Commentary

Detroit's financial disconnect

High-priced baseball signing stands in sharp contrast with struggling city's finances

Updated: January 29, 2012, 11:47 AM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

I will admit, as a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan, when I first heard we snagged Prince Fielder, I was ecstatic.

Victor Martinez had blown out his knee just days before -- lost for the upcoming season -- and replacing his offensive production wasn't going to be easy. A step back, after an amazing 2011, seemed inevitable. Then out of nowhere Detroit landed Fielder and life was good.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder and family
Jorge Lemus/Getty ImagesPrince Fielder and his family arrive in Detroit with a bright future ahead of them.

Then I saw the price tag and thought, "What the hell?"

All we hear about in the news these days is the struggling global economy, but in the middle of all this downbeat chatter a sports team bearing the name of one of the poorest cities in the country signs a baseball player to a nine-year deal worth $214 million.

Talk about a disconnect.

Granted, the Tigers' budget and the city's budget are not related. But doesn't it bother you that the new first baseman will make more money this year ($23 million) than what's individually budgeted for all but one of the city's police precincts? In fact, the city can no longer afford to keep police district headquarters open beyond normal business hours. The same day the Detroit Free Press led with front-page coverage of the Fielder press conference, my friend, reporter Suzette Hackney, had a little story buried in the paper with the headline: Detroit will pay only its most 'critical' bills. The irony was saved for the subhead, which read: Cash-strapped city starts new priority system.

Now I do not want to start an Occupy Comerica Park movement. I do not have a problem with the mechanics of capitalism nor do I begrudge Tigers owner Mike Illitch or anyone else for being rich and spending their money any way they want to. In fact, I hope to join their exclusive club one day. Preferably with my crunchy granola idealism intact but who knows … I'm not making any promises.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesPolice and firefighters in Detroit may be working for a handshake from Justin Verlander if the city doesn't fix its budget.

Anyway, my point: There is absolutely nothing wrong with Fielder's contract. And again I am excited he is on the team and feel fortunate we have an owner who doesn't just say he's dedicated to winning but actually opens his wallet for the Tigers and his other franchise, the Detroit Red Wings, to prove it. The problem is the environment in which a $214 million contract in today's wider economic landscape is even possible. Why are we so crazy about our favorite teams that the demand for better schools or roads takes a backseat by fiscal comparison?

Sure, no one wants to hear and see and read about bad news all of the time. But is distracting ourselves from everyday life so critical that we'll ignore the financial solvency of the games we love is much stronger than many of the communities in which they are played?

Detroit city council president Charles Pugh knows Detroit's budget woes very well and hopes the newest Tigers player brings more than just wins.

"Adding Prince Fielder to our already amazing lineup makes me feel like we will go to and win the World Series," he said, before adding, "considering all the tough issues we're dealing with as a city, winning sports teams are a much-needed boost to morale."

That's a sentiment I agree with. But why have we, as a culture, let the cost of winning ballgames (and the revenue generated) soar so high while more pertinent needs are handcuffed by lower levels of attention and resources? All kidding aside, what's wrong with us?

We have state colleges that pay football coaches millions yet are seeing a decline in middle-class students being able to afford to attend the school that employs the coaches. With that as the accepted backdrop, it doesn't really matter who is in the White House. As long as we continue to value entertainment over people such as police officers and teachers, we'll continue to struggle to connect the most important of dots, like a person who talks about losing weight but doesn't want to exercise or change their diet.

The change that's needed isn't and shouldn't come from the billionaire franchise owners, but rather from the people in the stands or watching on TV. We control the market because we control the demand. If society can create the climate in which a Super Bowl ad can cost millions, it can create the climate that addresses the needs of the 22 percent of children living in poverty.

[+] EnlargeDetroit abandonded buildings
Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesDetroit's problems have been well-documented. A turnaround there will be harder than the one accomplished by the city's teams.

Yes, I recognize the inherent hypocrisy of a sportswriter complaining about the insane amount of money connected to the sports industry. But as I said earlier, I want to move on up like George and Weezy and cannot guarantee my crunchy granola idealism is going to make the trip. The reality is there is more than one reality. I want to make a good living so I need billions to continue to flow through sports. I also want the Tigers to continue to be successful and that comes at cost. In 2003, the Tigers lost an American League-record 119 games. This year, thanks to Fielder, we are World Series favorites.

We also have three players -- Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and MVP Justin Verlander -- whose combined $65 million 2012 salary is larger than the entire budget for local police fighting major and organized crime. I also want to see the city of Detroit, along with The Bronx and Cleveland and other struggling towns, bounce back.

This is the public disconnect every athletic director or major sports entity located in a struggling area must negotiate when writing big checks for talented coaches or players.

"As an organization you're always trying to protect best in class in all that you do," Pistons president and longtime Detroiter Joe Dumars said. "You always do your best to try and build a team that your fans and city can be proud of."

True.

But wouldn't it be a shame if the city that wins the championship needs a handout to pay for the victory parade?

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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