Headlines from Opening Day

This appeared on ESPN.com at 8:30 am Tuesday morning:

A home run against the Cubs may not prove much

For the big print readers out there, it says: Jason Heyward needed only one major league at-bat Monday to validate all the talk that the Braves rookie is on his way to stardom.

If you were too busy counting the money you were going to win from predicting the Butler-Duke championship, Heyward homered in his first major league at-bat.  This is a rare feat accomplished by other famous sluggers such as Adam Wainwright.

Of course, most of that validated talk came from ESPN commentators and writers in the first place.  But if that’s what we’re going off of, here are some other headlines from the first full day of the baseball season:

  • Placido Polanco establishes himself as the Phillies’ best hitter.
  • Josh Johnson shows why the Marlins shouldn’t spend money on their players.
  • Can any team get Albert Pujols out more than once a game?
  • Joe Mauer thanks Minnesota for his $184 million dollar contract with 1-4 night, loss.
  • Will the Dodgers lose every game this season?
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Please, Joe Mauer, Stay a Twin (a short essay)

One of the early themes of this off season is the status of Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols.  Both are franchise players a year away from the end of their current contracts.  Commentators seem to enjoy asking whether Minnesota or St. Louis can afford to keep these iconic players.  Will they be able to match the deals Mauer or Pujols could receive as free agents?

Well, wait.  Don’t Joe and Albert get a say in this?

Much writing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth has accompanied discussion of baseball players’ astronomical salaries.  I don’t mean to add another decibel to that cacophony.  But there is a prevailing attitude to the coverage of players like Mauer and Pujols which profoundly bothers me: that they are obligated to take the biggest paycheck offered them.

*Ahem.*

sigh...

Growing up a Seattle Mariner fan in the 1990s, I watched Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez leave town, each motivated to varying degrees by a bigger paycheck elsewhere.  It was heartbreaking.  Learning as a boy how the game’s greatest players were linked to specific teams (Stan Musial and the Cardinals, Roberto Clemente and the Pirates, all the Yankee greats), I longed for Seattle to have greats of its own.

Baseball’s history with respect to money and labor negotiations is long and complicated.  I understand this.  Stan Musial could not have left for Boston if he disliked St. Louis.  Free agency gives players an important lever in dealing with their employers.  But to read commentators and the last ten years of free agency, it seems as if star players have fallen into the opposite situation.  They are not able to stay with their teams even if they want to.

I have never heard anything about this, but I suspect there is enormous pressure within the Player’s Association on big stars to go for big money.  If CC Sabathia really wanted to play for Cleveland, I’m pretty confident Cleveland would have found the money to welcome him back for $10 million a year.  But such a contract would depress the signings of all the lesser pitchers.  Negotiating with Randy Wolf, an owner could say, “No way are you worth eight million a year if Sabathia is only worth ten!”  So the top free agents seek the most money in order to help out the rest of the union.

That is understandable.  But how often has a star player wanted to play for a team, but felt unable to do so because money elsewhere was so much greater?  Has that really never happened?  Do the highest salaries always come from the preferred team?  Surely not always.

The best games are played for free

Free agency not a problem

The perception that a team’s best players are almost required to take the largest contract offered them in free agency undermines the important emotional connection between team and fan base.  Young boys (and girls!) dream of playing ball for their favorite teams.  Has baseball constructed a system where those who make it to the majors learn that it just isn’t that simple, kid? It is already difficult to overlook the absurd piles of money players earn for playing my favorite childhood game (after Calvinball).  It is too much to consider that baseball has commercialized itself into a coldly pragmatic machine indoctrinating players with the belief that everybody is in it for the money.

This is more of a problem for fans of younger, less successful teams.  Yankee and Red Sox fans can root for the franchise as a lasting entity with characteristics independent from its players.  As a Mariner fan, I cannot hold onto a winning tradition, or even a losing tradition made appealing by sheer length (see: Cubs, Phillies).  I’m a Mariner fan because of specific teams made up of specific players.

The danger here threatens baseball’s bottom line.  Baseball has a reputation, which it tries desperately to maintain, of being a transcendental team game.  A sport of beautiful simplicity and generation-binding nostalgia.  It brags of a history where players were synonymous with the cities they played in.  Baseball does not carry itself with the glossy, militaristic swagger of the made-for-TV NFL.  If baseball wants to keep this aura, I strongly believe it needs to do a better job of juggling its finances and the un-capitalistic, impractical, romantic tendencies of its fan base.

I do not begrudge a player his millions, since the league and its owners are making many millions off of his play.  And a city’s love for a player does not necessitate the player’s love for a city or team (see: Bonds, Barry).  But it is this perception, almost absurd when stated aloud, that baseball needs to combat: a superstar taking a discount to play for his hometown team is a heroic and noble act.  When I think about this, and realize that this heroic act involves taking $60 million dollars instead of $90 million dollars, I feel foolish for caring so much.

Both great and adored

I hope, someday soon, a player will take a significant pay cut in order to play for his favorite team.  Perhaps the team he grew up rooting for, perhaps the team that gave him his shot at the Big Time.  For a city’s emotional attachment to individual players is part of what makes sports special, and what gives those players the ability to make enormous salaries in the first place.  And the transient loyalties in free agency, even if motivated by a union-vs-management mindset, undermines these emotional attachments and makes those contracts all the less attached to reality.

So, as my two cents, here are some players I hope remain with their current teams for the rest of their careers.  Because they are great players in a position to be forever enshrined in the baseball heart of their cities:

  • Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  • Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  • Joe Mauer, Twins
  • Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, Phillies
  • David Wright, Mets
  • Chipper Jones, Braves
  • Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (not gonna happen)
  • Ichiro, Mariners

Just great

It is these feelings which put Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripkin Jr. ahead of Ricky Henderson and Reggie Jackson in my baseball pantheon.  Perhaps a “franchise player” rule, like in the NFL, could help make one-team careers more common.  Possibly there are fans in Minnesota who want Joe Mauer to go to the Yankees, make $23 million a year, and make good.  But I bet most of them want him to remain in Minnesota, let the city name a street after him, and let the fans include him in future conversations about the best players to ever grace the Twin Cities.

Post-Season Howard

From the Mildly Interesting Stats Department:

The last few NL MVP races have induced many discussions of Ryan Howard vs. Albert Pujols.  Regular season numbers pretty much decide the issue in Albert’s favor.  But playoff numbers are interesting:

  • Howard’s career line: .279 / .376 / .586 (AVG/OBP/SLG)
  • Howard’s playoff career, through yesterday: .300 / .408 / .590
  • Numbers-wise: 27 games, 100 AB (plus 18 BB), 17 R, 6 HR, 25 RBI

Pujols has played in almost twice as many playoff games:

  • Pujols’ career line: .334 / .427 / .628 (seriously…)
  • Pujols’ playoff career: .322 / .431 / .578
  • Numbers-wise: 56 games, 199 AB (36 BB), 39 R, 13 HR, 36 RBI
Howard

Get me to August and then let me loose

The point?  No grand one, but a couple snack-sized observations.  Albert’s video-game-like regular season numbers mean that his tidy playoff 1.009 OPS is actually lower than his regular season numbers.  Howard, by comparison, has thus far batted above his regular season numbers.  In half the games, he has two-thirds as many RBI as Pujols.

The MVP is not decided by post-season performance, but if Howard keeps this up, he may win over a few more people in the debate over which elite NL first basemen you want on your team.