You pause and cringe and even shriek a little upon hearing that Clayton Kershaw, who could blow out his arm on any pitch, will make $215 million over the next seven seasons. Doing business with the Wolf of Wall Street seems a better idea. Few investments in the modern world are riskier than the arm of a power pitcher who violently throws a baseball about 100 times per start, 35 or 40 times a year, torturing tendons and ligaments that weren’t intended for such unnatural, grotesque punishment.
It’s a bleak topic when everyone knows what Tommy John surgery is — but not everyone is sure who Tommy John is or what he did in life. A study by Will Carroll discovered this: Of the 360 pitchers who started last year on major-league rosters, more than one-third had undergone the procedure in their careers, a staggering number. Yes, many return from the surgery to resume varying degrees of success, but we’re talking $30.7 million a year, the richest deal ever for a pitcher and the highest average salary for any player in baseball history. Weren’t we raving about the promise and pizzazz of the Mets’ Matt Harvey just last summer? Now look at him, shut down this season as he rehabs a surgically repaired elbow. At least he can take his supermodel girlfriend to Rangers games, but still.
I was in Chicago for the arm crashes of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. I could spend the rest of this piece citing pitching careers that died too young. If the Dodgers get four or five dominant seasons out of Kershaw, they should consider themselves quite fortunate, based on the odds and the demands on his shoulder and elbow.
But also grasp the blurry reality of it all. If they didn’t give him that kind of money, someone else would have. Baseball is flush with disposable income, thanks not to outgoing commissioner Bud Selig or anything the owners have done but because TV networks in the 21st century crave live programming. Most televised fare can be watched at one’s convenience thanks to the trusty DVD, but baseball games must be watched live because, hell, there’s another one the next night … and the night after … and the day after that. Though the sport has grown old and outdated — the average age of a World Series viewer for the splendid Red Sox-Cardinals series was 54.4 years — networks and cable operators will dish out the money knowing they can charge higher advertising rates for live events. And no one has more live events than Major League Baseball: 162 dates a year in 29 American markets and one in Canada.
So believe it or not, the Kershaw contract actually may be a good deal for the Dodgers, a traditional cash cow further enhanced by a ridiculous 25-year deal with Time Warner Cable in southern California. Know what Time Warner Cable is paying the Dodgers to distribute a network that the team will produce? EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS, buster. Even if fans are slow to pay up to $5 a month for the network, and even if Time Warner meets resistance from DirecTV and other companies already paying for an established Time Warner sports channel that carries the Lakers and other local programming, the Dodgers still will get the full $8 billion through the deal’s duration.
When sweetheart deals command such mind-boggling prices, what is $215 million for a magnificent pitcher who, at 25, arguably is the best in baseball, already has won two Cy Young Awards and various strikeout and earned-run-average titles — and only will be 32 when the contract expires? Yes, the Dodgers are annoying in the way they throw money around, having invested more than $140 million in five players alone. And they may not be done, now eyeing Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who will require at least $125 million if they win a bidding war with the Yankees and others. But a Dodgers fan shouldn’t sweat the expenditures, which may push the payroll toward $300 million after the Dodgers spent $238 million last year. A Dodgers fan should enjoy the prosperity and be thankful he isn’t in Tampa Bay, where Kershaw would constitute almost half of the Rays’ entire payroll.
The franchise is owned by a financial services firm called Guggenheim Partners. These nameless, faceless money men — they show up at games but no one notices — spend insane amounts on the payroll when, you know, they could be pocketing it as owners do in corrupt places like Chicago. The Dodgers are trying to buy a World Series trophy, and when four million fans are showing up at Chavez Ravine and TV ratings are soaring, why not?
Baseball’s golden slogan used to be, “If you build it, they will come.”
Now it’s, “If you have the money, spend it.”
And if Kershaw’s elbow pops, splurge on Max Scherzer, why don’t you?