CLEARWATER, Fla. - It is a what's-wrong-with-this-picture experience watching 120 Penn State football players practicing at a facility where baseball is the only sport played and the only language spoken.
The Carpenter Complex is one of the more relaxed places to visit in major league baseball. Fans are welcome at all times.
College football teams guard their practices the way North Korea guards its side of the 38th parallel. The media waited in the parking lot to be escorted in for the only availability of Penn State's 5-day stay here.
There were four - count 'em, four - of those scary-high, video death towers that made the news when a Notre Dame student was killed this season filming a practice on a day of near-hurricane-force winds.
The towers were empty Wednesday while the media interviewed Joe Paterno and photographed the athletes. Once the media had been escorted back out, the actual filming of the practice began. The Nits' secrets were safe from prying eyes.
Between the spot where Paterno was being interviewed and where his players were stretching, eight lonely mounds stood in a row familiar to any fan who has visited the Complex during the pitchers-and-catchers phase. They are the nerve center in the early days. Eight pitchers at a time are throwing to eight catchers. The February air is filled with the pleasing explosions of balls hitting catcher's mitts, the timeless, fire-at-will beginning to the 6 weeks of spring training and first baby steps of the long season.
I looked at the empty mounds as JoePa regaled us with volleys of Seinfeldian Nothing. I tried to picture those mounds the morning of Feb. 14, the day after physicals. How would R2C2 be arrayed? Would the two Roys, Cliff and Cole line up in that order: Halladay, Oswalt, Lee, Hamels? What if they lined up RCRC? Or CCRR? How long until somebody asked Charlie Manuel if that would be the order of the Phillies rotation?
What, horrors, if they didn't all throw in the same group?
Much has been made of the reported $30 million Cliff Lee left on the table when he decided to follow his heart back to the Phillies, rather than his bank statement to New York. What sacrifice! His friend, CC Sabathia put it in modern ballplayer perspective:
"You have to do what makes you happy and what's best for your family," the Yankees lefthander told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
No offense, CC, but I think a $120 million contract is doing pretty damn well for your family.
In fact, even in this wretched economy, if you earn $250,000 a year, you are doing pretty damn well for your family. You probably own two top-end autos and a beautiful home. You can take a cruise or a Shore vacation every year. Afford college for your kids. A weekly round of golf.
Hell, Lenny K. Dykstra owned two homes worth $30 million, drove a $460,000 auto and flew wherever he wanted in a jet that cost $12 million. He did this while $56 million in debt and by paying no creditors for more than a year.
But average $20 million a year, you are obscenely rich, even if half of it winds up in the coffers of the IRS, the City of Philadelphia and Scott Boras.
I think the lines become blurred where really big money is concerned. It is hard to comprehend true wealth because you can only live in one home at a time, no matter how grandiose, you can only drive one auto at a time.
Here is a different way to look at the lower standard Cliff Lee chose while taking care of his family:
* Assuming he will average 30 starts a year for a total of 150 during the 5-year life of the contract (and not factoring a club option or sixth-year buyout), the lefthander will earn $800,000 a start. So, with just one start, win, lose or no decision, Lee will earn enough to put three children through Harvard. Including all fees, 1 year at Harvard was recently estimated to cost $53,000, a 4-year total of $212,000. With the $164,000 left over from that one start, Cliff could have enough to send each to a year of graduate school.
* A dollar bill is exactly 6 inches long. If you were to lay 120 million-dollar bills end to end, starting with home plate at the Bank, it would take $10,560 to cover a mile. Cliff's dollars laid end-to-end would stretch for 5,681 miles, crossing home plates in St. Louis, Phoenix, San Diego and Honolulu before splashing down just east of Midway Island. When Pete Rose signed his 1979 free-agent contract with the Phillies, he called it, "A stack of money so high a show dog couldn't jump over it."
Try jumping over Cliff Lee's stack. At 233 dollar bills per inch, 120 million of them would be 8.13 miles high.
* This is my favorite. Assuming Lee's contract could be paid in Lincoln pennies weighing 2.5 grams each, his stash would weigh 330.69 tons. Or 661,380 pounds.
But make sure you get paid in pennies minted before 1982, Cliff. That's when the United States stopped using real copper in the ubiquitous 1-center. And don't cash them in. Copper closed yesterday at $4.28 per pound. That would give you just $2,830,706 in actual value, a net loss of $117,169,294 in paper-dollar value.
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