Gil Meche decided to retire with a year remaining on his five year fifty five million dollar contract. He was slated to make twelve million six hundred thousand for the 2011 season. According to reports, Meche will not be getting any of the remaining money due to him. In his words:
“As a competitor my entire life this is the hardest decision that I’ve ever faced, but it’s not fair to me, my family or the Kansas City Royals that I attempt to pitch anymore. I came into this game as a starting pitcher and unfortunately my health, more accurately, my shoulder, has deteriorated to the point where surgery would be the only option and at this stage of my life I would prefer to call it a career rather than to attempt to pitch in relief for the final year of my contract.”
The common response I’ve heard from people regarding this turn of events is that Gil is “doing the right thing” or “classy” or “a great guy”. Now, I don’t know Gil Meche and I’ve never met him. I’ve never really heard anything bad about him and I’ve heard plenty of good things. He seems like a competitor who says and does the right things. What I’m not sure I understand is why it’s considered the right thing to do to turn down money which is contractually promised to him.
Baseball contracts are guaranteed. Everybody knows this. The players know it. The General Managers know it. So when a five year contract is signed by both parties, they know the risks. If Gil Meche gets hurt, he still gets paid. The odds of a pitcher at Meche’s age not getting hurt at some point in five years are pretty low. I’m pretty sure that both sides were absolutely aware that there was a good chance that at some point in the contract Gil Meche would be getting paid lots of money to be on the disabled list.
Gil had pitched out of the bullpen in 2010 and was actually effective in the role. It was generally assumed that he would be back in the bullpen to start 2011 and try and contribute whatever he could in the final year of his contract. It wasn’t going to be worth $12.6m, but it would be likely worth something.
If what Gil did is considered to be the “right” thing, then doesn’t that presuppose that had he come back and pitched out of the bullpen, it would have been the “wrong” thing? Would he have been the target of fans vitriol for going out there on a broken arm trying to live up to the contract he signed? It’s possible he’d have heard that from some fans, but the vast majority likely doesn’t blame him for his arm troubles.
Why is it that we place moral qualities onto athletes when they turn down money? Is turning down money somehow a noble deed in and of itself? If I told my boss that I didn’t want the bonus because I didn’t think I’d earned it, would that be noble or classy? I guess it’s possible in some world where everyone gets the exact money they earn all the time, but that’s not the world we live in. If Gil Meche had become a four time Cy Young winner with the Royals and pitched well above the money he was making, would they have given him extra money beyond his contract? Should they?
Are we as fans projecting our discomfort with the amount of money they earn, when we see them give some of it back? Even though by all measures, professional athletes are worth what they are paid, it does seem slightly illogical that what they do is of that much actual value. Very few baseball fans earn anywhere near what the athletes they root for get paid, and through that lens they seem vastly overpaid. Is it seen as a small victory for the fans when a baseball player forfeits that money? It’s possible that it can be seen as an admission by the player himself that he’s earning too much money. That admission, even if inferred is something that fans can latch onto and then issue moral praise.
Personally, I don’t think that what Gil Meche did is inherently good or bad. Whether he collected the millions he was owed, or he walked away it was merely a life decision of his. He likely decided he’d rather spend time with his family than on the road with the baseball team this year. He probably didn’t want to go through the pain he went through last year. He also likely didn’t want to have to hear the possible jeers he’d receive at being an over-paid reliever.
Making that choice isn’t a right or wrong thing, it’s just what Gil Meche wanted to do. I think assessing value judgments on people based on whether or not they chose to accept the money owed to them on a contract seems to be a slippery slope. This would require us to think poorly of the moral character of every single athlete who has a bad season or a major injury and keeps getting his paychecks.
I’m glad that Meche is doing what he wants with his life, and frankly I’m glad that it is financially beneficial to the Royals organization. I’ll leave the right and wrong to someone else.