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August 1, 2003

Breaking Balls

Don't Take a Slice of My Pie

by Derek Zumsteg

Alex Rodriguez is one of the best players in baseball. He's also the best compensated. He left Seattle as a free agent to sign a deal with Texas that's been so widely reported as 10 years and $252 million that it feels futile to protest. As a result, he's become a pariah of greed. This week, Alex made some comments to the press about maybe, possibly, wanting to be traded from Texas. "If the Rangers found they could be better off without me, whether now or a year or two down the road," he said, "I'd be willing to sit down and talk."

Today, as I write this column, I see he's quickly backed off his comments, trying to calm everyone down.

Frankly, I find this ridiculous. Rodriguez is not a greedy player with a heart made of coal. Articles written about him and his alleged self-indulgence at the expense of his team--calling for him to volunteer for a pay cut and what not--are bitter pieces written by the envious, looking for an easy column in which they can act holier-than-Alex and decry the money-grubbing nature of athletes all at the same time. Have any of these columnists been offered three times their current salary to work in a comparable situation, giving them the ability to fund all of their favorite charities and live comfortably and provide for their children?

I didn't think so.

What if Alex had signed in Texas to a modest contract much less than he was worth--is there any evidence in the last four seasons that the Rangers wouldn't have used that money to sign Darren Dreifort to a monster deal, or perhaps just sat around and used thousand-dollar bills to light cigars made of other thousand-dollar bills? The contract given to Rodriguez was the last smart free-agent move the Texas Rangers made, and in no way is that his fault.

When Alex made his free agency decision, a lot of people said that he did it only for the money. I don't know if that's true, however, and frankly neither does anyone except Alex Rodriguez. Rarely will an individual make a decision based solely on one factor, and I think that it sells athletes short when we automatically assume that visions moneybags are the only things dancing through their heads.

In fact, there's evidence in Alex's past that shows he's repeatedly made his decisions where money was an afterthought. For instance: when Alex Rodriguez was selected with the first pick of the 1993 draft, he was advised by super-agent Scott Boras. Boras wanted Rodriguez to attend college and pass up the deal the Mariners were offering, hoping that he'd be re-drafted in 1994 by a club willing to pay more for the blue chip prospect. On the last day, however, Alex decided to go against Boras and signed with Mariners--wanting to get his career started more than he wanted the extra million dollars he would garner if a richer team drafted him a year later.

From there Alex tore through the minors, splitting time between the big club and minors for a while under Lou Piniella, who would demote Alex if he went 0-4 with more than one strikeout. He established himself quickly, however, and for the next five years played almost full-time for the Mariners. He even signed a modest extension through his arbitration years (again going against the advice of his agent, Scott Boras), giving up some free agency time to stay with the club that drafted him.

So after the 2000 season, we have two instances where Alex Rodriguez turned down money (and a lot of money) to play baseball in Seattle. While he was there, he gave generously of his time and money to local charities, and conducted himself in a fine manner--befitting a player of his stature.

Alex the free agent did a nation-wide tour, heading to Dallas, Denver, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York, and ended up with two final contract offers:

  • Seattle Mariners, five years, $95 million (three years guaranteed, two mutual options, which might as well not be in the contract because the chances player and team will agree on value are approximately zero)

  • Texas Rangers, 10 years, $252 million (many options, outs, so on)

Seriously. People who bitch about Alex going to Texas seem to forget that he wasn't presented with some kind of competitive offer by the Mariners, which he spat upon before setting fire to the Space Needle and leaving town.

With that being said, Alex didn't handle the situation all that well. He had charmed many local sportswriters in print and in private, leading them to believe that above all else, he wanted to return and finish his career in Seattle. And they believed him. Local sports media types felt betrayed by Alex leaving the M's, and many of them buried hatchets in his back as he took his trade to another town.

In retrospect, it's easy to laugh at Alex's decision to go to Texas, which has reeled off a stretch of disappointing finishes. At the time though, he had a lot of evidence in his corner: in 1999--just two years before he signed--Texas finished 95-67, first in the division, and 16 games ahead of Seattle. In 1998, Texas finished 88-74, first in the division, and 11.5 games ahead of Seattle. Texas had an owner willing to spend money, while Seattle had let Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. go in previous seasons, and had shown in their dealings with Alex himself that they weren't willing to offer what other teams were putting on the table.

Alex is the guy who bears the brunt of fan anger over player salaries. When owners stir up talk about competitive balance and player greed, it's him the fans think of. As the free agent market gets devastated, Alex is held up as an example of the old excesses that make it necessary. It's Alex who is derided as a "corporate" shortstop, as if his employers were charitable non-profits who would spend his salary on animal rescues, if only he hadn't strong-armed them. Each player who makes a ton of money, deserved or not, should pat Alex on the back every time they see him and thank him for taking their share of bitterness and allowing them to collect their paychecks in piece.

It is unfortunate that Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the best player of his generation, has to endure this constant sniping--this bitter rain--because he had the good fortune to be young, one of the best players in baseball, and a free agent all at the same time. Alex Rodriguez doesn't deserve scorn and cat-calls, he deserves appreciation and applause.

Related Content:  Alex Rodriguez,  The Who,  Texas,  Money

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