Monthly Archives: August 2009

An argument in favor of the Reserve Clause

I played golf with my dad yesterday and baseball’s Reserve Clause came up in conversation. We had two random men in our foursome, and I got to talking with one of them about sports. He mentioned about a football player he knew getting $75,000 many years ago as a first-round pick with the Pittsburgh Steelers and that seeming like a lot, even though athletes get tons more these days. I related how Tampa Bay Rays reliever J.P. Howell turned down an $850,000 signing bonus as a first round pick for the Atlanta Braves out of high school. He instead took his mother’s suggestion to go to college and wound up being drafted by the Kansas City Royals a few years later. That’s what happens when you listen to your mom.

This guy and I got to talking about all the money in sports, and I mentioned about the Reserve Clause and how I think what remains of it in baseball is a good thing. Allow me to explain. For many years, there was no free agency in baseball. Players remained the exclusive property of their teams for perpetuity under a so-called Reserve Clause, unless they were traded, sold or released. The constitutionality of this was naturally challenged, and in the 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court stunningly granted organized baseball an exemption to anti-trust laws. It took until the Seventies for the Players Union to finally win the right for free agency and for the Reserve Clause to be abolished. Now, the rule is that a player remains the exclusive property of the team he signs with for six years.

What’s happened of course is that in the last 30 years, baseball wages have skyrocketed. In 2008, the average annual salary topped $3 million. Teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers have assumed operating budgets higher than many third-world nations, I would guess, in throwing millions at stars like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramierez and Mark Teixeira. Meanwhile, small-market teams have become holding farms for up-and-coming players and the majority of owners have gotten screwed.

Interestingly, it’s the mid-level teams, the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays of baseball, and yes, even my beloved San Francisco Giants who seem to fare the worst in baseball’s current economic landscape. They have money, but never quite enough for the A-Rods or Mannys of the sport, and they instead wind up giving millions to second-tier veterans like Randy Winn and Milton Bradley. These teams’ payrolls often top $100 million annually, but it’s rarely enough to push them far beyond the middle of the standings. Fifteen years ago, it would have been like being a major film studio and trying to push a blockbuster with Jean Claude Van-Damme instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to save a few bucks. It’s not going to work. Everyone knows Timecop sucked.

What I find particularly interesting, though, is that in this current baseball climate the best teams remain home grown, maybe padded with experienced cast-offs, like the Philadelphia Phillies last year, the Colorado Rockies in 2007 and the Florida Marlins in 2003. Even the Yankees put together their strongest seasons back in the mid-Nineties when they adhered to this principle, bringing in under-the-radar veterans like Paul O’Neill to partner with Yankee farm products like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. I don’t get the Yankee philosophy now of signing the most expensive three or four free agents each year and then demanding they win World Series. It’s completely inane and I feel good that they fail every year. Granted, the Red Sox pay through the nose and have won two championships in the past five years. Still, they rose to prominence by assembling a crew of discarded vets. I knew who David Ortiz was six years ago, but I doubt many others did.

What remains of the Reserve Clause has also helped teams like the Oakland Athletics stay competitive. For all of the team’s struggles with rebuilding in recent years, A’s general manager Billy Beane is still highly adept at finding young talent, milking it for a few years at low rates ahead of free agency and then trading for more young talent. Teams like the A’s, Marlins and Rays survive by successfully shooting these margins. And with the minimum salary currently at $400,000, it’s not like the players are getting screwed too badly, either.

So what am I suggesting? I’m not saying baseball’s old system of having its players be slaves for life was necessarily good. But the current allowance for teams like the Yankees to consistently inflate wages seems to widen the gap between rich and poor teams and make the field of competition less fair. It seems to hurt the game, not help it.

Anything to strike a better balance is good, in my book.

Top Five All-Time Baseball Giveaways

The news that the Toronto Blue Jays jettisoned right fielder Alex Rios in a waiver wire deal to the Chicago White Sox for – well – nothing, has prompted some thinking on my part.  In that the Blue Jays got, again, nothing for Rios, save for relief from his $60 million contract, I got to wondering about the other top giveaway trades in baseball history.

Behold:

5. The city of Montreal gives the Expos to the city of Washington D.C. D.C should have at least made Montreal take Marion Barry in return.

4. The Boston Red Sox sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Technically, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee got $120,000 when he sold Ruth to the Yankees in the winter of 1920, big money in those days.  But it went to finance a Broadway musical for Frazee and the Sox failed to win the World Series for 84 subsequent years.

Really though, this is a stupid transaction regardless of Ruth’s involvement, and it reinforces an important lesson Major League Baseball was forced to learn in the wake of the deal: Ballplayers should never be traded for musicals (or shitty ’80s sitcoms as the Expos realized after the disastrous Andre Dawson for “Who’s the Boss?” blockbuster.  Wait that never happened.)  From a simple business and marketing perspective, there’s rarely a good rate of return in these sorts of trades.  And in my book, even Matt Williams past his prime would be too high a price to pay for “Miss Saigon” or “Rent.”

3. Minor leaguer gets traded for 10 wood bats. This got a lot less funny when the player in question, John C. Odom, died of a drug overdose thereafter.

But on a lighter note…

2. George Costanza gets traded by George Steinbrenner for some fried chicken. Need I say more?

1. A Negro Leagues sports writer attempts to give Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1937.  And never hears back. Gotta love that racist old time baseball.  Imagine how much that Pirates squad would have cleaned up during World War II.

Dion James: Another ballplayer I knew

A few years ago, I worked at an elementary school in Sacramento.  As it was in an upper-middle class neighborhood, not far from the State Capitol, the school attracted the children of the well-to-do: Legislators, attorneys and also C-level local celebrities.  Among this latter crowd was a former Major League Baseball player who I got to know, Dion James.

I actually met James years before when he came to sign autographs for my Little League team.  A Sacramento product and 1980 graduate of C.K. McClatchy High School, where Nick Johnson and Larry Bowa also went, James played in the majors between 1983 and 1996 with four different teams.  His best year came in 1987 with the Atlanta Braves when he hit .312 with 154 hits, six triples, and 10 home runs.  James never became a star, though he was a key reserve in 1995 with the New York Yankees, even meriting a mention in Sports Illustrated.  He visited my Little League practice that year and signed a Japanese card for me from his days with the Chunichi Dragons.

By the time I met James again a decade later, he was a 40-something-year-old father, raising a few sons in Sacramento, including one prodigy.  We talked once or twice at the elementary school I worked at as a recreation aid.  While he waited to pick up his son one time, James told me about his playing days, including his stint in the Japanese League.  Like a lot of players, including Kevin Mitchell and Rob Deer, James went to play in Japan in the wake of the 1994 strike.  Apparently, the Japanese training regimen is no joke.  James told me about having to do exercises in gale-force winds, hunching down to show me how he and other Dragons players scooted into the wind.

Not surprisingly, James only lasted a year in Japan before returning to the majors.

Dontrelle Willis: The Crossroads

I feel for Dontrelle Willis.

The 2005 National League Cy Young award-winner has reached an impasse in his career, a crossroads. Having won only a single game over the past two seasons, the 27-year-old is currently in the minor leagues, after last pitching for the Detroit Tigers earlier this season. His hindrance? An anxiety disorder, finally diagnosed this year, after two seasons of futility.

Tigers brass, including manager Jim Leyland, have expressed guarded optimism in the press. But if history is any indication, Willis’ return to prominence, let alone the majors, is no sure thing.

Willis is the latest and most notable member of a sad subculture in baseball: Those players whose careers derailed for reasons mental, not physical. In recent years, Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel have been two high-profile cases of former top pitchers who mysteriously lost their control. Things got so bad for Ankiel that he had to become an outfielder. Baseball is something of a conservative establishment, not always as tolerant as it should be of affliction. One can only wonder how many other players suffer in silence, not eager to attract unwanted attention and make things worse.

Three decades ago, Pittsburgh Pirates staff ace Steve Blass experienced a similar career implosion on the mound. The hero of the 1971 World Series, Blass fell out of the majors within a few years, as he lost all pitching command. Roger Angell chronicled Blass’s downfall in a 1975 story in the New Yorker. The story depicted Blass attempting to save face.

“You know, this thing that’s happened has been painted so bad, so tragic,” Blass was quoted as saying in the piece. “Well, I don’t go along with that. I know what I’ve done in baseball, and I give myself all the credit in the world for it. I’m not bitter about this. I’ve had the greatest moments a person could ever want.”

Angell wasn’t sold, as he wrote in the story.

All this was said with an air of summing up, of finality, but at other times that evening I noticed that it seemed difficult for Blass to talk about his baseball career as a thing of the past; now and then he slipped in the present tense — as if it were still going on.

Blass never pitched another game. Just as Lou Gehrig has a disease named after him, Steve Blass Disease, according to Wikipedia, “is applied to talented players who inexplicably and permanently seem to lose their ability to accurately throw a baseball.”

Granted, there are occasional success stories. John Smoltz turned his career around after going to see a psychologist at the 1991 All-Star break. And Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn became a strikeout sensation with just a pair of glasses. But the latter is a character from the film “Major League.”

One of my favorite writers is the noted essayist Joan Didion, who went to the same high school I attended in Sacramento, albeit 50 years before me. In the preface to her classic 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion describes her own battle to overcome neurosis.

I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

Hopefully for Willis’ sake, he too can come to these terms.

Okay, Jose

Last week came the news that yet another standout baseball player, this time David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, had flunked a Performance Enhancing Drug test in 2003. Amidst the flurry of media attention that followed, my pal Jose Canseco (hey, I once interviewed the guy) stepped in with some typically audacious comments.

Canseco told Pedro Gomez of ESPN.com, “I’ll tell you this, Major League Baseball is going to have a big, big problem on their hands when they find out they have a Hall of Famer who’s used.”

It’s curious to consider who he may be talking about (probably not Lou Gehrig, I’m guessing.) References to Canseco’s quip have of course blown up around the Internet and blogosphere. One post, aptly titled Jose Canseco Just Ruined My Life (mine too) listed seven Hall-of-Fame members who played with the former Oakland Athletics slugger at different points. The copied list is as follows:

  • Nolan Ryan (Texas, 1992 – 1993)
  • Rickey Henderson (Oakland, 1989 – 1992)
  • Wade Boggs (Tampa Bay, 1999)
  • Reggie Jackson (Oakland, 1987)
  • Don Sutton (Oakland, 1985)
  • Rich Gossage (Oakland, 1992)
  • Dennis Eckersley (Oakland, 1987 – 1992)

If I had to bet, my money would be on Jackson, one of the early players to grasp the importance of weightlifting. A 1987 story from the New Yorker, entitled “The September Song of Mr. October,” paints a picture of the 40-year-old slugger over-the-hill and preparing for the final season of his storied career:

Jackson worked harder than anyone else in the gym. “When I quit I’ll become a body builder,” he said with a load of weights on his back. “Just for the hell of it.  For vanity.”  He worked his quadriceps, his calves, his triceps and biceps.  Between sets, he ran in place with the quick, short steps of a shadowboxer.  He wore a baseball cap, sweatpants, and a blue rubber shirt.  Sweat washed over his face and dripped off the point of his chin.  He had always looked more like a heavyweight fighter than a ballplayer.

I remember reading this a few years ago and even feeling a little suspicious then.

Jackson of course denounces steroid use on his official website. That’s fine. It doesn’t really mean anything in this day and age. Ortiz said similar things. So did Rafael Palmeiro.

With that said, I’m kind of surprised Canseco only claimed one Hall-of-Famer had used. Looking over the list, nearly every guy looks mildly suspect, with the exception of Don Sutton and Rickey Henderson, the latter of whom was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying, “They kept that shit a secret from me.”  (Canseco also absolved Henderson of any steroid usage, saying he’d never seen anything to suggest it.)  However, Eckersley, Boggs and even Ryan wouldn’t be all that surprising of dopers, given their mid-to-late career struggles and resurgences.

This all may sound blasphemous but consider the following: A few years ago, news surfaced that an Atlanta Braves pitcher from the 1960s and ’70s Tom House had experimented with steroids during his career.  In the Associated Press story that broke, House said other players had used streroids as well.  I subsequently emailed Jim Bouton, another pitcher from this era, who wrote the classic diary of the 1969 season, Ball Four.  I asked Bouton if he thought House was telling the truth.  If I remember correctly, Bouton said he doubted it, but that if steroids had been prevalent in his era, guys like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would definitely have used them to gain an edge.