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Patrick Hruby

The Perks of the Game

For sports superstars, Christmas lasts all year

Like the rule of law and the equality of men, it's one of the fundamental axioms of modern life: Most people not named Giorgio must pay for their Armani.

Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, however, is not like most people.

Thanks to a special agreement with the renowned clothing designer, Rodriguez can walk into any Armani store and walk out with whatever he likes - free of charge. So can Miami Heat coach Pat Riley.

And they're not alone. Each and every season, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown is entitled to a dozen complementary rides on a Fox corporate jet. Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton has a free KeyArena luxury suite, right next to the owner's box. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson gets a pair of no-charge, front-row Phoenix Suns season tickets for the next 10 years, as well as a reserved space in the players' parking lot.

In the sporting life, Christmas comes 365 days a year.

"It's just a lifestyle you have to be in to see how great it is," said Washington Wizards guard Laron Profit. "No matter how bad you think you have it, with your playing situation or whatever, this is the best job you'll ever have. It's the best job in America."

If the rich are different from you and me, then rich sports stars are different still. Forget the money (even Rodriguez's recent 10-year, $252 million contract) - the truth is that many athletes and coaches don't really need it. Not when the sports world provides a movable feast of freebies, an inexhaustible cookie jar of perks and amenities into which all hands perpetually dip.

It's the Dallas Mavericks bunking at the Ritz-Carlton (unless they're staying at the Four Seasons). It's Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez setting up shop in his personal office space at the Ballpark in Arlington. It's the Washington Redskins eating breakfast and lunch on the team. It's players at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic enjoying a nightly basket of fruit and water, one placed with loving care on their hotel pillows.

It's Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, noshing on Golden Flakes potato chips - a contractually obligated lifetime supply of Golden Flakes potato chips.

"The best perks? There's a lot of them," said Bob Bryan, a professional tennis player. "The money's great, you get so much free clothes, hotels are awesome and you get free food. In Indianapolis at the RCA Championships , they give you a free stereo and a camcorder. It's a great lifestyle. I'd rather be doing this than working in an office."


Just ask Renaldo Nehemiah. Now the director of worldwide track and field at Octagon Athlete Representation, the former world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles managed Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson from 1998 to '99 - and found sponsors and meet organizers exceedingly generous.

"The sporting world is full of graciousness and people who want to do things for you," Nehemiah said. "With Michael, we would fly first class, have a la carte dining instead of a buffet table, have a private car at our disposal.

"Two years ago, we were guests of the U.S. ambassador to Sweden. We went to his residence, went out to dinner with him and his wife. The following day, he took us out on his private yacht for a three-hour excursion. It was nice."

Nicer still was the treatment afforded to Nehemiah at a 1979 track meet in Budapest. Having missed a flight, Nehemiah arrived late to the event - so late, in fact, that his featured race already had been run.

Tough luck? Not exactly.

"When I got there, they asked me how much time I needed to warm up and I told them," Nehemiah said. "They said, 'OK, when you're ready, let us know,' got all the other hurdlers together and ran the race again. I won. Whoever got the first-place award had to give it back.

"And I still enjoy the amenities of my former status. I like to play a lot of golf, and I get to play for free on some of the finest courses in the world."

Such are the perks of sports superstardom. Like NBA All-Stars who always get the calls, marquee names across the board enjoy separate - and decidedly unequal - treatment.

* In the San Francisco clubhouse at Pac Bell Park, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds holds court over four lockers and a $3,000 black leather massage recliner. The rest of the team gets single lockers and standard-issue metal folding chairs.

* Former New York Rangers center Wayne Gretzky had the right to use the team logo in commercials for products he was paid to endorse.

* In addition to the free potato chips, Florida State's Bowden reportedly gets a complementary Mercedes from an auto dealership and a $4,000 home alarm system.

* Like Seattle's Payton, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza has his own luxury box at Shea Stadium.

* Despite claiming losses of $250 million since 1995, Major League Soccer signed former Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Campos to a contract that entitled him to a pair of cars, one of them a Ferrari.

* On the road, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken stays in a different hotel than his teammates.

"Do stars have it better?" said Weller Evans, executive vice president of player services for the ATP Tour. "Let me put it this way: At the RCA Championships last year, everyone was staying at the same Hyatt. But when I went up to Pete Sampras' room - make that rooms - it was a lot bigger than mine. I probably could have stayed in one of his rooms all week and he wouldn't have noticed."

Of course, this doesn't mean that rank-and-file athletes have it bad or that they can't coattail on the amenities afforded their better known brethren.

A few years ago at a Paris indoor tournament, Sampras lost an early match. Before departing, he loaned his complementary suite at the posh Intercontinental Hotel to countryman Jeff Tarango.

"And Jeff used it to considerable advantage," Evans said. "He managed to attract one of the French gals who was working at the transportation desk to the suite. He ended up marrying her."

As a rising tide lifts all boats, a rising perk lifts all jocks. After selecting LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels with the second and third picks in this year's NFL Draft, Redskins owner Dan Snyder shuttled them from New York to Dulles International Airport on his private jet, then from Dulles to Redskin Park in a helicopter. Two months later, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban flew his first three draftees home from the NBA draft in Minneapolis on his own private jet.

Consider it a form of trickle-down economics - only without the trillion-dollar deficits.

"It's just the way sports is - whatever one team does to raise the bar, others follow," said Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel. "The demands are greater, and the level of service is rising."

True enough. From the NBA to the NHL, first-class amenities have become standard. Think catered food. Free gear. Four-star hotels. Chartered flights and private jets. Luxurious, high-tech practice facilities and clubhouses.

In Orlando, the Magic even employ a dedicated "player services coordinator," an executive whose sole duty is catering to player needs, be they housing, banking, or . . . dry cleaning.

"Some teams have a reputation for being better than others - like the one where the owner is partners with Bill Gates Portland - but you can't be on any team and really complain," Profit said. "It's first class everywhere you go. You're constantly waited on and catered to. You don't have to really do much.

"My whole rookie year, I was gone most of the time. Back home, bills needed to be paid, furniture had to be delivered, my car had to get inspected. And all I had to do was make a phone call. The team, the organization, everyone helps you out."

For some, such as tennis player Kristian Capalik, the top-notch treatment can be a bit overwhelming. A 21-year-old ranked No. 240 in the world, Capalik enjoyed a fleeting taste of the good life after qualifying for the main draw of last summer's Legg Mason.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world," he said. "You've got a car picking you up and driving you to hotels. In futures minor league tournaments, you have to take a taxi. And I didn't even know they would pay for my hotel - $125 a night? No way."


Why the special treatment? Why give St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire (2000 salary: $9.3 million) an extra $4,000 a month housing allowance? Why install a living room area, a pool table, video games and even a kitchen in your locker room, like the Magic?

"It's important to offer your players an atmosphere that's very professional, where they feel well taken care of," said Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Diamondbacks and Suns. "You want players to feel that they're cared about as people as well as athletes."

For the Miami Dolphins, that means chartering planes large enough to provide three seats for every two players on board. Feeding players three meals a day during the regular season (the better to keep them from eating fast food). And installing a trio of Internet-ready computers in the locker room.

"The reason we did it is that our players were going into our training and strength coaching offices to use the computers, and our coaches couldn't get any work done," said Dolphins spokesman Harvey Greene. "The locker room used to be a place where you hung your sweaty clothes. Now it's a place you want to be.

"And the more time a player spends here, the less distractions they face. If you're at home, you've got family, going out, non-football related things. Here, for the 20 minutes you might be on the computer or eating breakfast, it might mean an extra half-hour in the weight room or looking at film."

Cuban agrees. Upon purchasing the Mavericks for $280 million, the dot-com billionaire went on a luxury spree that would have shamed Robin Leach.

He upgraded the team's road accommodations. Sent limousines to players' homes during an ice storm. Bought luggage for 10-day contract players. Put a stereo, flat-screen monitor, DVD player and PlayStation into each locker. Installed courtside bench chairs made of NaugaSoft, a specially made fabric that repels fungus and bacteria.
The coup de grace? Replacing bedsheet-thin, NBA-standard locker room towels with lush $20 models.

"People perform better when they know they are being giving every possible tool and amenity to get their job done," Cuban said in an e-mail interview. "I got great feedback. Who doesn't want to dry off with plush towels?"

The pampering is duly appreciated. When the the New York Yankees held their World Series victory parade, they had Mayor Rudy Giuliani give their team masseuse a key to the city. And when Cincinnati Bengals owner (and notorious penny pincher) Mike Brown recently decided to dole out free team caps and shoes, players were ecstatic.

"Little things make us happy," tight end Marco Battaglia told Football Digest. "For years here, I never got a hat. Now all I've got to do is hold out my hand."

In tennis, where mid-level tournaments compete for big-name player commitments, the right amenities can make the difference between landing an Andre Agassi or an Andrea Gaudenzi (ranked No. 118).

"It could be sending a private plane to pick them up - many of the sponsors of these tournaments have company jets and might send them into action to get a guy," said the ATP's Evans. "Or it could be paying for the gas that a player's own private plane might use to get there. That's been known to happen."

If money is the Twinkie cake of professional sports recruiting, then perks are the creamy filling. Take the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went all out while courting free agent pitcher Brown in 1998.

When agent Scott Boras suggested that a contract include chartering a plane so Brown's family could visit him in Los Angeles, team executives brought flight schedules to the next day's negotiations. And when they found out Brown was a "Star Wars" fan - the films are distributed by Fox, the Dodgers' parent company - they sent Brown a movie poster autographed by George Lucas.

Brown ultimately signed with L.A. The terms? Seven years, $105 million - and access to the top-secret set of "Episode 1: The Phantom Menace."

"When you think about going to another organization, you want to go somewhere that's going to make the transition as easy as possible," Profit said. "If everything else is equal, perks are going to push you in that direction."

That's exactly the sort of free marketing Cuban had in mind when he put his extra-plush towels in both the home and visiting locker rooms at Reunion Arena.

"They were stolen," he said. "We wanted players to steal them."


Forgive Sam Huff for being skeptical. In 1959, the Hall of Fame linebacker and former Washington Redskin earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors - and was paid just $9,000 by the New York Giants.

To make ends meet, he worked a second job at a textile company. During the season.

"I'd be a little beat up, but I'd be in the office come Monday morning," he said. "Now it's a different age. When I played, they used to bring food up on trucks to RFK Stadium , and we'd buy sandwiches off them like the construction guys. Or maybe we'd brown-bag it.

"I think perks can go too far. I've always believed that football players have to get their faces a little dirty, their uniforms a little muddy. They have to be miserable and cold. That's why the Marines have boot camp - they have to be tough."

Can all the coddling make athletes soft, even spoiled? No question. French tennis player Fabrice Santoro reportedly blamed a recent loss on lack of sleep caused by the amorous noises of a couple in an adjacent hotel room. Ukrainian tourmate Andrei Medvedev once carped that Wimbledon treated players "like dirt" largely because his masseur "had to sneak in behind a security guard to give me a stretch in the locker room."

Then there's Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie.

"I love this side of my golfing success as much as the next man . . . you get the best rooms in the best hotels and are apt to get ushered to the best seats on planes," he wrote in the London Daily Telegram. "On the downside, I hate hotel pillows with a vengeance. They are the first things I examine when I go into a hotel room, and my heart sinks when I discover that they are too soft or too hard."

Said Colangelo: "It's human nature to get spoiled . All you have to do is look at children. If they come to expect something, that becomes a real problem. How high is high? There's a point at which it's too much."

For the Cleveland Indians, that point came last summer, when general manager John Hart and manager Charlie Manuel banned card games and removed a Ping-Pong table and a pair of overstuffed leather couches from the clubhouse. Manuel reportedly wanted the team to concentrate more on baseball - particularly after Kenny Lofton and Russell Branyan got into a scuffle during a June card game.

Evans can relate. With more than 25 years of ATP Tour experience, he's seen his share of bratty behavior.

"At the Indianapolis tournament , they send a bus to Cincinnati site of the previous week's tournament to pick up players," he said. "It's only a two-hour ride, but on the bus they have videos, sandwiches, drinks, magazines. They send a bus at lunchtime on Friday, another late in the day, and one bus on both Saturday and Sunday. It's pretty nice.

"But this year we had a guy whining to the tournament director because there wasn't a bus on Saturday morning. Sometimes you have to pull a guy aside and tell them, 'Listen, this isn't something they have to do for you. It's something they want to do for you - and they may not want to continue to do it if this is the attitude you're going to display.' "

Even the perception of special treatment can cause problems. When the New York Mets pulled out of the bidding for Rodriguez, general manager Steve Phillips said that the shortstop was demanding a slew of perks - charter jet, private office, luxury suite, personalized billboards and a separate spring training gift tent that would sell only Rodriguez merchandise - that would give the Mets a "24 plus one" player structure.
Rodriguez quickly denied Phillips' claims - but not before his previously glowing reputation had taken a major hit.

"It's very difficult for the fan to relate to this stuff, and I've been very concerned about the sensitivities here," Colangelo said. "Because if fans can't relate, they get turned off. And then you've got a serious problem."

In the meantime, though, the freebies keep coming. In fact, they're spreading to the college ranks: According to a recent report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, University of Wisconsin boosters paid a $15,650 realtor's fee for former basketball coach Dick Bennett and cell phone, health club and caddie charges for athletic director Pat Richter.

"Big-time college sports are doing the same thing as the professionals, trying to separate themselves," Colangelo said. "It all goes back to one-upsmanship. The sports industry is very competitive. It's a sign of the times."

How much so? Consider this: Even sportswriters - the lowliest, most despised members of the Great Sports Chain - are getting in on the act.

According to the New York Observer, ESPN Magazine attempted to lure award-winning columnist Rick Reilly away from Sports Illustrated in 1997, offering roughly $500,000 and the promise of a two-movie deal with parent company Disney.

Reilly, however, stayed put. His deal? A reported $450,000 - and a three-movie deal with Warner Brothers.

Article originally published in The Washington Times