Balancing legacy and money in professional sports has lessons for the rest of us

The legacy of your work has a value harder to compare with pure money, so we should try our best to incorporate that in our professional decision making.

I’m not a professional athlete. That may surprise many of you.

Still, without any real awareness of the experience, I find myself scratching my head whenever a big name, well-paid professional athlete chooses more money over legacy. In most cases, it seems ill-advised.

I understand that with injuries threatening livelihood, athletes are smartly coached to get what upfront money they can as soon as they can. And I understand that there is often a mind-boggling amount of money on the table, but they seem to be facing on only one axis of success.

When Albert Pujols signed a quarter of a billion dollar, 10-year contract with the major market Los Angeles Angels, leaving the devoted St. Louis Cardinals after 11 seasons, I wasn’t surprised. (In fact, the Pujols’s wife seems more surprised, saying they had never wanted to leave St. Louis but the club wouldn’t offer a long enough, guaranteed deal.)

But if the celebrated and beloved Pujols becomes a target for boos and taunts, he’ll have to assess how much money an attack to his legacy is worth.

After watching Alex Rodriguez do similarly, leaving the Texas Rangers after a spectacular 2003 season for more than $250 million from the New York Yankees, and then becoming the most hated player in baseball, I was curious. Then, when LeBron James left his (nearly) hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to take his talent to South Beach for the Miami Heat and became the most vilified star in the NBA, I was certain.

There are enormous legacy and reputation ramifications for taking the money and leaving somewhere else.

Jayson Werth took a seven-year $126 million deal with the lowly but growing Nationals that he felt his Phillies should have offered him in his 30s. It seemed he was less than pleased when pitcher Cliff Lee took less money to focus on his legacy.

Lee helped build something — though they fell short of a championship. Similiarly, LeBron could have built Cleveland. Pujols could have been remembered as one of the greatest players and most philanthropic stars in a baseball hungry city. Instead they both went to better paying markets with a different kind of fan base.

Lessons are to be had here for all of us. The money is not at those levels, but the sense that pursuing money only ignores how you will be remembered.

And that’s worth something too.