Back in my working days I was among a small group of reporters interviewing Ken Griffey Jr. in the Seattle Mariners’ locker room after a home game. As we spoke Griffey’s small son, maybe five or six years old, did what kids his age do, which was jump around, interrupt and pull on daddy’s leg.
Griffey good naturedly tried to shoo him away. “Go play a machine,” he told the boy. “I gave you $50 this morning. You can’t have spent it all.”
The remark stuck with me long after the subject of the interview had faded. The notion that a parent would give a little kid $50 for a day’s spending money boggled my mind, and still does. Even 15 or so years go rich athletes like Griffey lived in a different world from most of the rest of us, one in which normal calculations of money and privilege don’t apply.
That thought returned forcefully a couple of weeks ago when the Adam LaRoche story hit the baseball spring-training news. It seems that LaRoche’s 14-year-old son, Drake, had been a Chicago White Sox clubhouse fixture since the veteran first baseman and designated hitter joined the team last season, wearing his own uniform, having his own locker, sitting in the dugout during games, joining in team drills and even accompanying it on road trips. When a White Sox executive told the player that professional considerations dictated that the boy should be an occasional rather than a constant presence with the club, LaRoche abruptly announced that he was quitting the team and the game. Family came first, he declared.
The episode led me to wonder how a 14-year-old could hang out all day with dad from March to October instead of being in school. It raised other questions as well, such as in what other business could a mid-level employee expect to take his child to work daily, get him a desk, have him take trips and sit in on meetings. I can’t think of one.
Much was made of the fact that LaRoche forfeited the $13 million left on his two-year contract to make his statement, but less of the almost $72 million he’d already collected in a 12-season big-league career during which he never much rose above the rank of journeyman. aH Even after taxes that’s enough money to secure his family’s future for several generations if no member of it worked another day. A ballplayer who is a household name only in his own household is a card-carrying member of the top one-tenth of 1% of the nation financially and more than rich enough, at age 36, to tell his bosses to take their job and shove it.
Also instructive, I think, were the reactions of LaRoche’s fellow athletes both outside and inside the White Sox clubhouse, or at least of those who spoke for attribution. Several Sox players were vociferous in support of his action and rumors that the team would boycott a spring-training game in his honor made the papers (but they didn’t). Bryce Harper and Chipper Jones tweeted their approval. Derrick Rose of the basketball Chicago Bulls called the team’s stance “devastating.” By their lights, apparently, no athlete of any stature should ever hear the word “no.”
The same sense of entitlement pervades other facets of life in the jockocracy. Most adults understand the relationship of risk to reward when making investment decisions, but some (many?) rich athletes believe that reasonable returns on their money amount to “chump change” and are beneath them. They thus are easy marks for hustlers with the pie-in-the-sky promises. Just last week an “investment adviser” to whom ex-basketball star Scottie Pippen entrusted $20 million was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud. That was only the most recent in a long string of such developments.
Similarly, while the dollar amounts of the contracts top athletes sign now are routinely reported publicly, the non-monetary perks some get don’t receive as much attention. These can include private hotel rooms when their teams travel, season tickets or a stadium suite for family and friends, team contributions to favorite charities and the use of the team’s or owner’s private airplanes.
Perks are especially important to the big-time college football and basketball coaches whose riches belie their sports’ amateur pretentions. Their seven-figure annual salaries often are supplemented by cash bonuses based on wins or home attendance, country club memberships, free use of autos, sneaker deals and fat fees to sit still for an hour or so of softball questions on their weekly TV or radio shows. I read that when Mack Brown reupped as the football coach at the University of Texas a few years ago he got a $750 gun-shop gift certificate in addition to the aforementioned swag.
About the only edifying part of the LaRoche affair was the light it shone on how baseball clubhouses are run these days. When players or teams want to limit news-media access their digs, as they do from time to time, they’re fond of saying that their inner sanctums are sacrosanct places where only serious business is conducted. In fact, they’re more like sports bars to which pre- or post-game credentials routinely are issued to players’ kids, male pals, agents and other business associates, “personal assistants” (i.e., gofers) and anyone else to whom favors are owed.
When Pete Rose managed the Cincinnati Reds his weight-room buddies, who doubled as his bet runners, had free run of the place. Try getting away with that at work sometime.