Making Cal Ripken richer will not make the rest of us poorer

Steve Walters

August 28, 1992|By Steve Walters

TWO hours after being cheered for signing the most lucrative baseball contract in history, Cal Ripken Jr. was booed -- loudly -- after he grounded out in a double play. Six-million-dollar men are not permitted to do ordinary things.

This is the Law of Heightened Expectations that dogs all of baseball's multi-millionaires. It got so bad for Mets outfielder Bobby Bonilla, holder of what is now baseball's second fattest contract, that he now wears ear plugs at home games, the better to be spared the slings and arrows of unsympathetic New Yorkers.

But before we get into a lather about the fact that Mr. Ripken

remains human even though his annual income is 320 times that of the average American, let us note two things.

First, making baseball players richer does not make us poorer. It makes team owners poorer. It's often said that high player salaries push ticket prices higher, but this simply is not so.

Baseball teams are local monopolies and they base their ticket prices almost entirely on what the market will bear rather than on fixed costs such as player salaries. Lower player payrolls would not lead to more affordable ticket prices, but only to higher profits for monopolies such as the one the Orioles enjoy in Baltimore.

This is not to say the Orioles won't raise ticket prices next year, or that they won't claim they were forced to do so by their swelling payroll. They'll do both. But the price increases will come because, to put it baldly, they can get away with it. The babble about the payroll will come because lying to your customers about your real motives is widely believed to be good public relations.

The second and most important thing to note about Mr. Ripken's lush contract is that he deserves it. Unless his performance drops off appreciably as he ages -- and three-fourths of one season does not a career make -- he should continue to be baseball's "MVP" -- most valuable property. The reason has to do with the peculiar nature of the game itself and Mr. Ripken's combination of talents.

Most enterprises can make themselves competitive by simply adding more of some crucial element. Manufacturers in Mexico, for example, have workers with fewer skills than those in the United States, but the Mexican firms can compete by hiring two (or more) unskilled people to do what one skilled worker does north of the border.

You can't do that in baseball. Two .150 hitters don't add up to jTC one .300 hitter. Baseball is what economists call a "winner-takes-all market." Competition to be the sole occupant of a particular roster spot is fierce, and the winner, even if he is only 1 percent more talented than the loser, gets 100 percent of the rewards. The loser gets a job as a gym teacher.

Another peculiarity is that baseball teams' parts are not interchangeable. A manager cannot say, "We need more offense, so tonight we'll start two slugging first basemen and no shortstop." This is a prescription for defensive disaster. The manager in search of more offense must find someone with the defensive abilities of a representative shortstop -- agility, soft hands, strong and accurate throwing arm -- who can also hit.

This is where Mr. Ripken's abilities make him so special. He is consistently among the best-fielding shortstops in the sport. And he hits better than most first basemen (though, unfortunately, not for the last couple of months).

Students of baseball statistics (and it is a sign that we are a developed society that baseball fans buy countless books and even support a research journal) make the following calculations:

If you had a lineup entirely made up of Cal Ripkens (a delicious thought), your team would score about 5.2 runs per game. A lineup made up entirely of people who hit like the typical shortstop, on the other hand, would score only 3.2 runs per game. Thus, Mr. Ripken is about 63 percent better, offensively, than people who can do what he does defensively.

Contrast this with the aforementioned Mr. Bonilla. An all-Bonilla lineup would also score about 5.2 runs per game. But a lineup of average right fielders -- Mr. Bonilla's position -- would produce 4.1 runs per game. Thus, Mr. Bonilla is a mere 27 percent better than his peers.

The only player who is comparable to Mr. Ripken is Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who produces about 42 percent more runs than the average player at his position. Predictably, Mr. Sandberg's annual salary is comparable to Mr. Ripken's (though his contract runs for fewer years and thus is worth less overall).

Mr. Ripken possesses other important virtues, too. Signing a long-term guaranteed contract often has certain unfortunate incentive effects. Hard as it is to imagine, some millionaire players have been known to cut back on off-season workouts or give in to minor injuries in-season. This doesn't seem to be a problem with Mr. Ripken, whose competitive fire burns brightly. He hasn't missed a game since 1982. And after the first game under his new contract, he was in the weight room working out until well past midnight. On his birthday, no less.

So Mr. Ripken should sleep soundly at night, with a clear $H conscience and a smile on his lips. Even if we do boo him now and then.

Steve Walters teaches economics at Loyola College.

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