Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Today's New York Times features an article on a relatively recent sports phenomenon -- the one-day contract. In a nutshell, the one-days permit a retired player to re-sign with the team he played for in his prime, so that he can retire as a member of that team. The player then shows up at the stadium and the fans can cheer him one last time (until the next opportunity comes around). The team may benefit from the one-day contract in that fans may show up to cheer a retired star and re-experience a team's glory days. The Times charaterizes these contracts as effecting for the players "a meaningless return to a team so they can reflect on how meaningful that team was to them."
This characterization strikes me as unfortunate. The return is far from meaningless. In fact, the contract is all about meaning and not at all about playing a particular sport or even about money for the athlete. San Francisco 49er star Jerry Rice (pictured) was given a one-day contract that actually specified an amount, consisting of his rookie year (1985), his number (80), his retirement year ('06) and then 49, totaling $1,985,806.49. But according to the Times (and Wikipedia), the amount was ceremonial. Rice was not actually paid anything when he re-signed with the 49ers. In baseball, the actual contracts are with farm teams, as teams cannot afford to give up a roster spot during the season -- even for one day. This too is evidence that the contracts are not meaningless.
One blogger thinks the one-day contract phenomenon has gone too far, arguing both that it is meaningless and trivial and that it is an attempt at revisionist history. These players did not actually end their careers with the teams that meant the most to those careers, and so the one-day contracts perpetrate a fraud.
Another way to look at it is that sports is imitating art, at least if the television series Lost is art. Like the characters on Lost, these players get to return to a virtual reality in which they share experiences with the people who meant the most to them at the time in their lives when they had their biggest impact.