Enter the Era of the $49,000 at Bat ; Alex Rodriguez's $252 Million Baseball Deal Spotlights Imbalance between Rich and Poorer Teams

Article excerpt

It took exactly two days for pitcher Mike Hampton's blockbuster $121 million deal to become chump change.

The Colorado Rockies had put together what looked like an astounding offer: $15 million a year for eight years. When pen was put to paper, it was the second-largest contract in the history of sport - falling just short of a 1997 basketball deal.

Now, it's a distant fourth.

The Texas Rangers' signing of slugger Alex Rodriguez to a 10- year, $252 million contract has staked out a new standard in professional athletics - one that may imperil the very foundations of America's pastime.

Certainly, landmark contracts have always been met with concern and derision. Four years ago, some sportswriters scoffed at Shaquille O'Neal's $120 million pact with the Los Angeles Lakers as shocking and irresponsible.

But the Rodriguez deal makes that one look positively Little League. Next season, the coveted shortstop will make more money than all the players on the Minnesota Twins or the Milwaukee Brewers or the Kansas City Royals.

It's an apt comparison. As big-market baseball clubs like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers spend untold millions to secure the game's premier players, teams in smaller cities make do with the scraps.

No team has folded or moved since 1972, when the Washington Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers. But more teams report that they are losing money, and with Rodriguez's $27- million-a-year salary as the new benchmark, the future prosperity of Major League Baseball is as clouded as it has been since the days of the strike in 1994.

"Baseball has to deal with its financial imbalance," says Andrew Zimbalist, author of several books on the economics of sports. "Something needs to be done, and this is one more piece of evidence that baseball is out of whack."

The Rodriguez deal is unprecedented.

*The $252 million the Rangers will pay Rodriguez is $2 million more than owner Tom Hicks paid to buy the club in 1998.

*It's equal to what the Pentagon recently agreed to pay to keep a satellite phone system in orbit.

*Today, 18 of 30 teams are valued at less than $252 million, including the Chicago Cubs, according to Forbes magazine.

*Based on last season's statistics, Rodriguez will make about $49,000 per at bat this year.

*His yearly salary is enough to pay for all of the Boston Ballet's expenses this year (with about $9 million left over). …

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