Several years ago, I went to a Trenton Thunder baseball game at Arm and Hammer Park on the Delaware River (into which a number of homers ended up during batting practice).
I’ve long forgotten the score, but the evening still ranks as one of the best sporting events I’ve ever attended. Between innings, an assortment of mascots raced little kids around the bases, then led them in a few rounds of dizzy bat. Concessions and tickets were cheap; every seat had a clear view of the field. And despite demanding schedules and meager salaries, the minor league competitors played as if the world were watching.
Although it wasn’t exactly sandlot baseball, the game somehow seemed more accessible to the lay person, and not just because it left some change in your wallet. The match felt like what it was meant to be: a game, played with focus, but also with — and for — fun. There were no celebrities on the field or in the stands; video screens didn’t flash constant commands for the crowd to “make some noise,” and hawkers weren’t shilling merchandise at every turn. People clapped and cheered, but there was no sense that the cracking bats and flying balls meant anything more, or less, than a relaxed summer evening.
Such musings seem quite naive in light of big-business baseball, especially in Philadelphia, where all-star outfielder Bryce Harper has just signed a historic $330-million, 13-year contract with the Phillies. Ticket sales have soared; t-shirts are flying off the shelves. The Phils’ investment in Harper would seem to have yielded early returns. Nonetheless, I still find myself asking if Bryce is truly worth the price.
Of course, Harper is far from being the only highly paid athlete, and many entertainers — in sports, music and film — command extraordinary sums for their performances. As a nation, we adore our entertainment and those who provide it. Whether rich, poor or somewhere in between, we find the funds to see the game, the concert or the movie, and to buy all the associated accessories. We want those moments that make life’s dull edges shimmer, and we’re willing to pay for them.
Collectively, though, we’re often less inclined to pony up for the projects that would make our communities stronger and our world more vibrant. Ask Google why sports figures are paid so much, and you’ll draw several stinging comparisons with the wages of teachers, who routinely instruct the next generation on shoestring salaries (on which, as the daughter of an educator, I was raised).
And inadequate compensation isn’t the only issue. In Philadelphia, classroom conditions can be, quite literally, toxic: recent investigations have found lead, asbestos, vermin and mold in a number of the city’s public schools.
It’s certainly not Bryce Harper’s fault that his contract is so lucrative (and even, as some analysts have claimed, a bargain for the team). After all, such figures — and the even higher ones awarded to corporate CEOs — are simply the going rate and what the market will bear, right?
The answer depends on how we define the economy, and on our overall standards of valuation. Even Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, the “father of capitalism,” never posited that a free market should exist for its own ends, but rather in service of the public good. Smith’s landmark tome, “The Wealth of Nations,” was preceded by his equally important “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” in which he wrote, “to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity.”
Jesus didn’t specify salary requirements in the Gospels, but he did provide plenty of instruction on the virtues that should govern our priorities. Having spent a few decades as a carpenter, he can well sympathize with the desire for both just wages and some well-deserved downtime after a hard day’s work.
At the same time, Christ also calls us to examine how our choices, on both individual and social levels, create systems that can promote — or deny — equality and opportunity. Every time Harper steps up to the plate this season, he’ll earn an estimated $44,906. A short distance from Citizens Bank Park are homes where that kind of money is unfathomable, and plates are often empty.
That disparity is not beyond our control, despite the financial complexities of professional sports. “Why do some athletes make millions?” asked Washington Post columnist Fred Bowen. “Because fans support them.”
As the seasons of both Lent and baseball begin, we would do well to reflect on what and whom we value — because ultimately, in this tiny sandlot we call Earth, we’re all playing on the same team.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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