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The baseball player who could buy NZ Rugby

The name Manny Machado won’t be familiar to many Kiwis outside of the country’s baseball community.

But there are really just two things you need to know about Manny Machado.

One, he just signed the third most valuable contract for a sports player in American history – a $US300 million, 10-year pact with the San Diego Padres that is eclipsed in total value only by the $US325 million the Marlins agreed to pay Giancarlo Stanton over 13 years and the $US365 million video streaming service Dazn will pay boxer Canelo Alvarez for the right to broadcast 11 of his fights.

The second thing you need to know about Manny Machado is that he is not Bryce Harper. An outfielder who has played with the Washington Nationals, Harper is also a ‘free agent’ right now, and is widely considered to be a slightly better and more marketable baseball player than Machado.

So the Padres’ record plunge on Machado is not expected to be the biggest deal in recent memory for long.

In time-honoured fashion, here’s a list of things Machado can buy with his $US300 million:

1. Anything he wants

As Big Ern McCracken said in the greatest sports movie ever made, Machado is now above the law. He is so rich he can do whatever he wants and buy his way out of trouble.

He’s also, as it happens, considerably richer than New Zealand Rugby. All of it. Put together. New Zealand Rugby’s 2017 annual report showed income of $257 million NZ pesos. It was a bumper year because of the Lions tour so, even after the ravages of expenses that include paying the country’s professional players, it helped to add to an asset base of $NZ211 million.

The reality of New Zealand’s largest professional sports body is that, in its entirety, it is worth considerably less than one Major League baseball player at one club.

Oddly, we Kiwis seem to get bent out of shape when our beloved All Blacks seek to earn a better wage overseas, despite it being a pittance compared to many other sports.

We feel a bit betrayed. And a little uneasy that money has trumped duty and glory.

Americans would be rather baffled by this. In US sports, the dollar rules, and that’s seldom considered a bad thing. Machado grew up in Miami, was a Yankees fan as a kid and came through the ranks with the Baltimore Orioles.

He’s got about as much connection to San Diego as Julian Savea does to the south of France.

He was widely expected to quit the small market Orioles as soon as contractually allowed and shop his services to the highest bidder, which he promptly did. And no one in their right mind would suggest he’s made a morally dubious call by taking the Padres’ megabucks.

Unlike we Kiwis, and at least one Frenchman, Americans tend to be more forensic than emotional when it comes to sports and money.

Take the case of recently emancipated Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell

Bell channeled his inner Martin Luther-King when he learned he had been freed from the tyranny of a single season $US14 million contract he was pretty much obligated to accept from the Steelers.

The contract details are a touch arcane but, in summary, the Steelers were allowed to make Bell a binding offer he didn’t want for the 2018 NFL season due to rules agreed between NFL players and owners to help teams keep superstars they have invested a lot of time and money into developing.

Bell, for his part, didn’t want a one-year deal due to the risk of an injury that might well affect his ability to sign a multi-year deal in the $50-60 million range.

So Bell withheld his labour, sitting out the entire season and forgoing $US14 million.

Some were appalled by that. Others understood. As a running back, Bell plays a position where the physical wear and tear of a brutal collision sport is at its highest. Statistics showed Bell carried the ball more than any other player in the NFL during his five seasons with the Steelers.

Had he accepted the one-year deal, there was no reason to suspect the Steelers would not continue to throw him into the meat grinder at a league-leading rate. In fact, given Bell would be certain to leave at the end of that year, odds are the Steelers would have felt even less compunction in their use of him.

Bell simply did the maths – and figured he couldn’t survive that much attrition and still be in good shape to land a large multi-year deal.

It wasn’t the sort of argument even American sports fans wanted to hear, but there was little doubt Bell had some kind of case to justify his actions.

With Bell having sat out the entire 2018 season, the Steelers had the option of re-tabling a one-year contract for 2019 – extending the deadlock for another year.

They didn’t, allowing Bell to be emancipated from the brutal reality of playing a game for a season for just $US14 million dollars – and ponder the wisdom of turning down a $US66 million extension from the Steelers two years ago in the first place.

Free at last…

And finally, back to Savea, a former All Blacks star who would, presumably, have produced a rather different reaction had he ever been offered $US14 million for one season of doing a not entirely dissimilar job to Bell.

Savea has been publicly savaged by Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, with the erratic French millionaire suggesting he would demand a DNA test to figure out if Savea was the same player who destroyed the French in the 2015 rugby World Cup quarterfinal.

"They must have swapped him on the plane [when he joined from the Hurricanes last year]. If I were him I would apologise and go back to my home country," Boudjellal told French radio.

What a goose. Any Kiwi rugby fan could have told Boudjellal that the player he is reportedly paying $NZ1.2 million a season isn’t the same player he was in 2015 (when his NZ Rugby salary was reportedly a 'whopping' $NZ800,000).

Savea, like Bell, has endured an awful lot of attrition during his sports career. By 2018, the spark that made him one of the most dangerous players in the world had dimmed to the point where he was no longer an All Black, and was regularly on the bench for the Hurricanes.

For Boudjellal to suggest that he hadn’t signed that version of Savea is ridiculous. And you can hardly blame Savea for accepting Toulon’s very generous offer.

Savea, for his part, has reacted to the Frenchman’s provocation with professionalism and dignity – pledging to turn up to training and do his job, earning the widespread support of his peers.

This column has been lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Savea talking about life as a professional rugby player and the realities of the All Blacks/NZ Rugby machine.

Those conversations were private. But Savea sure does have a mighty interesting story to tell - one that won’t have got any less interesting given his French experience.

Hopefully one day, when he, too, is free at last, he will choose to tell it.

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