Gene Collier: Baseball finds a foolish consistency

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Berkeley, Calif., a city of slightly more than 100,000 people, recently adopted a $292 million budget for fiscal 2007.

The Chicago Cubs just spent that on eight free agents.

All right, maybe not technically, because the actual figure ($292,500,000.00 in the case of the baseball team) includes $20 million for right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis, who, actually, had not agreed to it as of this writing. But, when someone's willing to transfer $20 million to your account less than three months after you led the National League in losses, runs allowed, earned runs allowed and home runs allowed, I'd don't guess there's a whole lot to ponder.

Unless a major-league ballplayer might think it just wouldn't be right to take $20 million when you went 0-4 with a 7.25 earned run average in September and got left off the St. Louis Cardinals' roster for the last two rounds of the playoffs. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!


The reason the Cubs have rid themselves of close to $300 million on eight free agents goes back to the morning editions of Oct. 2, which included the following two lines of agate type.

Pittsburgh ... 67 95 .414 16.5

Chicago ... 66 96 .407 17.5

Uh-huh. That was the bottom-third of the final National League Central Division standings for 2006, and I guess when you wake up one morning and you're looking up at the Pirates, violent reactions ensue.

The Pirates' reaction to the same two lines of type has been to spend -- wait, let me look it up ... right, zero in the free-agent market, but, if there's a baseline of sanity somewhere in this sport's economic model, neither the Cubs nor Pirates are anywhere near it.

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry virtually dominated news at the recently completed winter meetings near Disney World, signing free-agent lefty Ted Lilly to a $40 million deal Hendry negotiated partly from an Orlando hospital. That's where Hendry had angioplasty. No word on where he had the lobotomy. Goofy, flipping through the Orlando Sentinel on the porch of Mickey's house near Toontown in the nearby Magic Kingdom, reportedly quipped "Man, and I thought I was $%&!goofy."

Questions of general sanity during baseball's offseason have been part of the game for more than 30 years, ever since Catfish Hunter became Goldfish Hunter, signing a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees for a relatively quaint $3.5 million over five years. Baseball's been walking through a kind of mental hospital without walls ever since, a kind of theoretical jurisdiction of the financially insane.

Very little free-agent financial news has the potential to shock anyone anymore as a result of this history, but one figure linking two players this week I still found somewhat unsettling, $16 million.

Sixteen million for one year is what Andy Pettitte got to return to the New York Yankees from his hometown Houston Astros, who would not go past $12 million.

Sixteen million is what Barry Bonds got to stay with the San Francisco Giants for one more year, or $2 million less than he earned last year.

Pettitte is 34 and coming off his worst season, included career highs in losses, hits allowed and runs allowed. Bonds is, from a mobility standpoint, 67, and is coming off a season in which he was typically 1 for 4 with a walk, throwing in a homer once a week.

The Giants reportedly were competitors for free agent Alfonso Soriano, who got $17 million per season on an eight-year deal with the Cubs. Instead of getting Soriano's 46 homers and 41 steals for $17 million, the Giants wound up spending $16 million for Bonds' 26 homers, three steals and the summer-long morality play that will become Barry's pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record 21 jacks down the road.

It's apparent that the Giants and Yankees know something about Bonds and Pettitte that escapes me, something I'll freely admit again when they face each other in the 2007 World Series. By then, I suspect, everyone will have been able to forget that the Giants and Yankees paid Pettitte and Bonds $43,835.61 a day in 2007, not including meal money. Of course, if they don't make the Series, I'll again have to posit that perhaps they overpaid.

There is little to be definitively concluded from any free-agent winter, but I think I'll go ahead right now and suggest the Cubs might actually finish ahead of the Pirates.


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