Jorge Posada and Baseball's Social Contract

One of the most jarring pieces of information surrounding the Jorge Posada contretemps was the news that he would lose a day’s pay for asking out of the game on Saturday; and that the total amount of this fine is more than $71,000. It is not news that baseball players, particularly veteran stars like Jorge Posada, are paid absurdly more than most Americans. Nonetheless, this reminder that Posada’s daily pay is more than what many Americans make in a year helps frame this incident, fairly or not, for many.

Posada’s frustration because of his diminishing skills and his manager’s reaction to those diminishing skills is understandable, but the way he acted was reprehensible and unprofessional. The fan reaction seems to be somewhat divided with some calling for Posada’s release, and others saddened to see the stark decline of a longtime Yankee star. Posada’s plight is not all that different from many veterans as their skills, and value, declines. Posada’s slump may be more extreme than most veterans have experienced, and his response to the slump has been worse than most, but the basic phenomena is not unique.

The Yankees are also partially responsible for the situation they now face with Posada. By the end of last season it was apparent that Posada’s defense was no longer adequate for him to be a full time catcher, so the Yankees moved him out of that position and announced he would be their full time DH. It was equally apparent, that Posada no longer hit enough to be a full time DH on a contending team, but the Yankees chose not to confront that issue during the off-season. While it would have been difficult to predict that Posada would get off to such a bad start, there was a good chance he would not hit enough to merit being the full time DH, but the Yankees chose to take their chances and put off that decision until the season. Now the Yankees must make a decision about Posada.

The Yankees off-season decision can be more sympathetically interpreted if issues like loyalty and appreciation are taken into considered. The question of how much loyalty and appreciation is owed to somebody who has been as well paid as Posada once he can no longer help his team legitimate, but these sentiments are still part of baseball for many fans and an even bigger part of the world outside of baseball.

Baseball is unusual in that players are compensated largely on past accomplishments. If there are two players with similar skills, the older more experienced player is almost always more highly paid, often dramatically so. Seniority is often rewarded, but among baseball players this difference is extreme. In most fields of work older more experienced workers may get paid more, but not the scale is completely different from what it is in baseball. This is why concerns about the plight of older workers being forced into retirement in many sectors of the economy is so serious. In baseball, this is irrelevant. If Jorge Posada, or any other veteran of more than a dozen big league seasons cannot retire comfortably, he has only himself to blame.

The feeling of concern for older workers and the sense that they are owed appreciation and respect is an honorable and decent one; it is also completely misplaced when aimed at a baseball player. Posada’s appreciation and respect has come in the form of a huge salary. This does not mean management can abuse him, but it means that management does not need to consider this when making decisions that are best for the team.

The social contract in baseball is that while players are extremely well paid, they also must play well to hold onto their jobs. Although the numbers may have changed over the years, this has remained a constant. Posada is undoubtedly frustrated with this at the moment, but he will not be able to change the reality of this social contract. If Posada and the Yankees are wise they will agree to put this incident behind them and fete Posada, who has been a great player for the Yankees for a long time, for a month or two during which he either starts hitting or retires. As the Yankees probably already figured out, they need to handle this situation right without dragging it out too long, because a similar fate awaits Derek Jeter in the next year or two.