The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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From our 'show me the money' files: Jayson Werth gets a Hollywood contract

Jayson_werth Forget about Derek Jeter and his measly new three-year deal with the Yankees. For the past several days, baseball writers covering the winter meetings in Florida have been flipping their lids over the mind-blowing seven-year, $126- million contract that outfielder Jason Werth signed on Sunday with the Washington Nationals. According to Foxnews.com's Ken Rosenthal, when he told a rival general manager about the terms, the GM sputtered: "Absolutely bat--- crazy."

After tweeting that the Werth deal had "stunned people in the game because of its magnitude," ESPN's Buster Olney quoted another GM as screaming into the phone: "What could they have been thinking?" The best line came from New York Mets chief executive Sandy Alderson, who offered this droll response: "I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington." 

It's a great deal for the power-hitting outfielder, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Dodgers after the 2005 season and has only been an everyday player with the Philadelphia Phillies for the past two years. But is it a good deal for the Nationals, who'll still be paying Werth roughly $18 million a year when he's a creaky 38-year-old? As Olney noted, the Nationals spent more money on the Werth deal than all of the franchise's free agent deals in the past 20 years.

The more I read about the hyperbolic reaction to the deal, the more I was reminded of the similarly hysterical reaction in Hollywood in 1996 when Columbia Pictures' Mark Canton paid Jim Carrey $20 million to star in "The Cable Guy." Even before the film was met with scathing reviews, its then-record-setting deal was the talk of the town, just as Werth's deal has been a bombshell in the baseball world. To give you an idea of what a whopper of a deal the contract was, it's worth remembering that the big stars of the mid-1990s like Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford were making barely more than half of what Carrey got paid.

The deal was wildly unpopular with rival studio chiefs for the same reason that Werth's deal is making waves with baseball GMs. It prompted an almost instant burst of salary inflation, with stars like Ford, Gibson and John Travolta demanding hefty raises in their salary quotes. As a rival 20th Century Fox executive put it at the time: "There's nothing nice you can say about [the deal]. They've set something in motion that ratchets up the entire business. They'll self-destruct the industry."

Of course, the industry didn't crumble, although studio executives have been trying to rein in superstar salaries ever since. But it's an intriguing example of the similarities between the two worlds, which both rely on high-priced talent to market their products. Columbia's Canton overpaid Carrey for the same reason that the Nationals overpaid for Werth--they both were operating from a position of weakness. At the time, Columbia was in dire straits, desperate to generate hit movies, so overpaying to get the hottest star in town seemed like a reasonable business proposition. And while most sportswriters pegged Werth's superagent, Scott Boras, as the villain of the story, suckering a desperate baseball team into making a lousy deal, it takes two to tango. The Nationals clearly needed a high-profile signing to show their fans that they don't plan on remaining in the basement of the NL East forever.

Things didn't work out so well for Canton. "Cable Guy" was a big box-office disappointment and it wasn't long before the Columbia chief lost his job. If Werth doesn't help lead the young Nationals to respectability in the next few years, the team's GM, Mike Rizzo, could suffer a similar fate. But it's worth remembering that not everyone came out of "Cable Guy" with egg on their face. Its director was a young comic by the name of Ben Stiller, who's now an even bigger movie star than Carrey. It turns out that Canton just bet on the wrong guy. Let's hope the Nationals don't feel the same way when Werth's contract is up.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Jayson Werth, right, celebrates with Philadelphia Phillies teammate Jimmy Rollins after a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in September. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press

 
 
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