I remember thinking, when I was smaller, how awesome it would be to be a sports athlete. You would make millions (or even tens of millions) a year, have a 20 year career and then sit around, for the rest of your life after 40, on a big pile of money. If you were lucky enough to have the right genetics, then that could be you!
Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, that is still somewhat true – if you are one of the bests then you’re going to have a huge pay day; but in reality you would have a better chance of winning the lottery than being a superstar. Let’s scale back our dreams a bit and say that you’ll just end up being a scrub or bench warmer, but on a major league team. The major league minimum is still more than a million a year!
It still sounds good, but then you realize that you have to invest your childhood and younger years into getting this goal, so after your (shorter) career (maybe 5 years?), you don’t have a lot of skills to draw from. You could be going from the top 1% of salaries to a median or a below average salary for the rest of your life. Hope you invested that $5+ million well!
And then there are all those people who never even make it to the major leagues after years and years of (wasted) effort. They end up spending their 20s shuttling around the continent in buses making < $100,000 a year. Then in their 30s, when they’ve been released by their teams, what skills do they have to fall back on to earn a reliable wage?
The investment seems to be a bad bet, especially because only a small portion of new players are added to a league each year (10%?). Your genes may give you a ticket, but you still need to win a lottery.
This all resonated with me when I read this article in SI about steroids, except this article was not about the stars, but about the fringe players in the junior leagues trying to win their lottery. Most of them don’t succeed, and the one that does was on steroids. In a way, they all lost.
In four years Naulty gained 50 pounds and added 10 miles an hour to his fastball. (He would eventually top out at 248 pounds.) His legs were enormous. His shoulders looked like cantaloupes, with the rounded, watery hallmark of steroids. He loved the way his body looked, loved to take his shirt off, loved the compliments he got from coaches and loved the way nobody in baseball asked, How? The Steroid Era was taking hold, made possible by a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. “Everybody is telling you how great you look,” Naulty says. “Nobody ever asked if I was using drugs. I never had one discussion about steroids around another baseball player. All my discussions about steroids were with bodybuilders.”