CRAFTY CARDINALS’ SIGNING STRATEGY

By Murray Chass

January 10, 2010

On the day of the trading deadline in 1997 the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Mark McGwire from the Oakland Athletics. The Cardinals were in third place at the time and slipped another spot in the standings by the end of the season, but they did something else before the end that would set them on a course that would make a significant impact on the franchise.Mark McGwire2 225

Rather than let McGwire leave as a free agent after the 1997 season, the Cardinals signed him to a three-year contract, setting a precedent that would become a cornerstone of their personnel philosophy. The Cardinals, more than any other team, have made it a practice to negotiate contract extensions or new contracts with players they acquire in trades, often in the middle of a season.

Following McGwire, the Cardinals obtained and retained Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Joel Pineiro. Matt Holliday became the latest in the line of the Cardinals’ obtain-and-retain strategy by agreeing last week to a seven-year, $120 million contract.

“We have been opportunistic,” Bill DeWitt Jr., the club chairman and managing partner, said in a telephone interview. “When quality players have become available, whether they couldn’t be signed by their existing club or whatever reason, we felt if we got them into our environment they would enjoy it and find it a place where they would want to stay a long time.”

“It’s a way that we’ve been able to get premium players,” he added. “We’ve owned the club for 14 years, and we haven’t been able to get the premium free agents, who get long-term deals in the open market. We’re not in a position to do that. We’ve tried, but we haven’t been able to get them.”

It was a strategy that worked first with McGwire in 1997. He hadn’t been in St. Louis a month when he decided that was the place for him.

“When we made the trade,” recalled Walt Jocketty, the general manager at the time, “I looked at the market for him and thought there might be two or three teams in position to go after him in the winter.” One of the teams was the Anaheim Angels, who played in McGwire’s backyard.

“I felt once we got him there playing for Tony,” Jocketty continued, refering to manager Tony La Russa, also McGwire’s manager in Oakland, “and Barry Weinberg was the trainer in Oakland, with the fans in St. Louis, he fell in love with the place and probably signed for less than he could have.”

McGwire’s agent was Bob Cohen, a Los Angeles lawyer, who was not a member of the Scott Boras school of getting every dollar he could. Cohen had planned to let McGwire play the last two months in St. Louis before deciding what he wanted to do with his future.

“Then out of the blue – it was probably in September, the first or second week – I went to see the Rams play, and he called me. He said, ‘I’ve been thinking. I want to stay here.’ I said Mark, you’re doing so well the market is going to expand for you. I said do me a favor. Sit back, give it some thought and we’ll talk tomorrow. He called the next day and said, ‘I’ve thought about it. I want to stay here.’”

“They had sold him on St. Louis,” Cohen said. “It was the opposite of playing in Oakland; the fans, the city, everything was positive about it. There were no negatives. He loved the ball park, he wanted to play for Tony and he knew Jocketty. Plus he wasn’t greedy.”

The big first baseman agreed to a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year for a guaranteed $28.5 million. He had a bevy of bonuses as well, including one for attendance, which earned him an additional $1.67 million over four years. He also received a monthly housing allowance of $4,000, use of a luxury class car, use of the owner’s jet three times during the season and 20 first-class round-trip plane tickets to St. Louis from anywhere in the country.

The Cardinals didn’t exactly force slave-like conditions on the players they wanted to retain. And they didn’t ignore the rest of the team either.

“We created a positive, winning environment,” Jocketty said. “They knew we were committed to winning. Everyone behind the scene served the players and treated them well.”

McGwire, of course, produced for the Cardinals, slugging what was then a record 70 home runs in 1998 and 65 the following season and driving in 147 runs each of those two seasons. But his production would subsequently come under question because of the suspicions that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

“I’m not here to talk about the past,” was his repeated declaration at a Congressional hearing in 2005, after which he disappeared from baseball. He plans to reappear this year as the Cardinals’ hitting coach. His promised news conference is the most anticipated event of the winter.

McGwire is returning to baseball at the urging of La Russa, who has refused to question McGwire publicly and with the blessing of Commissioner Bud Selig, who also has refrained from making critical remarks about a player he has long favored.

Matt HollidayThe Cardinals won division titles in McGwire’s last two years with them – he retired after the 2001 season – but they finished in first place in Holliday’s first partial season with them. In 63 games with St. Louis, Holliday batted .353, hit 13 homers and drove in 55 runs. In 51 games in his partial St. Louis season, McGwire batted .253 with 24 homers and 42 r.b.i.

“Matt clearly wanted to test the market,” DeWitt said, “but in the end I think we had an advantage. Clubs who might have been interested in him knew we were making every effort to sign him. The strategy is when a player of that quality becomes available try to resign him because we have a chance to do it.”

Holliday filed for free agency, but the Cardinals were intent on resigning him. Their $120 million offer was well beyond anyone else’s. When the signing was announced, baseball people wanted to know why the Cardinals spent all of that money when no other team was actively or aggressively involved.

“That’s a good question,” DeWitt said, then explained that the Cardinals weren’t really paying Holliday $17 million a year but paying $15 million and deferring $2 million “for a long time” without interest. That payout, DeWitt said, reduces the annual present-day value to $16 million a year, “which we think is a good value for him.” Well, that’s a relief.

“While it didn’t appear other clubs were on him at that level,” the owner said, “they represented they had options that were shorter and he could come back into the market in two or three years. That wasn’t his first choice but he would do it.”

That, of course, is the sort of negotiating game Boras always plays, creating doubts in the mind of the target team. It usually works, as it did in this case.

“We didn’t think we could sign him at the point we did if we had played a waiting game,” DeWitt said.

 

JOHNSON’S FEATS A TALL ORDER 

Randy Johnson, all 6-feet-10 of him, is retiring. He is taking his 303 victories, his perfect game and his non-perfect no-hitter, his 4,875 strikeouts, his great post-season pitching (starting and relieving) performances and going home. He will make his next official public appearance in July 2015 when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame.Randy Johnson 225

There is so much to talk to Johnson about, but there wasn’t enough time on his conference call last week announcing his retirement. I’ll limit his comments on the call to those about his size.

“A handful of pitchers over 6-8, 6-9 maybe have had success in this sport,” Johnson said. “It’s not a tall man’s game. Basketball is.”

He talked about how he has enjoyed talking with young pitchers about pitching. Given his size, I asked Johnson, can shorter pitchers relate to him and his style of pitching?

“No,” he quickly replied, then added, “I say that because being five or six inches taller than the average pitcher, there’s more of my body I need to keep under control. My arms are longer, my legs are longer. Someone shorter is more compact and can do that more easily.”

Johnson said that when he was with the Yankees several seasons ago he encountered Chris Young, also 6-10, at Yankee Stadium when the Rangers were playing there.

“I let him know some of the things that I had to work on,” Johnson said. “I don’t think anybody realizes how difficult that is to go out and perform at that level. It’s not easy doing it when you’re 6 foot 10.”

 

BLOGGERS’ TROUBLE WITH ENGLISH AND MATH

When you were in school, did you ever flunk both English and math in the same year? If you did, did you do it publicly, not just for your teacher and your parents to see?

I have come upon a whole organization that gets a failing grade in English and math. And I am not picking on it because it is an organization of bloggers. But if I didn’t already dislike blogs, this would do it.

I recently received a news release from the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA), a recently formed organization that unabashedly acknowledges that it is copying the Baseball Writers Association (BBWAA). Except it’s for bloggers, not newspaper reporters.

Before the Hall of Fame announcement last week, the BBA surveyed its members in an “election” that copied the BBWAA election. It was meaningless, of course, but the group was just looking to get some publicity. It wasn’t the kind of publicity, however, that I would want for my organization.

On the English side of the ledger, the release mixed singular subjects with plural predicates and singular subjects with subsequent plural pronouns. We writers care about that sort of thing. The release said Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, the leading votegetters, “both received 35 of the 47 votes.” But they each got 35 votes; if they both received 35 votes, they would not have been the leading votegetters because their combined total would have been 35.

But the BBA saved its worst for its math exploits. Noting that the percentages for Alomar and Blyleven were 74.468, the release said the two players would make the Hall of Fame because their percentages would be rounded to 75.

Wrong. If the BBA is trying to imitate the BBWAA, it should get the rules right. The BBWAA does not round up to 75. A player has to get a pure 75 percent or more to be elected. In this year’s election, 539 votes were cast, and 75 percent of that total is 404.25. But 404 votes would not have put a candidate in the Hall. He needed 405.

But the BBA also fails simple math, something that two of my grandchildren, Jake and Josh, said they learned in first grade. The fraction .468 is not rounded to the next number. A fraction has to be half (.5) or more to round to the next whole number.

If 74.468 is rounded, it becomes 74, not 75. So in the BBA survey, no one received enough votes to be elected. But that’s not what the release said.

The error-infested release only reinforces my feeling about blogs and bloggers. It becomes Exhibit A. If a person can’t write basic English correctly and doesn’t know basic math in a sport filled with numbers, what business does he have writing anything for public consumption?

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.