It’s been two weeks and I still find myself thinking about Gil Meche, the Kansas City Royals player who retired – leaving a guaranteed $12 million on the table – because he wasn’t able to fulfill his role as a starting pitcher. He was injured. It happens all the time in baseball. In fact, a Babson College paper published last August shows it happens more than all the time. On average, since 2002, 400 baseball players are on the disabled list for all or part of each season. That number is rising. And half the players on the DL are pitchers.
Time after time, they continue to take the money owed them. As Meche told the New York Times, that just didn’t sit right. “When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it. Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again.”
Granted, he had already pocketed more than $40 million from that contract. Unless he had been spending at an amazing rate (and after reading about him, he really doesn’t seem the type) he still has more than enough money to live extremely well for the rest of his life. Still, the fact that in the blogosphere he was called everything from an idiot to a hero made me realize most people wouldn’t do the same. Would you? Would I?
Frankly, I’m not sure. From time to time, my husband and I play some version of the lottery game. That’s where you ask – and try to answer – the question: What would you do if someone handed you so much money that you could do anything you want? Not $1 million. More like $10 million. Or $50 million. Would you continue to work? Would you move? Start a foundation? Split it with your siblings? Make millionaires of your friends?
My answers tend toward the, well, the boring. I think I would continue to work in part because I really like what I do, and in part because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I’d pay off my mortgage in full (and those of my siblings). I’d fly first class, even when I’m not going on business. And I’d give some away – but I don’t know how much. Mostly, I’d sock it away for tomorrow, or next year, or whenever I found that burning desire to do something else. And I think I’d like the feeling of having that big mound of financial security.
Gil Meche had already played the lottery game and won. He expressed a desire to go back to the Louisiana town where he was raised and put down some roots. All he ever wanted to do was play baseball. He did it. He was done. In his mind, clearly, quitting wasn’t just the rational thing to do. It was the ethical thing to do. The only thing to do.
In a commencement speech at Georgetown University, Vanguard’s John Bogle once told the business school grads: It is said on Wall Street, correctly, that “money has no conscience.” But don’t allow that truism to let you ignore your own conscience, nor to alter your own conduct and character. Gil Meche probably wasn’t listening. But he clearly got the message.
Editor’s Note: Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC’s “Today” show, a contributing editor at More magazine, and the author of “Money 911.” She recently launched the JeanChatzky Score Builder in partnership with www.smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter at @jeanchatzky.