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Melky Cabrera and the risk-reward factor

Updated on August 21, 2012

What would you be willing to risk for $40 million?

I once walked around the top of a 110-foot grain silo with a very thin railing that probably would not have held my weight had I fallen, just to take a few photographs. I was paid $300 and thought it was an acceptable reward, even though the risk had been death.

People commit all kinds of illegal acts for far less than $40 million. People have robbed banks for far less. Hit men, if we’re to believe those who have been caught, charge far less to kill someone. Even in the drug trade, where there’s the potential to make millions, most sell their product for far less than $40 million. In these cases, the risk is imprisonment or death.

We take more risks when the rewards are higher

Most of us wouldn’t commit any act so heinous for any amount of money, but our willingness to take risks increases as the potential for reward goes up. Would you be willing to sell company secrets to a competitor for $1 million? How about $5 million? $10 million? What if you thought the risk of being caught was relatively low, and the punishment if caught was survivable? Would you be more willing?

Whether you would or not, you have to admit that the temptation would be there. We all know people who wouldn’t hesitate to sell a company’s secrets for that kind of risk-reward scenario. We probably all know at least one person who would betray his own mother for that kind of potential monetary gain.

Melky Cabrera faced the risk-reward scenario

I bring this up because it is essentially the situation that Melky Cabrera faced. Many experts believe that had he continued his amazing season without having been caught using testosterone, he would have been in line for a contract in the range of $40 million for four years, or $10 million per season. And so Cabrera apparently thought it was worth the risk of getting caught for the potential reward.

Few of us ever have the potential of making $40 million in a lifetime – I probably wouldn’t make it in 40 lifetimes. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Cabrera probably knew people who would need 400 lifetimes to reach that number. The temptation would have been overwhelming for me, and probably even greater for him – so great, in fact, that he gave in to it.

I don’t say this to condone or even defend his actions. I fully support his suspension for cheating and would be in full agreement with even harsher penalties. But I do think we often self-righteously look down on these players for what they’ve done when, if we were truthful, many of us would have taken the same risks for that kind of reward.

Risk taking increases when potential loss is great

The risk-taking comes not only when the reward is high, but also when the threat of loss is great. Often the players caught using PEDs are the marginal players, those on the bubble of being released or sent to the minors – in other words, at risk for losing the big payouts they’re making at the Major League level. If you have a solid job making a comfortable living, what risks would you take to keep that job? What if the difference was between making $1 million a year and $40,000 a year? Many people have betrayed co-workers or even sabotaged co-workers’ efforts in an effort to stay employed at a high-paying job.

Most of us have no idea how hard it is to play baseball at the Major League level. Most of us reached our level of incompetence in high school or college, some at even lower levels. I’ve known people who made it to AA and even AAA ball, but never to the majors. These were incredibly good players. They had abilities I could only dream about. But their performances still weren’t good enough to reach the Majors.

But suppose they’d had a few shots of HGH or testosterone? Would that have pushed them over the edge into the majors? Quite possibly. Both of the players I knew played before the Steroid Era, so I don’t know if they had that option. I would think, though, that had that temptation been offered to them, it would have been hard to turn down. The difference between AAA and the Major Leagues is a lot of money.

Cabrera's risk remained relatively small

Ironically, Cabrera may not have had to use the testosterone. He’d had a few promising seasons in his early 20s with the Yankees. He’d just turned 28 on Aug. 11. Players who start out promising like that without becoming superstars often turn in three or four good seasons when they reach the 27-30 age range before fading away. Cabrera may have been doing as well, or nearly as well, this season without enhancements.

But his risk remained relatively minor. If he doesn’t get caught, he winds up with a $40 million contract. If he does get caught, he’s out the rest of this season and ends up with probably a two-year contract worth $4 million. A far cry from $40 million but he’ll hardly have to stand in soup lines down at the corner.

There but for the grace of God...

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I think the majority of Major League players have enough integrity to not cheat no matter what the potential rewards. But there will always be some who give in to the temptation. In other words, they’re as human as we all are.

I have always strived to be honest and haven’t cheated since almost getting caught in my school’s big ice cream scandal in sixth grade. But I also haven’t been seriously tempted and I don’t know where my breaking point is. I have a feeling, though, it might be a lot less than $40 million. So I will wholeheartedly endorse Melky Cabrera’s punishment, just as would for any other cheaters. But I’m withholding my self-righteousness indignation about the situation because the difference between me and Melky may not be as great as I’d like to think.


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