Big salaries not baseball’s big problemSpring training is in full swing here and everyone who should be on the roster is. Managers are kicking back in their offices, feet on their desks, smoking cigars, drinking bottles of Louis XIII cognac and probably congratulating themselves for keeping the paychecks of their players “manageable.”
The highest paid player in the Korean Baseball Organization? If you guessed Lee Seung-yeob of the Samsung Lions, you’re correct. If you think he got paid what he deserves, you’re wrong. And if you think the average baseball player on the peninsula makes tons more than, say, an executive at a Korean conglomerate, you’re wrong again.
Without doubt, Lee was the chief reason his team broke a 21-year curse without a crown, and won last fall’s Korean Series. He clubbed 47 pitches out of the park, combining that with a sixth consecutive golden glove award and a batting average of .323. From Jeju to Yangyang, every Korean knows Lee plays for Samsung. Every guy on the street knows that Lee bats No. 4 in the Samsung order. Heck, even Kim Jong-il probably knows that Lee is the South’s version of a legitimate hero.
Scheduled to earn 630 million won ($525, 000) next season, Lee is the highest paid player in the history of Korean professional baseball. But that fact is deceptive if you look at the way he earned it. What he did was something that would never happen to Barry Bonds.
Before signing his contract, Lee said that he would give carte blanche to the Lions in deciding his salary. No agent. No marathon negotiations. No poker face. Not a single grump from this superstar. A noble gesture? Perhaps, but a forced one. The first baseman is still in his eighth year in the league, which means that he has one more year to go to become a free agent. In Korea, players cannot move to another team unless the player’s team agrees to a trade. A monopoly on the demand side. Without any real chance of going to another team, Lee knew in advance that he could twist in the wind and still only get what the team originally set out to pay him.
According to the players association, there are 448 players registered with the Korean baseball league. In terms of annual salary, the 224th highest salary is about 25 million won per year. With any luck, that player will be around for 10 seasons. Not a model for earthshaking earnings.
The standard line for Korean baseball teams is that despite losing money, they are doing it for the public and it’s all about giving back to the society. I don’t need to tell you that’s the next biggest lie to Bill Clinton’s “I did not have a sexual relationship with that young woman.”
Korean baseball teams are owned by conglomerates and those owners get free advertising through their star players. But so far, owners have only whined about dwindling attendance and rising salaries. Salaries at the current level are not outrageous. What is outrageous is how fans are sitting in aged stadiums that might collapse at any moment.
Instead of coming up with lame excuses, owners have to come up with business models that make their teams profitable. If the Korean Baseball Organization hopes to ever resemble Major League Baseball, cutting players’ salaries isn’t going to help make that happen.
by Brian Lee