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July 8, 2004

Breaking Balls

Trading Places

by Derek Zumsteg

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With baseball heading into the mid-summer break, there are only five teams in the American League and four teams in the National League that are 10 or more games out of first place in their divisional race. For others, being seven or nine games out right now, especially if trailing a couple of teams, probably means they're out of contention. But no one is beyond the kind of self-deception that might keep those teams believing they're right back in it. Why, if our pitching staff can just get healthy and our bats could wake up, we'd show those guys a thing or two, they rationalize.

This is important because those teams--Arizona, Baltimore, Colorado, Kansas City, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tampa Bay (though they're the hottest team in baseball, as you'll hear 20 times a day if you watch as much baseball coverage as I do), and Toronto will be trying to peddle their valuable parts to contenders (and anyone else shopping). On those teams, veterans will be discreetly approached to gauge their interest in heading to other squads, or they'll find out the team's looking to trade them when they settle down at a nice watering hole where "Baseball Tonight" is on.

There are two ways players can refuse a trade. The first is if they got a no-trade clause in their contracts. They can get a complete no-trade (like what Jason Giambi wanted and did not get from the A's), or they get to list X number of teams, either each year or for the term of the contract (Scott Spiezio, another of the Mariners' bizarre off-season signings, has a 12-team list, for instance).

Or they can be veterans who've spent 10 seasons in the majors, the last five with the same team ("the 10-and-five rule" or "the rule that will never apply to Reggie Sanders"). These players, no matter what they might have signed off on in their contracts, can refuse any trade to any team, and don't even have to give a good reason.

Many of the players rumored to be on the block have these no-trade clauses. Larry Walker is a 10-and-five guy with Colorado, mentioned frequently as a trade candidate. Reports this week said that John Olerud of the Mariners refused a trade.

As teams look to save money now, they'll look to trade their higher-priced players. If those players refuse to be traded, they'll be soundly criticized by the team's media shills and fans alike for putting themselves over the team's best interests.

That's crazy talk.

A contract is an offer of employment, the same document any of us deal with. Given two job offers:

  • stay in Seattle, make $100, with standard benefits

  • move to New York, make $100, with standard benefits

I'd take the first one every time. A hundred bucks gets me a lot more in the way of living, there's no income tax, I'd be close to my friends, and I like it here.

Someone else may look at those two offers and come to an entirely different conclusion. They may see the chance to work in New York as being a greater opportunity for exposure, and be willing to live in a smaller space, not eat as well, and so on.

Players make the same kinds of decisions. If they want to live where they work, and live in a dry climate, they're going to value a long-term deal in Arizona more than an equal deal in Florida, or Toronto. If they want to settle down and build a nice community foundation, endorse local car dealers, start a local car dealership themselves, these are all reasons they might look for stability of the franchise's ownership as a criterion, and ask for a no-trade clause.

If they have a family, that's even more true. No player wants to move their kids every year, put them into new schools...and who knows if they even have a Montessori school in Anaheim? (They do.) For players who are late in their careers and have cranked out five, 10 kids already (side note: a lot of those kids have birthdays in mid-March), that's a huge family disruption no matter what the player decides to do.

When players weigh the offers in front of them, the no-trade clause is additional compensation, just like a higher salary or a suspicious "personal services" rider that runs after the player decides to retire. The handshake agreement made by the two sides ends up like this:

"I, the player, agree to play for the term of this contract and not engage in prohibited activities like shark taunting or dressing up like a sausage near Randall Simon."
"We, the team, agree to pay you the agreed-on amount of money and not trade you."

The player almost never gets a promise from the team that they're going to make even a serious effort to contend. They don't get to have any input on who gets interviewed or hired for front office vacancies. They don't set payroll, or manage finances.

When things go badly, I understand that teams may want to trade a player. It may be in their best interest. And it may be in the player's best interest; that player may be unhappy, or wish to play for a contender. The player's kids may have been bugging Daddy about why they don't live near either Disney Land or World. It's worth a try, anyway.

There's no moral obligation for a player to accept that trade. Only he can weigh what's best for him and his family. What bothers me is that it's never portrayed this way. The headlines aren't "GM attempts to break promise to player to save money" or "Worthless off-season leads to knife in back for player." There's never any recognition that the team made a deal both sides accepted--and it could have been a mistake for one or both of them--and that one side is now enforcing the terms of that agreement.

Besides which, why would a player owe a team consent to a trade? It's argued that players should care about the fans, but they're not going to be their fans if they're traded, are they? And to what end does that help any of the issues moving creates? These players clearly didn't want to be traded. Otherwise, why would they have negotiated for the no-trade clause? And when teams signed them, they knew that, because they agreed to it.

It's not as if someone pops up and says "Surprise! I can't hit, field, or pitch, I'm paid $7.5 million and there's nothing you can do about it, because I gave myself a no-trade clause when I wrote up this contract!" Then he laughs maniacally while the front office says "Dammit!" through clenched teeth.

And what of this argument that players should want to play for contenders? I'm sure many of them are skeptical of that, having signed on in the hopes of being part of a contending team in the first place. But more than that, they may want to start instead of having to share a job or fill in for some injured player and then ride the bench. They may not like the other team, for whatever reason. Perhaps they've already won a couple of World Series and want to finish out their careers on their hometown teams.

There are going to be a lot of trades and trade rumors in the next month. More players will be approached, and more will be confused. I want to see this looked at evenly for once, that's all. It's not an issue of players being selfish; sometimes, when they're choosing between their families and a chance at a ring, it's an issue of them being unselfish. I'd like to see the story covered that way, just once.

Related Content:  Trade,  No-Trade Clause

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