickets to entertain clients or as a perk for employes. The reason NFL teams want new stadiums is to be able to build more of these luxury boxes and increase their profit.

But if you go to a Giants game and look around, you can see that the boxes are a small part of the total crowd. There are a lot of “ordinary” people buying tickets. These ticket buyers are relatively young and they’re having a good time, and the ball game is only a part of it. They’re patronizing the many food stands, taking their kids to the facilities built for them…or even just looking out at McCovey Cove.

When I spoke to a luncheon group recently, I was asked what I thought was the biggest change in sports since I’d started writing. I could have mentioned several: The big increase in girl/women athletes; the many Latinos and now Japanese who have changed major league baseball, for instance. The change I mentioned was in baseball crowds.

When I first started covering Bay Area baseball, the crowds were mostly fans who had grown up with the game, often playing it when they were young, and they knew the game well. At the 1962 World Series – I covered the games in San Francisco, though I was then working for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian – there were many people in the stands keeping score. When the Giants did something, they cheered loudly. When nothing much was happening, they were quiet.

The atmosphere at the World Series games at AT&T last fall was quite different. It was like a rock concert, with a steady stream of noise throughout the game. That’s because going to games at AT&T has become an event. The Giants have been superb at promoting this kind of atmosphere, especially compared to the deadheads in the A’s organization, and that’s why attendance has remained very high, even when the team has not been successful. Now that it’s reached the pinnacle, the fans’ enthusiasm has gone through the roof.

And yes, just like 35 years ago, I think player salaries are too high.

The latest example is the attempt by Albert Pujols and his agent to convince the St. Louis Cardinals to sign him to a 10-year contract for $300 million. They want to top the previous record: Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers.

The Cardinals should say no to this demand. Rodriguez was 25 when he signed. Pujols will be 31 when he signs his next contract, which means he’d be 41 by the time a 10-year contract was through.

And, even though A-Rod was much younger, that was a ridiculous contract. Texas owner Tom Hicks went bankrupt, in large part because of that. No baseball team should ever give that long a contract, especially for that much money, to a player. Even the six-year contract to which the Giants signed Barry Zito was a monumental mistake that they’d love to be able to walk away from.

But, don’t blame Pujols or any player for trying to get as much as he can. The owners have created this situation by overbidding constantly. Remember that the one thing Marvin Miller feared when he was executive director of the baseball Players Association in the mid-‘70s was that the owners would make all players free agents (as Charlie Finley urged) and the marketplace would be a more reasonable one. Instead, the owners eventually settled for limited free agency, and the scarcity of top players drives up offer for the available ones.

And, let’s face it: The fans have been complicit in all this. They could have boycotted games when prices started rising but they’ve been willing to keep paying too high ticket prices.

And I’m not going to write another column predicting the downfall of baseball because of the high ticket prices!

BOB ALBO: One of the great ones died this week, Bob Albo who was a team doctor for the Warriors and then head of their medical department for 40 years.

Albo is in the Cal Hall of Fame because he lettered three years in both basketball and baseball. He was offered a professional baseball contract but chose instead to go to med school, a wise decision and not a difficult one at that time when baseball salaries were not very high.

Albo was a close friend of Al Davis’s and on Oct. 19, 1978, was instrumental in the saving of the life of Davis’ wife, Carole.

It was about 1 a.m. on a day when the Raiders were scheduled to fly to New York for a game with the Jets when Albo got a frantic call from Davis. Carole had collapsed in the bathroom of their Piedmont home.

Albo lived nearby but by the time he reached Davis’s home, Carole had stopped breathing. “She was dead, for all intents and purposes,” said Albo, when I interviewed him for my book on the Raiders, “Just Win, Baby.” Albo started cardiopulmonary resuscitation and had Davis call for an ambulance, which took her to Merritt Hospital in Oakland. She was in a coma for 17 days but eventually came out of it with a complete recovery that can only be called miraculous. Davis stayed in her hospital room, virtually willing her back to life. It was the human side of the man that he seems determined to hide from the public. (Melvin Durslag told me when I interviewed him for that book that Davis was the only man he knew who willfully hid his good deeds.)

For many years, Albo served as a medical consultant and did occasional surgery for the Raiders. He would not be a team doctor because he knew of Davis’s callous disregard for the health of his players. That attitude was shared by other pro football owners but that was not the way Albo operated. As Al Attles noted, in his work with the Warriors, the well being of the players was always Albo’s first concern.

Yet, his connection with the Raiders allowed the team to put out a cheesy release using one of Davis’s pet slogans, saying Albo had a “commitment to excellence.” That was probably dictated by Davis. The man is totally tone deaf when it comes to realizing how ridiculous those slogans sound to all those people who have not drunk the Kool Aid.

THE SILLY SEASON: That’s what I call spring training because writers are desperate for story angles when they have to write every day and the games are meaningless.

There’s always a player who’s made a big change. In the A’s camp, it’s Daric Barton, whose offseason diet and workouts gave him a leaner, more muscular body, raising the hope that he will hit more home runs. I hope that offseason program works better for him than Pablo Sandoval’s did for him last year.

There’s always an injured veteran who is making a comeback. In the Giants camp this year, it’s Mark De Rosa. Let’s face it: De Rosa’s signing last year was a minor one, even if he’d stayed healthy. His versatility is a plus, but if he’s a starter at any position, it’s a red flag for the Giants.

There’s always the “phenom” story, some player nobody ever heard of who hits 450-foot homers and bats .475. The combination of thin air and veteran pitchers slowly working their way into shape is the cause, and those phenoms almost always fade.

And, there’s always a real off-the-wall idea. This year, it was speculation that Pujols might be in the mix for the Giants next off season.

Not a chance. The Giants can’t afford him and besides, they reserve their big free agent offers for losers like Zito, Aaron Rowand and Edgardo Alfonzo.

But, I don’t blame the writers. When I was going to spring training, and I went for almost 30 years, I wrote pure pablum.

That was under differing circumstances. First, I traveled with my family, when Scott was very young, and we stayed with the Giants because they were paying the way. Then, there was a long stretch when I went alone because Scott was in school and Nancy stayed home in one of her multiple careers, as mother.

My wife is a truly remarkable woman. Her first job was as bookkeeper for a Memphis stock brokerage. Coming to San Francisco in 1965, she became a secretary to the President of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. Ins the late ‘70s, she became a struggling artist (redundancy) in a co-op studio in San Francisco. In 1982, she went back to school to learn computer programming; writing the type of programs that Microsoft now produces, and worked at Merritt College and then USF. Finally, in 1985, she became a real estate agent and despite the handicap of honesty, that was her most financially rewarding job until her retirement in June, 2009.

When she got into real estate, she sometimes joined me at spring training for a mini-vacation. Since The Chronicle was paying – the dependency on teams paying the way ended in the ‘70s – we stayed in nice hotels and ate at good restaurants.

The Pink Pony, the restaurant favored by athletes and sportswriters who haven’t gotten past the emotional age of 12, was not one of them. I ate there only once, when a reader who was at spring training with his son, invited me to join them. They enjoyed it because of the athletes but I saw them during the day, so that was no thrill. The food was perhaps the worst I’ve ever had. My steak was so tough, it could have been used as a plank in the floor.

Spring training was valuable to me in some respects. It gave me an opportunity to talk to players and managers in relatively non-stressful situations, since the games don’t count, and to check out young players, especially minor leaguers, so when they were brought up during the season, I had some idea what to expect.

But, none of that helped my writing. I can’t think of a single memorable column from all my years in Arizona. It was enjoyable, though.

A’S PITCHING: One story to watch for this year, when the games begin to count in April, is the progress of the pitching staff.

Losing Curt Young to the Boston Red Sox was a special loss. Young is a quiet guy, but he was great at working with young pitchers.

The A’s have had some great pitching coaches. Dave Duncan was great at resurrecting the careers of veteran pitchers, most notably Dennis Eckersley and Dave Stewart, but he had absolutely no patience with young pitchers. Rick Peterson brought innovation to the job – and, incidentally, taught me a lot I hadn’t previously known about pitchers. Young was much less flamboyant but equally impressive as a teacher, treating each pitcher as an individual and bring out his special talent.

The encouraging thing is that the A’s seem to have a good successor to Young in Ron Romanick, who has worked with most of the pitchers as a roving instructor in the minor leagues and then as a bullpen coach. He’s certainly well versed in the A’s style.

That’s very important because, if the A’s are going to make a run at the AL West title, pitching will have to lead the way, as it usually does for championship teams. Based on ERA, they were the best in the American League last year, and they’ve made significant additions to the bullpen.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think this will be the season the A’s return to the playoffs.

LABOR UNIONS: One of the problems in writing about labor disputes in professional sports is that we refer to players associations as “unions,” which they are not.

A regular labor union determines wage scales for all employes, negotiates contracts for health care, provides for pensions and, most of all, protects jobs.

I belonged to one of those, the Newspaper Guild, for 42 years. I was especially happy about the last part of what they did when the Hearst Corporation bought The Chronicle in 2000. Editors from the old Examiner came over to run the paper (into the ground, as it happened). They were determined to get rid of high profile Chronicle writers, and I’m quite sure they would have showed me the door immediately if they’d been able to. They weren’t, so I stayed on until September, 2005, and when I left, it was with a buyout package that was nearly double what I would have gotten in the normal severance package.

I’ve also been a member of AFTRA since 1991, when I was a regular member of the “Good Sports” show.

AFTRA is an association. It sets minimum payments for individuals on shows, which I what I get. Those for whom television, movies or plays are full-time occupations, have agents who negotiate much higher salaries.

And, that’s what the players have. The association negotiates minimum wage levels for first year players, second year, etc., but players have agents who negotiate higher salaries. Even in baseball, where salary levels are supposedly set for the first six years, players occasionally negotiate much higher salaries, as Tim Lincecum did before last season.

I hope that answers a question I’ve had from some readers: Why do players have both agents and an union?

RADIO: I'll be on with Ken Dito at 9:40 a.m. Friday on "Action Sports, 860 a.m."

PARTING SHOT: I've said lately that I don't expect to live long enough to see Cal in the Rose Bowl again. Now, I have an addition to that: "or to see the end of the Barry Bonds perjury trial."

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