For many years late March was my favorite time of the year. It meant March Madness—the NCAA basketball tournament—and it also meant spring training for major league baseball teams. Even when Daylight Stupid Time was shoved back into March, I compensated by focusing on the culmination of the college basketball season and the beginning of the baseball season. Hope seemed to be surging up like the crocus and daffodils in my front yard. Admittedly no 16th-seeded team ever beat a top-seed (as of this writing, a few days before the start of the tournament), but a few 15th-seeded teams had knocked off their 2nd-seeded opponents, so (almost) anything seemed possible. And before opening day, who could say that my beloved Atlanta Braves wouldn’t win another division title and grab that elusive World Series ring?
This year, though, everything feels different. I view both the NCAA tournament and the opening of the baseball season with utter indifference. This is coming from someone who watched hundreds of Braves’ games in the years when they were the mainstay of Ted Turner’s TBS superstation and who has lived and almost died with the Duke-UNC rivalry. Do you remember when UNC was 7 points behind with 17 seconds to play and tied the game (before the advent of the three-point shot) on a half-court shot by Walter Davis, then went on to win in OT? Do you remember the “bloody Montross” game? Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough (“Psycho-T”)?
I remember those moments and many more. My older son and I were both Braves and Carolina fans. My son tried to copy Dale Murphy’s batting stance and hated Duke so much he never wanted them to win anything. I appreciate Dale Murphy because he responded to my request to send my son a birthday card. I could tolerate Duke winning, as long as they weren’t playing Carolina, because I have degrees from both places. But Carolina blue trumped everything.
This year, though, neither of us watched the two Duke-Carolina games. I even forgot to check the score the next day. I assume both teams will make it to the national tournament, but I no longer care if they do or how far they advance. Why not? you may ask. Maybe you won’t ask, but that’s what this blog is about, so work with me for a minute.
I’ve known for years that college athletes weren’t really student athletes, but until recently there was a least a pretence that they were going to go to school for several years and would be taking classes. Schools like Duke and UNC even touted their graduation rates for athletes. Today it’s clear that many of the young men wearing those college/university colors are playing for a year only because they have to before they can get into the NBA.
The University of Kentucky seems to be the worst offender in this regard, but, sadly, Duke and Carolina have joined the club. Last year Duke had Jabari Parker for one year. This year everybody knows Jahlil Okafor will be gone at the end of his one season in Durham. In the few brief moments that I have watched Duke or UNC on television this year, I’ve had no idea who any of the players are. Kentucky has a whole cadre of such players. Some commentators refer to them as an NBA practice squad.
Such players have to attend classes during the fall semester to keep up their academic eligibility, but once the spring semester starts, classes become irrelevant. Even if they fail a class, the basketball season will be over before that grade is turned in. Unfortunately, some of the “classes” they attend aren’t even real classes. My beloved UNC recently had to admit to major offenses in that regard. So, I’m done with college basketball.
In baseball the issue is money. I grew up in an era when Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford had to find jobs in the off-season to support themselves because they made so little money playing ball. After winning the Triple Crown (batting average, RBIs, home runs) in 1956, Mantle made $75,000 in 1957. Miguel Cabrera was the next player to win the Triple Crown (in 2014). His contract calls for him to make $292,000,000 over ten years.
Pitcher Max Scherzer recently signed a contract which will pay him $210,000,000 over seven years. That’s $30,000,000 a year! Thus far in his career Scherzer has averaged about 210 innings pitched in a season, so he makes roughly $140,000 for every inning he works. If he were to get three outs on three pitches, he makes $140,000. That is simply an obscene amount of money. The people who expect it and the people who are willing to pay it have lost all connection with reality. It’s more than I make in a year of teaching. In 1958 Whitey Ford pitched 220 innings and made $35,000 for the entire season, a sum that was ridiculous to the other extreme, but not as obscene as today’s salaries. The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that athletes and musicians made more in a day than a teacher did in a year. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years. So, I’m done with major league baseball.
I’ll probably miss following my favorite sports, but at least I’ll have more time for writing and gardening and maybe my blood pressure will go down. And this may all just be the bitterness of a 70-year-old guy who has watched the stock market batter his retirement funds for the last few days.