This baseball off-season Alex Rodriguez ($252M), Manny Ramirez ($160M) and Derek Jeter ($189M) signed the most lucrative contracts in all of professional sports history, part of an ongoing trend of upping top players? salaries.

While no one will question the on-the-field value of these men, the numbers in these new contracts are staggering.

A-Rod, Manny, and Jeter will be paid a combined total of $601 million from these contracts. And, assuming they stay healthy and productive, these contracts may not be their last. Gasp ? their next ones could be even bigger.

Baseball fans, do not fret about this, and certainly do not complain that players make too much. If revenue were not flowing, they surely would not be catching it. So, as long as advertising and television money keep coming, as long as fans are willing to pay big bucks for jerseys, tickets and hot dogs (though they are good hot dogs) gargantuan players? salaries will reign.

Now, here it is folks ? the big tragedy. I know you?ve been waiting for it. So put down that slice of pizza and close that econ book (actually, leave that one open). Frank Thomas will make only $9.4 million this year. I know, a first-class tragedy. It is almost enough to make me offer up what is left on my declining balance so the ?Big Hurt? does not have to fight to make ends meet.

Thomas was so upset that the Chicago White Sox insulted him in 1998 with an $85 million contract that he didn?t want to report to spring training this year.

And he has company. Gary Sheffield will only be able to divide his 2001 salary by five million about two times ($10.1 million) ? surely, a disrespectful figure.

In 1997 Barry Bonds signed a $20.4 million contract, saying, ?It won?t be my last [contract], it will be my last big one.?

Now he is pissed that, after his team picked up an option for this season at $10.3 million, he hasn?t been told what his future is with the club, post 2001. It is unfair to his family, he claims.

These players, who complain that this is not about money, but rather ?about respect,? have spent too much time listening to their agents tell them that they are underpaid.

Maybe someone ought to educate both parties on the definition of a contract [con?tract (kon?trakt), n. 1. An agreement between two parties for the doing or not doing of something specified.]

If players can demand to renegotiate for more money when they are, in their minds, underpaid, maybe owners should ask for money back when their $10 million star begins playing like a Little Leaguer. I?m sure they would love that idea. After all, it is about respect, not money. Quoth the slugger, ?Nevermore.?

Enter Mark McGwire, a different type of guy. Or according to Garry Sheffield, one that should mind his own business and keep his mouth shut.

The problem is McGwire is making greedy baseball players look bad. He just signed a two-year $30 million contract extension. His value on the field and ability to fill seats make him worth far more than that, yet he bypassed his agent, took no advice from his lawyer, and reportedly hammered out the details in 25 minutes. He even offered to give back a portion of his salary if he gets injured.

You see, McGwire has learned to appreciate the game for what it has given him.

?It?s not about playing for every cent you can get,? says McGuire.

?Nobody wants to hear somebody making $10 million complaining, when there?s someone out there, you know, making?$40,000 busting their ass ? they don?t appreciate that, I don?t think anybody that plays the game of baseball appreciates that,? he said.

Baseball needs fewer players who think they are a gift to the sport and more like McGwire, who realizes that baseball has been a gift to them.

Baseball is a great sport. But the drama is best left on the field, not at the negotiating table.

If players? grumblings about salaries lead to another strike, MLB will lose even more fans than after the one in 1994. And this time, there may be no McGwire to bring them back. He might just retire.

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