Dickey: In pro sports, it’s market vs. merit

Which baseball players are overpaid? On the Giants, Barry Zito is and Barry Bonds is not. And economic value to the club is the bottom line.

An Internet columnist compiled his list of overpaid players and had A’s catcher Jason Kendall at the top. Kendall certainly belongs on the list, but my nomination would be Seattle’s Richie Sexson, who is hitting .195 with seven home runs through 46 games. Not a good value for $15.5 million a year.

Kendall is an interesting case. When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him to a six-year, $60 million deal before the 2002 season, he was an All-Star, a .300 hitter with some pop — a high of 14 homers in 2000.

He was acquired by the A’s after the 2004 season (they pay $8 million annually with the Pirates paying the balance of his salary) and he’s deteriorated as a hitter. He’s hitting .189 so far with no home runs.

My guess is that he’s worn himself out with his iron-man routine behind the plate. But he still has value to the A’s because he works so well with their pitchers. And pitching is the A’s lifeline.

It’s an article of faith with most sportswriters that all athletes are overpaid, but that’s because writers willfully misread the situation. Our society is market-based. If it were merit-based, teachers and nurses would be much better paid, but they suffer in a market-based system because they do not provide immediate economic value.

Athletes do. There is a definite correlation between how a team does on the field and how it does economically, at the box office or in the many peripheral areas such as radio-TV contracts. To do better on the field, teams need better players. That’s why the free-agent market has gotten increasingly frantic.

That has also brought on an escalation in ticket prices, but who can argue that they’re too high if people are willing to pay them? The ticket prices at NBA and NHL games amaze me, but many pay those prices. And fans who are priced out of the games can still watch them and follow their team through telecasts.

Sports are entertainment, and entertainers get paid to bring in customers.

The top movie stars get money far beyond what baseball players get because they’re box-office magic.

Since baseball is a team sport, it’s harder for one player to affect the bottom line so obviously. But Bonds has done that for the Giants, starting from his signing. When the new ownership signed Bonds as a free agent in late 1992, before the deal with Bob Lurie was even finalized, it sent a clear signal to the fans that the new owners were serious about bringing a winner to the area.

Bonds had a great first season in San Francisco, hitting .336 with 46 home runs and 123 RBIs. He won the third of his seven Most Valuable Player awards. The team went from 72 wins to 103 wins and attendance jumped more than a million, to more than 2.6 million.

During Bonds’ record home run seasons, he has become even more popular. How many fans at AT&T Park come solely to see Bonds? The Giants are afraid to learn, which is why they brought him back this season.

It all comes down to the bottom line.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.


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