So this is what money looks like. Real money. Except for those
cheesy casino exhibits--$1 MILLION IN BILLS! PINKERTONS AT THE
READY!--this was our best chance to see a fortune up close.
Imagine: $157 million on one mound. A nation gawked.
How else to explain the interest in Monday's National League
opener, a nonrivalry game between the host Los Angeles Dodgers
and the Arizona Diamondbacks? It was more a payroll event than a
baseball game. You had the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson on the
one hand (left) and the Dodgers' Kevin Brown on the other
(right). Good pitchers, sure, but hardly so galvanizing
man-to-man that their matchup should have sold out Dodger
Stadium in less than two days.
More likely their contracts did it. The off-season rehash of
their free-agency glory, the sheer titillation of their enormous
salaries and rock-star perks drew attention well past what their
ERAs could ever attract. Is it too cynical to suggest that this
otherwise routine opener became the most important season debut
of the week because it featured baseball's first $100 million
man against a $50 million man? "Probably not," L.A. general
manager Kevin Malone said before the game. Malone, the guy who
invested $105 million over seven years in the proven if
nondescript Brown (and who had angled for Johnson until the
Diamondbacks secured him for $52 million over four seasons),
didn't seem at all offended by the idea that purchasing power
somehow piqued fan interest. "There is the economic situation,"
he said, his voice trailing off as he watched his stands fill on
a weekday afternoon. "The dollars and so forth."
But if the fans came for the contracts, they stayed for the
pitching. It was impossible to preview this game without
resorting to the language of accounting, such is our obsession
with high salaries (not to mention such perks as Brown's free use
of a private jet 12 times a year). But once the game began, under
Los Angeles's typically blue skies, there was no longer a sense
of monetary sums being tallied. Shortly after the national anthem
this business-proposition-as-entertainment degenerated into a
April 11, 1999
Then it degenerated a little further into just the kind of
baseball this sort of spending was supposed to correct. Before
the afternoon was over, 12 pitchers (some of whom were making
substantially less than even $5 million a year) had been paraded
in front of the crowd of 53,109, and they had been rocked for six
home runs. Isn't that about where we left off last season, when
sluggers were lighting up the part-time players? Spend all the
money you want, or can, on pitching, and this is how it ends:
Dodgers rightfielder Raul Mondesi, having tied the game in the
ninth with a three-run homer, won it in the 11th with a two-run
shot. An 8-6 victory. So now good hitting beats good pitching.
The pricey pitching duel lasted all of five innings, after which
the costlier of the two hurlers, having been blasted for a
highly uncharacteristic three homers, was run out. Among Brown's
more interesting statistics (not as interesting as his $4,000 a
pitch on Monday) is his third-place standing among active
pitchers for fewest homers allowed (1,000 career innings
minimum). Last season with the San Diego Padres he gave up just
eight. After the third one on Monday, a three-run job by second
baseman Jay Bell in the sixth that kept drifting until it just
cleared the leftfield fence--"I thought sacrifice fly," said
Brown--it became necessary to question other relevant numbers.
While it may take 161 games (or more) before it's possible to
say that anybody but the fans got their money's worth, it's
never too soon to debate which team made the better investment.
After the opener you'd have to like Arizona's plunge; Johnson,
after all, lasted seven innings, giving up just five hits and
two runs while striking out nine, and his team is only on the
hook for four seasons. However, both pitchers advised us to hold
off on a final accounting. Brown conceded that he'd made some
poor pitches and that "I'd have booed myself," but promised he'd
be back for a second start. Johnson, who walked six batters,
likewise allowed that he could do better. "I'm not happy with
how I pitched," he said. "I'm my own worst enemy."
Beyond the gate-crashing appeal of Monday's matchup, which may
not be reproduced more than once again this season, it's
difficult to find the economic sense in paying either man as
much money as these clubs did. And it goes beyond the pitchers'
performances. Brown doesn't have the charisma to transform
himself, at this late stage in his life, into baseball's marquee
player. His performance of late--particularly over the last
three seasons, when he went 51-26 with a 2.33 ERA and led two
teams (the Florida Marlins and then the Padres) to the World
Series--has certainly established his credentials as one of the
best pitchers in the game--but not the best. No matter that his
fastball still registers in the 90s; it's difficult to justify a
huge seven-year contract for a 34-year-old guy. Remember: Don
Drysdale was retired by then.
Johnson, whose 6'10" frame and lanky hair make him a disturbing
sight for batters and fans alike, does have charisma. People
come to see his fastball. But the Big Unit, despite his
dominating finish with the Houston Astros last season (after a
desultory stretch with the Seattle Mariners, Johnson went 10-1
with a 1.28 ERA for Houston), is getting as long in the tooth as
he is above the ears. He's 35. Sandy Koufax had been retired for
five years at that age.
If it does turn out that fans treasure pitching above hitting,
which hasn't been their history, these clubs figure to be
blessed. As it is, the fans only want these two guys to stay
durable, win their allotment and grow old in their respective
uniforms. Malone, though appreciative of Monday's fan influx,
wants nothing more flamboyant from Brown than "240 innings, 15
to 20 victories." The Diamondbacks also hope for constancy. "The
thing about guys like Kevin and Randy," says Arizona manager
Buck Showalter, "is they cut down your margins of error."
Talk of money is, if not quite obscene, irrelevant to the
players themselves. "When you're at bat," says Arizona
utilityman Andy Fox, "you don't think about how much money Kevin
Brown's making. You don't get credited for two hits for getting
one off a millionaire." Johnson pretends to be mystified by all
the fuss over the big units he's making. He noted that he and
Brown had come up against each other before and that their
salaries weren't factored into their pitching lines then.
But there's no use ignoring either the game's economy or the
public's fascination with players' incomes. If a stadium can be
named after a bank (as is the Diamondbacks'), then it would be
foolish to suggest that Brown's and Johnson's contracts are
immaterial. As of Monday night, with neither a complete game nor
a win between them, that was actually all they had going for them.
It's not too soon to debate which team invested better. After
the opener you'd have to say the Diamondbacks.