The End of One Thing and the Start of Something Else (2)

April 16, 2020
 
(This is the second article in a series. The first is here.)
  
Ozzie Albies is my favorite player. He’s terrific to watch: a kinetic, intelligent player who has a lot of fun on the diamond and in the dugout. Among the stars of baseball, he remains very much under-appreciated: last year he tied for fourth in the NL in Win Shares, trailing Yelich, Bellinger, and Rendon, but outpacing teammates Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman. He’s terrific.

One thing that I enjoy about Albies…this is an aside that isn’t germane to anything…one of my favorite parts of his game is how slow his swing is from the left side of the plate. Albies is a switch-hitter, and as a right-handed batter he is one of the game’s best hitters against southpaws. But he struggles from the left side. His bat seems to linger in the zone longer than any hitter I’ve ever seen…it seems strangely slow, like he is swinging underwater. But sometimes he connects, and the ball will rocket off that slow swing and carom around the right field corner, and then Ozzie is racing around first thinking about a triple. I love those moments.
 
When the Braves announced that they had agreed to an extension with Ozzie Albies last April, I assumed that the terms of the contract would parallel the eight-year, $100 million dollar deal that teammate Ronald Acuna signed a few days. Instead, Albies’ extension was a seven-year deal worth a guaranteed $35 million dollars.
 
I was astonished to hear the terms of the extension. Then I was furious.
 
Why?
 
I was furious because I have a) at least an approximate understanding of what the market value for a baseball player is relative to their abilities, and b) at least an approximate understanding of the quality of player Ozzie Albies is. Understanding those two variables, I figured that some person – or a few persons – had deliberately and intentionally screwed over a young man.
 
Specifically, I decided that Albies’ agents had screwed him significantly by accepting an offer that so severely under-anticipates his future value. I imagined the contract as a naked cash grab by an agent who was looking over his shoulder expecting Scott Boras to show up.
 
And I felt that the Braves franchise, by choosing to go along with the grift, hadn’t done right by their star infielder. They didn’t have the decency to recognize that the contract represented a massive under-pay for a player like Albies, and they didn’t have the decency to tell him so.
 
I fumed about this for days, trying to think about how to articulate just how terrible the contract was. I must’ve written two or three drafts excoriating the powers that would allow a travesty like the Albies extension to happen. Nothing came of it: I was too angry, and I couldn’t get out of that anger enough to find coherence.
 
 
*             *             *
 
I have two shelves of books next to my desk. Most of them are novels written by friends who I’ve shared too many beers with, and teachers whom I’ve had the pleasure of studying with. Others are books with signatures from authors I’ve had the chance to meet at readings or over one of the many lunches I lucked into getting invited to while I was at Iowa. Bill has a few books on the shelf, and my own efforts are there, too.
 
I have not quite made it, yet, as a writer, but the shelves are a reminder of the choice I made to pursue one kind of life, and not another. I haven’t ever regretted that choice, and I have been extraordinarily blessed along the way. I have many good friends who have written terrific books that I’ve had the chance to read from first draft to last. ’ve had the chance to meet most of my literary heroes and study with a few of them, and ask them questions about my own efforts.
 
My writing has allowed me to travel to another country and gain a foothold in the community of writers there. I’ve been gifted chances to think about writing deliberately and spaces to work through that thinking that are beyond what I deserve. I’ve been lucky, and I’m grateful.
 
That is a preamble.
 
I got my first paid job when I was fifteen years old, and I’ve worked ever since. There have been years when I’ve had the chance to work less and write more, years when I’ve had to do less writing, because other things have come up. I am not complaining about anything: I’ve been lucky.
 
I’ve worked for twenty-five years of my life, and…back-of-the-napkin calculation here…my cumulative income over that period has likely totaled less than $500,000 dollars. That is an average of $20,000 dollars a year.
 
This has been a choice, my choice. There was a moment in my life when I decided I wanted to giving writing a real shot, and I understood that that decision meant, at least on some level, prioritizing time over income. I took a chance and while my financial portfolio does not rise and fall significantly on the vagaries of the stock market, I have managed to stay fed and housed and clothed for the duration.
 
When I was very poor…when I my life most closely hewed to the notion of a starving artist, I’d sometimes buy a lottery ticket at my local convenience store. This was in Boston, and I was twenty-three. I was working part-time as a tutor for high school students, and living, after rent, on about $40 dollars a week. My apartment had the pages of a first novel I was attempting to write tacked to the wall.
 
I forget the name of the lottery game I played, but I remember that the maximum payout was $100,000 dollars. I thought that would be enough…I figured it would be $50 or $60K after taxes, which would buy me a few years to figure out what I was trying to figure out. I didn’t want life-changing money: I just wanted enough money to keep me in the life I had.
 
I think that’s how I still feel about money: I only really wish for enough to keep me in the life I have. I have children now, and that changes the equation somewhat: I would like enough to keep them in the life they have, too.
 
 
*             *             *
 
Why did I feel – so acutely – that there was some injustice about Ozzie Albies’ contract?
 
I remember reading a study years ago that said that after a certain level of income, there was no further correlation between quality of life and income…that once you hit a certain number, the gains you make in income have little impact on your happiness.
 
I’m too impatient to look it up again, but it examined incomes by increments of $10,000 dollars. If you make $20,000 and your salary suddenly jump to $30,000, your quality of life will improve significantly. But if you’re making $70,000 and your salary increases to $80,000, there isn’t a parallel jump in your quality of life. There’s almost no change, in fact: a person’s quality-of-life has a plateau that sits around $60,000 or $70,000 in salary in the United States, with variations on where you live. Once you hit that plateau, the happiness gains on income are negligible.
 
That study - acknowledging that I am probably missing some details - has been one that I’ve thought about a lot over the years. I believe the study holds some truth; certainly, it has paralleled my own experiences in life.
 
The difference between Ozzie Albies salary and the salary that Ronald Acuna, viewed through that alternative lens, is negligible. While Albies will make about a third of what Acuna will make, both young men will live enviable lives. Both will spend their youth playing baseball on manicured fields in front of cheering fans as members of a contending team. Neither will ever have to worry significantly about money again. Whatever life they will come to want in ten or twenty years will be in their reach.
 
So why, really, was I upset for Albies? Why did I feel like it was my obligation to use my little platform to decry how unfair it was that a young man had agreed to terms that will see him make more money in a year than I will make in my lifetime?
 
I think this is a problem. I think it is a sign of a very sizeable trap that I’ve fallen into.
 
I think most of us who think about baseball and write about baseball are in the same trap. I think we are joined in that trap by the fans who read our articles, and the fans who go to baseball games. And I think that we are joined in that trap by the baseball players themselves: even those fortunate few who make millions a year haven’t evaded the trap. The owners are in the trap, too.
 
We’re all stuck in it together, and we don’t know it. Not yet.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 

COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

billsizer
Good point, Dave. The real motivator in seeking huge salaries is ego. Players want to be the highest paid, or close to it, at their positions. People in other walks of life are not immune.
6:58 PM Apr 22nd
 
WarrenJohnson
If I may, I'd like to connect this essay to your previous one. When Ozzie came to the US in 2014, he quickly proved to be too good for the Gulf Coast League. Because the Braves had a team at Danville, they were able to move him up to a level where he could still excel while being challenged more. That extra development could have been worth the price of an Appalachian League franchise for many years by itself.
1:03 PM Apr 17th
 
Gfletch
Of course money is a soul trap, like all addictions.

Think about this: despite all the problems humans have today, the quality of life as measured by economic value has never been greater. We have greater technology, more choices, more products, more entertainment, longer lifespans, better overall health, greater comfort...and yet I daresay less satisfaction, less happiness. The more money you have past a relatively small amount, the more it consumes your attention.

Really enjoying these writings, Dave. They are shaping up like a travelogue of autobiographical reflections and worldly observations. Hope you keep them coming.
2:14 AM Apr 17th
 
RexLittle
Irony doesn't always come across in print, so I'll note that 77's final comment must have been made in jest. Albies and Acuna are the same race.

10:37 PM Apr 16th
 
77royals
Or maybe it was more money than he was ever going to be able to spend in his life, he was able to take care of his family, and he just wants to play baseball.

Could be that simple.

Or it was racism. Yeah, that's probably it.
1:10 PM Apr 16th
 
 
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