May 28, 1998
Get That Thing Off the Table
Don't be mad at J.D. Drew or Scott BorasAs most of you know, the Phillies and infamous Scott Boras client J.D. Drew failed to reach an agreement before the deadline last Monday, and as a result, the Phillies have forfeited their rights to sign him, and Drew now goes back into the draft. Not surprisingly, Drew has been almost universally pilloried, being painted either as some sort of dupe for the incarnation of Evil that is Scott Boras, or as some sort of greedy kid who wants the world handed to him on a platter without having proved anything in organized baseball. People can get a little short-sighted and jealous when large sums of money are directed to people other than themselves, whether they want to admit it or not. It's hard to generate a whole lot of sympathy for a young, athletically talented guy who turned down more money than most people make in their lifetimes. But this isn't about sympathy, justice, greed, cash, merit, or ultimately, about baseball. It's about world view.
One of the first people to publicly dress Drew down was potential teammate Curt Schilling. Schilling claimed he didn't have any beef with Drew, but rather with his puppet master, the universally-loathed agent Scott Boras. Other Phillies, notably Rex Hudler, chimed in with various homilies about "paying your dues," and Hudler naturally mentioned the eleven years he spent in the minors before getting his big break. How does this relate to world view? Simple. Phillies GM Ed Wade and the on-field talent in Philadelphia expected and wanted business to continue as usual. Their implicit paradigm is that players should prove themselves first, then be paid the big bucks. The position put forth by Boras in this negotiation represents not just a cash grab, but a significant challenge to the very way in which baseball conducts business.
Baseball doesn't like challenges like that very much.
Ed Wade spoke on more than one occasion about 'operating within an environment', and made a clear distinction between the status of drafted players and that of free agents. The rank and file of the MLBPA was more than happy to agree; probably not because of an understanding of the implicit financial earthquake for old, declining players, but because Drew hadn't "paid his dues." In reality, if everyone is a free agent, clubs aren't going to increase their salary budgets. What will happen is that the available money will be redistributed -- from the pockets of second- and third-tier free agents like Rex Hudler, to the pockets of young players like Drew. The idea of really paying players for what they WILL do, rather than what they have done, runs directly contrary to existing organizational culture in MLB, and the established entities want no part of it.
The outrage amongst the general public towards Drew and Boras is understandable. In most jobs, you learn, get better with time, and increase your value as a contributor through acquired experience. In baseball, things are vastly different. The most freakishly gifted of athletes gets perhaps 25 years to play ball, and in the vast majority of cases, the most productive of those years come early on -- in the first ten years of a player's professional career. Under the current CBA, players are undercompensated for the earliest of those years, and for most players, this works to management's advantage. Most players don't get to free agency with any significant value. But if a player is fortunate, talented, and driven enough to last that long, he will in all probability be overcompensated for his performance.
It will be interesting to see the way this whole issue plays out. Personally, I don't think it'll shake down all that badly, given time. I still believe that everything eventually flows from the game on the field, and that as a source, that game is more than strong enough to deal with trifles like this. The next CBA will probably include some sort of provision that will strengthen the draft, and it'll cost the owners something to get that provision. That's fun with bargaining for you.
But what of J.D. Drew? Drew'll go back into the draft. Right now, if he's willing to wait, he's probably in the driver's seat, as his legal case for becoming a free agent is pretty damn strong. If I were him, I'd probably go into the draft, and cut the best deal I could that would allow me to start playing. Drew loves playing baseball, and beating up on schleps in the Northern League can't be all that much fun for him. Unfortunately, he's just come through a relatively nasty pissing contest, and Boras may not be able to back off on his demands without losing a lot of face. Losing face for an agent is an expensive proposition. Most agents' careers can only survive a few Jason Variteks. Boras and Drew need a win/win situation. I think they'll get it.
As an A's fan, my hope is that Oakland selects him with the second pick in the draft, and gives him the 4 year, $11 Million deal he wants. Why should they do that? They should do it if they can work out a series of club option years at potentially below-market value after that. That'll increase their potential return on the investment, give Drew the money he and Boras want and need, and give the A's a positively NASTY outfield for the next few years. It'd be a big risk, but the potential return is extremely high. But I digress.
This whole incident just goes to illustrate what an arcane and bizarre set of rules and institutions have been built up as an outer shell around this game. Players from the US are subject to removal of their bargaining rights, but 16 year-olds from San Pedro de Macoris can sign with anybody. Players are basically indentured servants for their most productive years, but once their peaks have passed, they're free to negotiate with any club -- and those clubs pay them handsomely. Networks and local stations pay a fortune for the rights to broadcast the games, then spend the airtime talking about how bad the game is compared to what it used to be.
Don't be mad at J.D. Drew or Scott Boras. For all the vitriol aimed at Boras in the press, his clients seem to love him, and he's a pitbull for them. His job is to viciously and ethically pursue the best interests of his clients, and it sure looks to me like he does that exceptionally well. The draft doesn't make any inherent sense, really, but we're not comfortable with watching Boras publicly point that out. J.D. Drew will end up playing baseball somewhere, and with the memory of many fans, all will be forgotten and forgiven when he hits his first home run. After all, remember how many lame "Fan Organizations" popped up during the last work stoppage? All those things really did was provide a handy mailing list for clubs to send their season ticket ads.
Those people are now back in their rightful seats at the ballpark. Soon, they'll be watching J.D. Drew.