“This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!”
So said Orson Welles once upon a time – a pithy observation you’ve probably heard, or half-heard, before. He was, of course, talking about the business of making movies, at a point in time when Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, still figured him rather good at it. (Basically, before he was obliged to sell peas for a living.)
Welles couldn’t have guessed, I suppose, that he was not so much the train driver as just another passenger. Sure he made Citizen Kane, and, sure, he did that after conquering radio and Broadway first, and, sure, he did all of this before turning 30… but somewhere along the line his playing became a nuisance and he was sent to his room. Well, Europe, via chat show guest slots and commercial voiceover work.
I’m simplifying grossly, I know. But that’s okay, it gets me more quickly to my point. Orson Welles never owned the train set, he was merely allowed to borrow it occasionally. And the owner? Whoever he happened to be, he was the one with the money – and the talent for making even more of it.
I’m not sure how big of a difference it makes either way, but it was John W. Henry who got me thinking. This guy right here:
Just another old white guy in a suit, right? Yeah, and also (as some of you will doubtless already know) principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, and, as of October last year, Liverpool Football Club. Never mind a simple little train set, this man can’t even move for rolling stock. He is, indeed, that rare example of a person for whom owning one of the world’s most beloved sport teams isn’t quite enough. (Though, in fairness, he only has to look to his business partner, Tom Werner, for another: a TV producer who made his money bringing us, among others, Mork & Mindy, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne.)
So, anyhow, here’s a question. What do the two biggest 2010/11 offseason baseball trades and the two biggest European football 2011 winter transfers all have in common:
$154million / £96million (Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego Padres to Boston Red Sox: contract over seven years)
$142million / £88million (Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay Rays to Boston Red Sox: contract over seven years)
$81million / £50million (Fernando Torres, Liverpool to Chelsea: transfer fee)
$56million / £35 million (Andy Carroll, Newcastle United to Liverpool: transfer fee)
That’s right: John W. Henry. That same old white guy in a suit was the kingmaker behind all four deals, three times as the ‘buyer’ and one time as the ‘seller.’ In the span of less than two months, he presided over $433million / £269million changing hands – an amount that doesn’t even include the wages due to Torres and Carroll. Unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s a decent chunk of change for a new first baseman, a new fleet-footed left fielder, and two center forwards. But, of course, that’s also modern sport for you: truly, the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.
…The only thing is, what about the fans? Maybe it has always been the same, but for something so many of us care so very much amount, isn’t it just endlessly peculiar how incidental we sometimes seem? How what we’re invested in, with our silly hopeful hearts, is more and more a plaything for wealthy strangers?
I know I can’t wait to see Gonzalez start hitting long-balls out of Fenway Park – and yet how hard will it be to shake the feeling he’s only doing it for us because a futures and foreign exchange trading advisor woke up one morning with $154million burning a whole in his pocket and nothing else to spend it on? How loud will our cheers have to be, in other words, to drown out the sound of Henry going ‘Choo choo!?’