The Tale of Alex Rodriguez

"We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." – Branch Rickey to Ralph Kiner

It's hard to know where to put this, but I feel it belongs here somewhere. Yes, I am talking about Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player. This is called "The Tale of Alex Rodriguez" because it seems to me that there's a lot we can learn from his career; he's done a lot to demonstrate a fundamental flaw in capitalism, and by looking at his history, we can perhaps find a better way to live.

In particular, I'm referring to the huge contract he signed with the Texas Rangers, the attempt Boston made to trade for him, and his eventual trade to the New York Yankees. What exactly happened that's so interesting to me? In each case, the people involved were living capitalism to its fullest - doing what was in their own self interest. Isn't that what we were taught? That one of the fundamental ideas behind capitalism is that each person acting in their own self interests will in fact make things better for everybody?

And yet, by signing A-Rod to a huge contract, the Texas Rangers doomed themselves to last place in their division every year, because they could not afford to surround him with better talent. Rodriguez, on the other hand, while becoming fabulously rich did not get what every baseball player wants, a chance to play in the World Series. The Rangers found out that one great player does not make a great team, Rodriguez found out that "money isn't everything."

But there's more. Boston tried to trade for Rodriguez and the deal was done. The only thing that stopped it was (correct me if I'm wrong) that the Player's Union said that Rodriguez could not take the pay cut that Boston proposed. So now the Player's Union does what is in its own self interest – keeping salaries high – and thwarts the trade. (Somebody once pointed out that the Player's Union is the only union that bases its policies on what is good for those at the top. I don't know if that's necessarily true, but they sure don't behave like the grocery workers, either. I guess each player hopes to hit the lottery.) Somehow the trade seemed like it would have been good for baseball in general, giving Boston a better chance to hang in with the Yankees and making the pennant race more interesting.

In the end, Rodriguez wound up with the only team that could afford him, the Yankees. Now he'll finally get to the World Series. Well, maybe. The Yankees have proven that spending lots of money does not guarantee a trip to the Series1. Maybe we can learn something else from the Yankees.

Anyway, here we have an individual who did what was in his self interests, at least as far as making money is concerned, but that kept him from reaching his ultimate goal. In signing him, the Rangers thought they were doing what was best for them, because they now had one of the best players in the game. The Rangers failed both on the field and at the box office, and A-Rod did not get to the World Series. Reaching that goal (at least getting a chance to reach it) would have required him to take a lower salary, thus freeing up more money for the rest of the team. Herein lies the problem – everybody working in their own self interest makes things better for everybody only if there is an infinite supply of everything. Since there isn't an infinite supply of everything, we need to temper that statement to: Everybody working in their own enlightened self interest makes things better for everybody. It's paradoxical, I suppose, that doing what's best for the group will generally lead to a better outcome for the individual as well.

1 October 22, 2004. The original version of this was written around the beginning of March 2004. In one of those fascinating twists of fate, a few days ago the Red Sox beat the Yankees for the American League pennant.

November 13, 2005 update. Once again the Yankees did not get to the World Series. In fact, they did not get to the American League finals, even worse than the previous year. If you like irony, this is pretty good.