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July 31, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Loyalty

by Joe Sheehan

Chris Kahrl will have more to say about yesterday's big trades, but I want to share with you a great point made by Rany Jazayerli in e-mail, about the Mets/Twins deal:

Can you imagine how pissed off Matt Lawton is right now? He came up with the Twins in 1995, he's suffered through six awful seasons with them, and now, with the Twins two months away from a post-season appearance that no one expected, he gets discarded like a beer can to an also-ran team.

And they say that players aren't loyal to their teams anymore.

The merits of the deal are debatable, but that point--that Lawton is the big loser in this trade--isn't. This is the kind of trade that fans need to remember when players are excoriated for exercising their right to choose an employer after six or more years of major-league service, or their right to not be relocated after ten years of service, five in the same city.

Most arguments that players aren't loyal anymore ignore the fact that for most of baseball history, there was no opportunity for them to be loyal. Players didn't choose their employer at any time after their teenage years; once they signed with a team, they were bound to that team until said team didn't want them anymore. Staying with one team for a long period of time didn't reflect loyalty: it reflected the reserve clause.

Teams weren't "loyal" any longer than they needed to be: even inner-circle Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson found themselves cut loose or dealt by their long-time employers late in their careers. These moves may not have been popular, but they were accepted as the way the business was run. The notion that a team should be loyal to a player after he'd outlived his usefulness to them didn't enter into the decision.

It wasn't until players gained some control over their movements--the same control you and I have--that the notion of loyalty entered the discussion. Suddenly, a player changing teams during the course of his career was seen as disloyal. Trades were fine, releasing a player was fine, but for a player to elect to leave a team with which he'd been playing...oh, no, that player was disloyal.

One of the great conflicts in this area is no-trade clauses. A player who wants a no-trade clause is effectively saying, " I want to stay here. I want to be loyal. I don't want to leave." Yet requesting a no-trade clause is interpreted as the sign of a greedy player, demanding special privileges and standing in the way of a team's success. A team--say, the Athletics--that doesn't want to provide a no-trade clause to a player who wants to play with them and only them--say, Jason Giambi--is effectively choosing its own form of free agency; the opportunity to be disloyal if it no longer wants to maintain the relationship with the player.

Recently, Fred McGriff invoked his no-trade clause to block a trade to the Chicago Cubs. McGriff is 37 years old, married, a father, and has been playing in his hometown for the past three-and-a-half seasons. He didn't want to leave, and when his employer attempted to transfer him, he said so.

McGriff's loyalty, in this case, was less to his ballclub and more to his family. In fact, his initial decision to stay in Tampa seems to me an extreme expression of loyalty: putting the needs and wants of his family ahead of the potential to be a hero in another city, and perhaps enhance his chance at making the Hall of Fame. With the backing of his family, he eventually accepted the deal, but at no point was McGriff held up as an example of a player who wanted to be loyal. His character was questioned, with nasty innuendo about how McGriff would rather put up numbers for a bad team than contribute to a good one.

There are other examples, but I'll stop here. The point is clear, though: players are expected to subjugate their needs and desires when they have freedom to do so, to exercise their opportunity to be loyal, but teams are not held to the same standard. In fact, players are expected to set aside their loyalty if it's convenient for their team, even if it disrupts their lives.

It stinks.

Matt Lawton never got a chance to be loyal. Lawton just busted his ass for bad baseball teams for five years, then finally got the opportunity to play for a good one and be part of something special. His reward was a one-way ticket to fourth place. Remember him when you want to get mad at your local free agent this winter.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  No-Trade Clause

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