Loyalty a Foreign Substance in Baseball

By Murray Chass

January 11, 2009

In baseball, loyalty does not travel a two-way street.

“When you get in a situation in negotiations when a player who’s been there a long time winds up leaving, it’s the player who is greedy and not loyal,” said Tom Glavine, who based his observations on 22 years in the major leagues. “But when the player wants to stay and the club doesn’t keep him it’s a business decision. You can’t have it both ways. Either it’s loyalty or not. You can’t blame a player when he makes a business decision and not say the same thing about the team.”

The subject of loyalty arose last week when two veteran free-agent pitchers signed with new teams. After a 21-year career with the Atlanta Braves, the only team he has pitched for, John Smoltz is headed for Boston to pitch for the Red Sox. And after a nearly 16-year run with the San Diego Padres, Trevor Hoffman is going to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Both pitchers would have been happy to stay with their teams, would have preferred staying, but their teams acted in ways that made it preferable for them to leave.

The Padres offered Hoffman a one-year contract for $4 million but withdrew it before he said yes or no. He agreed with the Brewers on a one-year contract with a $6 million guaranteed salary and the possibility of an additional $1.5 million in bonuses based on the number of games he finishes.

The Braves offered Smoltz a one-year contract with a $2 million salary and a potential $8 million in bonuses, much of them based on roster time, for a possible $10 million total. The Red Sox contract has a $5.5 million salary with an additional $5 million in bonuses based on roster time. Smoltz viewed the Red Sox bonuses as more reasonable and more attractive.

Under the Braves’ bonus offers, Smoltz would have earned $1 million each if he were on the roster opening day, May 1 and June 1, then another $5 million based on his number of starts and innings pitched. Smoltz was concerned that the roster bonuses were strictly under the Braves’ control and that they could too easily be manipulated. For example, Smoltz could be sound enough to open the season on the Braves’ roster, but they could decide they didn’t need a fifth starter until later and leave him off the opening-day roster.

The 41-year-old Smoltz, accounting for his shoulder operation last June, made his own proposal, which he called a risk-and-reward offer, where he would accept financial risk and give the Braves more protection earlier in the season in exchange for financial reward if he were pitching regularly later in the season. But the Braves rejected the proposal.

“We believe we made a very reasonable, fair offer that took into consideration all the elements,” John Schuerholz, the Braves’ president, said, “his long standing tenure with us, our desire to have him return, our willingness to construct a contract that would pay him a considerable amount of money if he is able to pitch.

“Our guarantee admittedly wasn’t as high as he was looking for or he got. We just don’t have the information or the knowledge that allows us to be comfortable with someone coming off that particular shoulder surgery coming back to pitch.”

The Braves, however, know Smoltz much more intimately than the Red Sox or any other team that was interested in Smoltz, including the Yankees, who had preliminary discussions with his agent. Considering that the Red Sox had a pretty decent rotation already, they weren’t going to throw millions at a pitcher with a questionable future.

If they felt comfortable with the offer they made Smoltz, why weren’t the Braves willing to offer a higher guarantee, especially since their manager, Bobby Cox, had watched Smoltz throw and was impressed with where he was at that stage of his rehabilitation.

In addition, isn’t loyalty worth anything? The Braves, however, basically constructed their offer as if they were negotiating with Carl Pavano coming off his disastrous four years with the Yankees. In fact, the Cleveland Indians signed Pavano for only $500,000 less in guaranteed money than the Braves offered Smoltz.

Loyalty, Schuerholz said, “is such a difficult concept to really grasp in our business. I think it’s loyalty when a player remains with an organization for 21 years. I think it’s loyalty when an organization makes every attempt to keep a player who’s been there for 21 years. I think we’ve done that better than most.”

“It’s difficult, especially with a player who’s aging or has had injuries,” added Schuerholz, who is in his 19th year with the Braves. “That doesn’t change your loyalty to a player. We’re in a very difficult business in terms of what the cost of what your work force is and players in a very difficult position deciding where to work to make their excellent salaries. It’s like jousting at windmills. How do you define windmills? It’s an ethereal concept for me.”

Glavine, though, suggested that there are players who are special cases and should be treated as such. From the team’s perspective, he said, “I understand the Braves are nervous about what John might be able to do. But when teams are a couple million dollars apart, they don’t do a good job of dealing with special guys.

“They don’t come along that often. I think John fits that mold. What John has done for the team and the community, if there’s a guy whom you’re going to go against your business model, that’s the guy. I don’t think that will open you up to others. The chances of another guy coming down that road like John is unlikely. 

“Maybe I’m naive in thinking this but if I’m an average guy and I come to an organization and I think I’m going to be treated like Smoltz they’re unrealistic to think you’ll be treated the same way. No way that’s going to happen and it shouldn’t.”

The Braves’ judgment might have been influenced by their awful experience last season with injuries to pitchers. Smoltz started 5 games, Glavine and Mike Hampton 13 each and Tim Hudson 22. That’s a total of 53 starts instead of 132 if all are healthy.

“We have all the respect in the world for John,” Schuerholz said. “We’re sorry it came to this. We wish it hadn’t ended this way. But we made what we felt was an appropriate approach and John and his representatives didn’t agree.”

Smoltz Joins Johnson and Others

John Smoltz is one of seven pitchers in major league history who played with one team for 20 or more seasons. Research by Elias Sports Bureau identified the others as Red Faber and Ted Lyons of the Chicago White Sox, Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators, Mel Harder of the Cleveland Indians, Warren Spahn of the Boston and Milwaukee Braves and Phil Niekro of the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves.

Johnson (1907 through 1927), Lyons (1923-42 and 46), Harder (1928-47) and Faber (1914-33) spent their entire careers with one team.

Glavine on the Way Back

Tom Glavine had his own negotiating problems with the Braves six years ago and moved his left arm and his family to New York, pitching for the Mets for five years before returning home last winter. He’s a free agent again, but this time he’s a free agent returning from elbow and shoulder surgery.

The 42-year-old left-hander has been long tossing since just before Christmas and expects to begin throwing from a mound in the next week. But he knows he has a lot more work to do before determining if he can pitch in the coming season. If he can, he wants to continue pitching for the Braves. As a result, he had more than a passing interest in the Braves’ negotiations with John Smoltz. Glavine viewed Smoltz’s signing with the Red Sox with mixed emotions.

“As his friend I’m happy for him,” Glavine said. “As a potential member of the Braves I’ll be sad not to have him in the clubhouse with me. I understand the business side of baseball. I know it’s going to be fun for him playing in Boston. I’m envious that he’ll be playing in Boston and I never got to play in Boston.”

Glavine was born in Concord, Mass., and grew up in the Boston area but has never played professionally there. As with Smoltz, most people thought he would play his entire career with the Braves, but they were unable to agree on a contract in 2002.

“In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a situation in my case where I was asking for something exorbitant, that I was out of line in what I was asking,” he said. “They were reluctant to meet what I asked for. John’s case was not a whole lot different. At the end of the day, everyone is looking at what the difference was in keeping him or not. It seems like a small number. You say how can they not give him that?”

As his friend, Glavine said, he supports Smoltz’s decision. “I know it was a difficult process for him,” he said. “It was difficult emotionally for him to walk away from the Braves. I’m sure he never expected to do that, but I know what that’s like.”

Glavine said he was optimistic about his comeback. “I’ve met all my goals so far and haven’t had any setbacks,” he said. “You don’t totally know until you get on the mound and let it go, but my arm strength is good. I don’t expect any major problems.”

Though he has had preliminary talks with the Braves about the 2009 season, Glavine said,

“I’m not in that much of a hurry to talk to them. They know I’m interested; I know they’re interested.”

And the longer he waits so that the Braves can see how well he’s throwing, the better a contract he can get from them.

Pettitte Won’t Take a Giambi Pay Cut

Every free agent is entitled to seek the contract and the salary he wants.  But the view here is that Andy Pettitte is being foolish by rejecting the Yankees’ $10 million offer for the coming season. He has rejected it because the salary represents a $6 million pay cut from last season.

But just last week Jason Giambi, Pettitte’s Yankees teammate for four years, agreed to a contract with the Oakland Athletics that guarantees him $5.25 million, which is less than one-third of the $17 million his previous contract averaged. That contract, with the Yankees, ran 7 years and paid Giambi $120 million.

In his previous 7 seasons, playing for the Yankees and the Houston Astros, Pettitte earned $84.5 million, or an average of $12 million a year.

So based on that seven-year average the Yankees were asking Pettitte to take a $2 million pay cut. Giambi took a pay cut, $11.75 million based on the average of his previous contract, that was almost as large as the average of Pettitte’s pay the previous seven years.

The two players are close in age – Giambi is 38, Pettitte 36 – and they have had similar experiences with performance-enhancing substances, using them and then admitting it and apologizing. Giambi was willing to take a huge pay cut. Pettitte so far isn’t.

Owners Need to Check Their Own Checkbooks

With some owners calling for a payroll cap in reaction to the Yankees’ orgy of spending on free agents before baseball arrives at that development, here’s a suggestion:

The small-revenue clubs that get millions from large-revenue clubs through the revenue-sharing plan should have to spend all of the money on their player payrolls. As the plan is presently constituted, clubs are required to use the money to improve themselves, but the money doesn’t have to go to players.

The money can be spent on signing free agents, improving a club’s scouting and player development, adding a minor league team, paying a higher salary to hire a better general manager, whatever is perceived as improving a team.

The expenditures of some clubs, however, are not readily apparent and sometimes suspiciously non-existent. The commissioner’s office is supposed to monitor the way all clubs spend their revenue-sharing money, and the union also has the right to know how the money is spent.

But the data is not available to fans or the news media, and the behavior of some teams prompts skepticism among them. There have been instances were clubs’ payrolls have been less than the amount of revenue sharing they get.



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