RAYS’ G.M. SHOWS LOYALTY; PUJOLS?

By Murray Chass

December 11, 2011

The sports world, not just baseball, has always been basically bereft of loyalty. Players, for the most part, have no loyalty to their teams, and their teams show no loyalty to them. That reality has only increased in the era of free agency. Players and teams, for the most part, make business decisions.Andrew Friedman2 225

There is, however, another kind of loyalty, and that is between clubs and their officials. Last week Andrew Friedman, the Tampa Bay general manager, demonstrated an admirable act of loyalty by shunning the opportunity to go home to Houston, where he was born and grew up, to become the general manager of the Astros.

Friedman opted to stay with the Rays, whose owner, Stuart Sternberg, brought him into baseball from Wall Street. Had it not been for Sternberg, Friedman would most likely still be laboring in a poor economy and not having fun and success building one of Major League Baseball’s lowest-payroll teams into a contender and an American League champion.

Jim Crane, the Houston businessman, who has just become the owner of the Astros, fired their general manager, Ed Wade, after the franchise’s 106-loss season, worst in its history, and had Friedman near, if not at, the top of his list of potential successors. Friedman, though, declined to be interviewed.

It’s possible that Friedman had reasons other than loyalty to stay where he is. Maybe he didn’t want to have to try to build another contender out of the mess that the Astros have become. Maybe he didn’t want to go home; not everybody does. Whatever the reason, though, he stayed with Sternberg.

The last general manager I recall showing such loyalty at perhaps the sacrifice of his personal well being (contract, money) was Terry Ryan of the Minnesota Twins. A proven executive, Ryan was the Twins’ general manager, who was in danger of having his team cut out from under him.

Contraction was a hot topic about 10 years ago and looked like a very real possibility, though it turned out to be an empty threat, nothing more than an owners’ negotiating ploy for the players. If M.L.B. actually did contract two teams, the prevailing view was, the Twins would be one of them.

Carl Pohlad, the Twins’ owner, and confidant of the commissioner, had expressed willingness to sacrifice his franchise, and other teams pursued Ryan, who appeared to be on his way to losing his job (not everyone was in on the conspiracy).

Ryan, who did every bit as good a job with the Twins as Billy Beane did with the Oakland Athletics as portrayed in the highly successful but grossly exaggerated book “Moneyball,” could have had any number of jobs. But Ryan rejected all suitors, saying if the ship was going down, he would stay with it and its lower-level employees, who weren’t being offered jobs elsewhere.

While Ryan and Friedman have demonstrated one kind of loyalty, what about the loyalty between players and teams? Albert Pujols’ defection from St. Louis, where he has spent his entire 11-year career, is far more noticeable and controversial (among Cardinals fans certainly) than Friedman’s decision to remain with the Rays.

Albert Pujols Angels Intro 225Is Pujols being disloyal to the only team he has known by going west to the Angels? Everybody, I am sure, has his opinion, on that question. Ask fans of the Seattle Mariners what they think, and they will probably say he is. They would base their feeling on the way they felt when Alex Rodriguez abandoned them as a free agent after the 2000 season.

Rodriguez left the Mariners because Tom Hicks, the Texas Rangers’ owner, offered him $252 million, which was $100 million more than the next highest offer he had received. The difference between Hicks’ offer and the offer the Mariners made was still greater.

Would any of those Mariners’ fans turned his back on more than $100 million? In what life? In what world? People change jobs for a few extra dollars an hour. Was Rodriguez supposed to give up more than $10 million a year?

Pujols, who gave the Cardinals plenty of time to sign him, left St, Louis for a $254 million contract offered by the Angels’ owner, Arte Moreno, who presumably was influenced by factors other than what prompted Hicks to offer Rodriguez $252 million.

Hicks responded to Rodriguez after having dinner with him at the winter meetings, also in Dallas. As was easy to do in those days, Hicks fell hard for the engaging shortstop and decided he had to have him. He asked agent Scott Boras what it would take to sign Rodriguez, Boras told him and Hicks asked “where do I sign?”

The Pujols’ negotiation was not based on infatuation but on negotiation. The Angels’ offer appealed to Pujols and his agent, Dan Lozano, because it was decidedly better than any other he received.

At the beginning of last week’s winter meetings, the newly-named and housed Miami Marlins made a big splash, offering a 10-year deal. But it reportedly included enough deferred money to reduce the present-day value of the package significantly, and the Marlins declined Pujols’ request for a no-trade clause in the contract.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals, whose talks for a contract extension Pujols cut off at the start of last spring training (rejecting a 9-year $198 million proposal), began post-season negotiations with a five-year $130 million offer.

With 10-year offers in the air and on the table, that proposal grew to $210 million for 10 years. As with the Marlins’ offer, though, this one included a significant amount of deferred money. One person told me the Cardinals proposed deferring $30 million for 20 years without interest.

Since the deal was not accepted, the people who usually compute present-day value of contracts that include deferred compensation didn’t do the math, but as a rule of thumb I have used in such instances in the past, I think it’s safe to figure that the $30 million deferred would produce a present-day value of roughly half that amount. That means the Cardinals’ $210 million offer was really under $200 million, say $195 million at most.

The Angels came in with their 10-year offer of $254 million – nothing deferred – and also, the Post-Dispatch said, loaded with bonuses for milestone incentives that could make the package worth more than $280 million.

Was Pujols supposed to choose the Cardinals’ less lucrative offer and stay in St. Louis because the fans adored him and that’s the only place he had ever played? Would you?

Players have found St. Louis a comfortable place to play. When Mark McGwire was traded there in 1997, he planned to play out the season and become a free agent. Before the end of the season, though, he signed an extension and played the final four years of his career and now coaches there. But money, if there’s enough of it, can trump comfort.

Sometimes a player makes a mistake by taking the best offer and winds up regretting his decision. Even Rodriguez wanted out of Texas after three consecutive last-place finishes.

In terms of money, though, the argument could be made that the Cardinals’ offer provided Pujols with enough money and how much more did he need. But if you reduce the Cardinals’ $210 million because of the deferred money and raise the Angels’ $254 million offer because of the potential bonuses, the difference becomes more than a paltry few million a year.Albert Pujols 225

Pujols owes St. Louis nothing. The Cardinals drafted him and sent him out to play. He did the rest. If anything, the Cardinals and their fans owe Pujols for his monstrous annual production and his most-valuable-player-like contribution to two World Series championships. Without him they don’t have those seasons.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, should not be blamed for failing to sign Pujols. They might have benefited from a more aggressive approach, but based on the dollars they offered, it’s obvious they were stretching their resources as far as they felt they could while making sure they had enough money left to sign the rest of the unsigned roster.

“I think we did everything we could,” general manager John Mozeliak told a news conference in St. Louis. Presumably he meant they did everything they could financially.

“Everybody that was really close to the process knew we were stretching and putting ourselves in a situation that was becoming a little uncomfortable, but one in which we thought we were doing what was worth it,” Mozeliak added.

As I said, I don’t think the Cardinals’ actions were responsible for prompting Pujols’ flight. In fact, I think they made the most sensible offer, although not one that the first baseman would have ever accepted.

Pujols will turn 32 years old next month. That means he will play at 41 in the 10th year of the Angels’ contract. He may be a designated hitter by then, but will he need a designated runner?

Rodriguez, 11 years after signing his initial 10-year contract, turned 36 at mid-season this year and finished with the fewest games played and lowest home run and runs batted in totals and slugging percentage than in any season since he began playing full seasons in 1996.

Maybe the season was an aberration but maybe it wasn’t. Age does catch up with even the best players sooner or later.

The Cardinals offered Pujols $26 million a year for five years. In that deal he would have been 36 in the final year. That made sense to the Cardinals, but of course not to Pujols when someone else was willing to give him twice as many years for just about twice as much money, if not more, considering potential bonuses.

Ego plays a large part in a player’s decision. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself by getting less than someone else he feels he is better than.

Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner, thinks the Cardinals and other teams with such high-priced superstars could and should do something else. Taking a cue from Hollywood, where he once ran Columbia Pictures, Vincent believes the time has come for teams to pay part of an expensive contract in team equity.

Instead of paying astronomical salaries, he says, give player a small ownership share of the team, and when he leaves the team, he can sell the share back to the team. The player would benefit from the plan as well as the club because his capital-gains tax would be less than his income tax.

Earlier this year I saw an isolated mention of the Cardinals having made such a proposal but having Pujols reject it, but I have not confirmed that development.

If it did happen, it would not surprise me if the player rejected the idea because his agent would strongly oppose it. Agents want their commissions now, not 5 or 10 years from now when the player might sell back his share of the team and receive his monetary share.

Come to think of it, owning a piece of the team might induce greater loyalty on both sides.

BONDS’ FREEDOM AT STAKE

Who said that Barry Bonds would wind up in prison before he was in the Hall of Fame? Oh, that’s right. I did a couple of years ago.

barry-bonds2We’re supposed to find out Friday if I was right. That’s the day Bonds is scheduled to be sentenced on his conviction of obstruction of justice, the lone charge of four charges on which he was found guilty in a federal trial last April.

Two conflicting recommendations for Bonds’ sentence emerged last week.

A federal probation officer recommended that the former outfielder receive probation, and Bonds’ lawyers urged a judge to accept that recommendation. However, prosecutors quickly opposed probation and urged the judge to sentence Bonds to 15 months in prison.

The government has botched the case so badly that I would guess probation will win, whether or not Bonds deserves it.

The government chased Bonds for years and thought they had him for lying to a grand jury investigating use of illegal performance-enhancing substances, including steroids. But the trial jury deadlocked on three perjury charges – Bonds said he thought he was using flaxseed oil, not steroids – and the government decided not to retry him on those charges.

The refusal of Bonds’ former trainer, Greg Anderson, to testify in the trial was instrumental in the outcome. Anderson opted to serve prison time for contempt rather than testify.

Even if he doesn’t go to jail, Bonds, 47 and retired four years, is not guaranteed a seat in the Hall of Fame. Steroids users and suspects have not fared well in elections. Bonds will be on the writers’ ballot for the first time next year.

DAVID, MEET BOWIE

In case they didn’t know it already, National Basketball Association owners learned last week that their commissioner, David Stern, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. All I can say is Mr. Gorilla, meet Mr. Obstruction, a.k.a. Bowie Kuhn, the late and unlamented commissioner of Major League Baseball.Charlie Finley 225

In blocking a major trade, Stern acted reminiscently of Kuhn’s equally stunning decision in 1976 that prevented the owner he had no regard for, Charley Finley of the Oakland Athletics, from selling Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox.

Finley responded by suing Kuhn and calling him the “village idiot,” both of which actions I thought were appropriate. Finley lost the lawsuit, but Kuhn didn’t shed the label.

Stern overruled a three-team trade among the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Hornets, whom the league owns, a fact that apparently gave him the right to make that move.

News reports said Stern acted on complaints of other owners, who didn’t want the Hornets to trade Chris Paul to the Lakers, even though the Hornets were said to be getting a package of good players in return.

In 1976, Kuhn said he blocked Finley’s sale of Blue, Rudi and Fingers because he was decimating the team.

The Hornets said they were trading Paul because he can opt out of his contract after this delayed season and they faced losing him without getting anything in return.

Finely said he was selling the three players because they were going to be free agents after that season and he would lose them without getting anything in return. In addition, he said he was going to use the sale proceeds to restock the team by signing other free agents.

Kuhn, who didn’t believe or trust Finley, wasn’t about to give him a chance to demonstrate his stated intentions. He just ruled that the three players couldn’t be sold. Finley sued and lost, the judge finding that the commissioner had the authority to do basically whatever he wanted in the so-called “best interests of baseball.”

I don’t remember what Kuhn said on the witness stand that persuaded the judge he had that power, but I do remember thinking as he testified that he was lying. I wisely resisted the urge to stand up and say, “Your honor, this man is lying.” It would probably not have been a very good idea.

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