When a professional athlete is in the thick of his or her career, thinking about a legacy is not the first order of business. The game demands myopic focus, like a patient star-gazer honing in on a comet. Rare is the career of the physically gifted, even rarer are those that can be so good that they only come around once every generation.
To compensate these athletic anomalies, teams have a checkbook battle for their services and nothing got more attention this week than the astronomical 10-year, $254 million deal that the Angels floated to Albert Pujols. They acquired the player who has had the best start to a baseball career of anyone in history, prying him from the arms of the warm embrace of St. Louis.
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There have been many other contracts scraping the stratosphere. Every sport has a few. Kobe Bryant is closing out an NBA league maximum over seven years, netting $136 million then adding a three year extension for $90 million, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid lit up the soccer world by hitting a $170 million jackpot that takes him out until 2017. But although these megacontracts make the record books, they actually get in the way of creating a legacy.
To begin with, the contracts are so long that star players run a very high risk of finishing them out poorly. Pujols will be 42 at the end of his contract, well beyond his most productive years. Each game that he plays not at his best will slowly erode at his image as a performer. In 1998, talented pitcher Kevin Brown became baseball’s first $100 million man when he signed a seven-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. By the end of his career, he was punching holes in walls and is “remembered” on Wikipedia for “lasting less than two innings while giving up five earned runs” in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, not exactly finishing he performed when he earned that fabled contract in the first place. After his retirement, the Mitchell Report implicated him in steroid use.
Which leads me to the second problem with long-term contracts: they lead great players to take desperate measures to stay young and productive. The recent news that Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun and National League MVP tested positive for a prohibited substance shows how performance enhancing drugs can still tempt even the best players. He claims he will be exonerated, but still the damage is done.
But most importantly, in order to perform in a way commensurate with the riches he’s being paid, megacontracts focus a player almost exclusively on his numbers. But creating a true and lasting legacy is just as much about creating a relationship with your fans as it is about statistics. I remember Phillies outfielder Garry Maddox because of his grace on and off the field, I remember Nuggets star Alex English in the way he emitted class with his one handed running quick shot, I remember Tommy Lasorda for taking the time to talk to my 19-year-old brother about his college, Howard University, when I was sure Lasorda didn’t have a rolodex of historically black colleges in his head.
We remember the strangest moments, many of which don’t have anything to do with what happens on the field. These superstar players may well be worth the money by sports market standards, but when a player gets paid huge sums for a long period of time, it is easy to forget what captures the memory of a fan; in fact, you may forget what inspired you to play in the first place.