In one corner of the baseball world last week, the Phillies shelled out $15.75 million to sign their best pitcher, Curt Schilling - but did it with the enthusiasm of a guy passing a kidney stone.
In another corner of the baseball world last week, the Florida Marlins dropped $61 million on their best hitter, Gary Sheffield - and did it about as casually as the rest of us spend 50 cents for a morning paper.Somewhere, wrapped deep inside these two stories, is an indication that something has gone seriously wrong with the baseball world. And there's no easy way to make it right again.
If six-year, $61 million contracts are now standard fare for the average superstar, then two-thirds of the ownership groups in baseball are going to find themselves totally overmatched.
"It looks to me," said Phillies general manager Lee Thomas, "like every club is going to need an Arab sheikh to buy them (players). Keep the oil flowing, and keep the money coming."
The Phillies, of course, have no oil baron to bankroll their financial adventures. They have only a bunch of ordinary, quasi-anonymous millionaires paying their bills - and clearly living in terror of having yet another $5-million-a-year contract blow up in their faces.
But does Wayne Huizenga, the Blockbuster Video tycoon who owns the Marlins, worry about these things? Does he worry about knowing that even if he sells out every seat for every game this year, he'll still lose $15 million?
Does he worry that he just handed a $61 million deal to a guy who has been on the disabled list six times, has gotten shot, and once acknowledged he made errors on purpose in an attempt to get traded?
"To question anything Wayne Huizenga does in business," said Florida manager Jim Leyland the other day, "is very foolish."
But a high-ranking team executive from one Midwest club disagrees.
"The thing about Wayne Huizenga," this executive said, "is that he has such a big financial empire that if he loses money in baseball, he can make it up somewhere else. But most clubs don't operate that way, and that's the problem. For the teams that are just in the baseball business, you can't pay those prices and lose that much money and still survive."
So what are those other clubs to do? Read the Sanskrit on the wall - and go find some massive corporate conglomerate to align with or sell to. That's what.
Even the rich and powerful Los Angeles Dodgers are taking that route now. So obviously, unless you're George Steinbrenner, sitting in the moneymaking capital of the world, that's the way to go.
"I guess you can't have just two or three nice, wealthy people as owners who have a love for the game and enjoy being in it and don't want to make a lot of money," Thomas said. "The way we're going, those kinds of people are going to be extinct pretty soon."
So if the Phillies aren't involved in active negotiations with the Comcast people already, it might be time to start.