On Baseball and Teaching

                I love baseball.  I really do. I grew up with the game as a kid, whether I was playing in my neighborhood street with a waffle bat and ball of tape, or a sandlot, or playing for the world’s worst little league team (we were 0-9. We would have been 0-10 but for one game when only 7 of our players even bothered to show up).  I used to be a Yankees fan deep in Red Sox territory, mostly because of my contrary nature I suppose.  Baseball was an important part of my youth as I tracked my favorite professional players, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Nolan Ryan; their records were memorized and fiery debates defined my friendships.  I still have stacks of baseball cards collecting dust somewhere in my pile of collected stuff.

                Lately, however, I have turned my back on professional sports, including baseball.  I don’t follow the players, I don’t watch the games, I don’t buy the merchandise.  My disillusionment of baseball began in 1996. My favorite team, the Yankees, was on target to go to the World Series, which I had not seen since the early eighties.  I was excited to see my team do so well and reveled in being a part of that experience.  Embracing a team is an emotional experience for which its victory is your own victory.  That was until the players decided to go on strike. 

                I was flabbergasted. Why would they go on strike? It turned out that they wanted more money.  Now I come from a proud union tradition.  My father was a union organizer and president. I was walking picket lines when I was six years old.  I’m a supporter of unions and I support the right of workers who want to make more money…but baseball players? Really? 

                At the time I was working in a wilderness program.  I was a supervisor working with troubled young men in the northern skirts of the Everglades.  I was on the job twenty-four hours a day.  If I was lucky I would get two days off a week.  My pay was adequate as I had few living expenses, but it was certainly not high.  My colleagues and I worked very hard with very little material remuneration to improve the lives of the kids in our care.  So when the baseball players went on strike it made me take a good, hard look at what they were striking for. It was eye opening.

                In essence, these grown men were working very hard at hitting and throwing a ball.  That was it.  Their total contribution to society was in the satisfaction derived by others that a certain group of people were especially adept at manipulating a small, leather-bound ball of string. These groups of people, these teams, became reference groups for millions throughout the country if not throughout the world. I thought, this is a pretty tenuous thing on which to derive a sense of personal satisfaction. 

                In 1996 the median salary for a player on the New York Yankees was $1.1 million.  The lowest paid players, second baseman Andy Fox and outfielder Matt Luke, made $109,000 a year.  The highest paid, Ruben Sierra (pictured below), made $6.2 million a year…and he was a designated hitter, so he only played offense, which translates to about three or four times at bat, then he was done!


Ruben Sierra

                In contrast, the average salary for teachers in 1996 was just over $37,000.  In 2007, the median salary for a player on the New York Yankees was over $5 million, a 400% increase.  Average salary for teachers in 2007 was around $51,000, which amounts to around 27%.  However, when you look at the adjusted numbers for teachers $37,000 in 1996 was the equivalent of about $49,000 in 2007. So in real terms, teacher salaries have only increased less than a 4% since 1996.  Using the same calculus, if the median salary in real dollar value increase for a player on the New York Yankees still amounts to a 232% increase!

                I can argue that income is a good indicator of how much a society values its members and the work that those members do.[1]  After all, the salary of a player on the New York Yankees could be argued to reflect the value that individuals are willing to pay to attend ballgames, watch games on TV and/or purchase merchandise. Teacher salaries represent what taxpayers or in the case of private schools, tuition payers, are willing to pay to acquire the skills in a classroom. If this is the case, then it is very obvious that those who are charged with teaching our own children and infusing them with cultural understanding as well as capital are of significantly lower value than those who hit balls with sticks!  This is a problem.

                Does this model stand up to scrutiny in the real world? I argue it does.  Say, for instance, that the community had a choice between investing in teachers or investing in baseball, using my model above one should predict that the community would choose baseball.  Fortunately for this study, albeit regrettably for the community, this experiment was played out in my home of Lee County, Florida. 

In 2008 a budget shortfall of $29 million created a crisis for the Lee County school system.  The school board scrambled to find ways to resolve this crisis (which is, as of this writing, not yet resolved).  After making significant cuts the school board was still faced with a $14.6 million hole.  Almost 250 teachers were laid off at the end of the 2008/2009 school year.  Some suggestions for finding the money included cutting teacher benefits by as much as 73%. Nowhere among the local news articles and even editorials that I’ve examined on this subject did anyone, public or in office, suggest ways of raising more money for teachers and schools. Instead, all plans rested on the need to cut services.[2]

At the same time, the county received the shocking news that the Boston Red Sox were considering leaving Fort Myers and moving to Sarasota.  Shocker! This could not be allowed to happen! Lee County Commissioners stumbled all over each other to find ways keep the Red Sox in Fort Myers.  To do so they were willing to shell out an estimated $80 million to build the team a brand new stadium. Contrast this to the $14.6 million or even the $29 million shortfalls in the school budget that required cuts in educational services.

But wait, there’s more! The Red Sox had been in Fort Myers since 1993.  They were induced to open spring training in the city when commissioners decided to build the City of Palms Park on three city blocks taken over by eminent domain.  The new park cost around $23 million, toward which the county only paid against the interest.  Consequently, fifteen years later, Lee County still owes over $26 million on a park that may well be empty after 2011.  The park was built with the understanding that it would raise the standard of living in a troubled and impoverished part of the city.  This has not happened. Now it is hoped that another team can be induced to move its spring training to the City of Palms Park.  Really? Without renovations that will cost how many million dollars? Good luck with that.

Now the argument could be made that the Red Sox bring needed revenue into the county.  That has not been established scientifically.  One study estimated that having a professional team in the community for spring training can bring in as much as $25 million a year.  How this figure is derived, however is questionable.  Academics note that local taxes and sales revenue do not substantiate this conclusion.  Indeed, there’s no real evidence the Red Sox bring any revenue to the county.  A local study revealed that only 1.3% of tourists claim to come to Lee County to see spring training games.

Regardless, local officials demonstrated that when it comes to a crisis in education, the solution involved cutting funds, benefits, programs and jobs including instructional jobs. A crisis in baseball, however, involved finding new sources of revenue to raise the money needed to keep a team in the community whose overall value does not go beyond the personal satisfaction gained by knowing that people who are very good at hitting balls with sticks are doing so close by.  Again, we have a problem.

[1] Granted, I will admit that using income as such a model may be problematic. For instance, if I were to conduct a survey of who you would rather have with you if stranded on a deserted island, I would hypothesize that a teacher would score higher than a baseball player (maybe that depends on the teacher and the baseball player).  However, income is a real issue for real people in the real world; therefore I favor this model to the hypothetical surveys that could be done.

[2] Granted, there was some very constructive discourse into examining waste in the school system.


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