I just came back from a weekend at Spring Training with my father. Like most fathers, my dad is behind the times when it comes to technology, which is to say he was fortunate enough to live most of his life before The Machines took over our souls and enslaved us. (I'd say the cutoff age to say, "I remember life before I had an email address" is about 24, and dropping fast.) So even though he has recently discovered texting — something I find disturbing: It is not supposed to be that easy to communicate with your father. It's supposed to be hard — he doesn't spend the vast majority of his workdays combing the Internet for every morsel of baseball information he can find. He loves the game as much as I do, probably more, but he doesn't bother himself with the details.
Specifically: He does not bother himself with payroll and salary. My father has no idea how much money baseball players, other than that it's too much. The upcoming Albert Pujols Contract Drama is bewildering to him: "If he wants to stay here, and the Cardinals want him here, then it'll happen, right?" Well, yes? Maybe? The fundamentals of roster construction are a mystery to him. He absolutely cannot understand how Julio Lugo will make 20 times what Colby Rasmus will take home this year. It's a mystery to him. And it's a mystery to him because he does not care. The team on the field wearing the Birds on the Bat, that's the one he's watching and that's the one he's rooting for. He doesn't know any of the prospects, he doesn't know when everyone's contracts expire, he doesn't know what incentives are. My father is not stupid: He legitimately does not care. That's just not a factor in how he watches baseball.
I am envious of his obvious insanity. Knowing how much each player makes isn't just a part of baseball analysis, it's almost the whole analysis. I've now officially finished my yearly read B-Pro front-to-back like it's a novel project, and I was struck by how nearly every capsule about an established player had some discussion of his contract. (It's not for nothing that the great Cot's Baseball Contracts joined the Prospectus army this offseason.) Adam Wainwright isn't just a great pitcher; he's a great pitcher signed to a great contract, a factor in Wainwright's favor that B-Pro praises more than if he'd knocked half a run off his ERA. Carlos Lee is a perfectly acceptable baseball player, decidedly above average and very fun to watch, but his $19 million salary, clearly overpaying him, turns him from "second superstar" into "expensive albatross." Joe Posnanski is a gift, but part of me couldn't help but find his excellent, thoughtful and dead-on 11 worst contracts in baseball column last year dispiriting. Vernon Wells was No. 1 on the list, quite understandably. But Vernon Wells is not that bad. He is hilariously, massively overpaid, but he's not the worst player in baseball. (Posnanski isn't saying that, of course.) He's a serviceable outfielder whose GM stupidly will give $86 million to over the next four years. That is not Vernon Wells's fault. But every time we see his name anymore, we scoff. Vernon Wells ... man, what a disaster. As a contract, yes, obviously. As a player? Not as much. But we see behind the curtain now. The contract is a part of Wells' stats: It's arguably the most important one.
Which of course brings me (finally) to the Giants. Here are the three current highest-paid players on the San Francisco Giants, and how much they will make in 2010:
Barry Zito: $18.5 million.
Aaron Rowand: $13.6 million.
Edgar Renteria: $10 million.
By any imaginable measure, those are some wretched freaking contracts. (I personally find the Rowand one the most painful.) Renteria is signed through this year, Rowand is signed through 2012, and Zito will be in San Fran through 2013 (at least). None of those players are even close to worth what they're being paid. But they have some worth. Zito has worked his way back to becoming a serviceable pitcher, Renteria should be better this year after an injury-plagued '09, and Rowand is at least good enough to play center field and bat leadoff for a team that at least has a semblance of hope at being a playoff team. These aren't great players. But they certainly have some use. If they were each making $500,000 a year, we would all praise them. Instead, they're booed and derided.
Listen: I understand that booing players for being overpaid is half the fun. I get it. But I can't help but think we're prioritizing incorrectly. Neal Pollack wrote in Slate almost five years ago about the cult of the general manager, how many kids today — particularly the ones who don't grow up with any athletic skill, and know it immediately — grow up wanting to be front office suits rather than actual players. Any game we watch anymore, we're recasting the roster in our heads; oh, for the money they're paying Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa, they could have gotten Felipe Lopez and Johnny Damon. This is true, one supposes, but beside the point: What's done is done. Lopez and Damon don't play for the Giants: Huff and DeRosa do. No matter what happens, no matter how much they're being paid, Huff and DeRosa will do more for the Giants this season than Lopez or Damon (or whoever) will. They play for the Giants right now! That's them, out there on the field. They're not walking contracts. If you want to blame someone, blame general manager Brian Sabean. (Lord knows you have the right.) But better yet: Recognize that your team plays 162 games a year. You watch them play baseball, not negotiate. Those games are precious. Those games are what matter.
I'm fully aware that once the genie is out of the bottle, it's impossible to do this: Lord knows I can't. I know how the sausage is made now, and I cannot force that out of my brain. Zito's contract is more important than his ERA. That's how we do it now. It just makes me long to be like my father, blissfully unaware and uncaring about advanced statistics, average annual value and no-trade clauses. There is a game on the field, and he is watching it, and cheering for his team. I can't ever do that again. I don't know how he does it, but dammit, he does.