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When Gord Ash let Brian Cashman do Very Bad Things to the Blue Jays,
giving up a Hall of Fame pitcher on top of his game in exchange for a
tumescent starter in a vintage cap, a middle reliever, and a pinch runner,
most of the media coverage focused on the nature of the deal itself.
Equally interesting, however, were the events leading up to the trade,
including the fact that a trade occurred. For most of the off-season it
was widely reported, apparently accurately, that Ash somehow felt
obligated to trade Clemens. The Rocket had made his dissatisfaction with his
employment situation known to anyone who would listen. This obligation,
however, was not derived from any portion of Clemens’ contract. The
erstwhile explanation was that there was some sort of gentlemen’s agreement
that Clemens could demand a trade if he wanted to, but that idea seems
farfetched in a labor environment populated with savvy agents who
meticulously fashion contracts that flesh out every possible happenstance.


Even more interesting was Clemens’ demand (eventually dropped) that any
team that he was traded to give him a one-year, $25 million contract
extension to bring his contract up near "market value." The
knowledge that Ash felt he had to make a trade, coupled with Clemens’
incredible monetary
demands, may have drastically reduced Clemens’ trade value. Why Ash let
Clemens dictate his own trade is still a mystery. If Ash had refused to
trade Clemens, Clemens didn’t have a lot of options. He could deal with it,
or he could retire, or he could play badly on purpose. Since the nature of
Clemens’ demands were that he should get more money, the latter two options
would have been a gutsy and high risk bluff, potentially costing him much
of his current or future earnings potential. So he instead chose to whine
loudly to the media, perhaps hoping to generate sympathy for his cause.


While seeing a player of Clemens’ stature try to weasel his way out of a
contract that he willingly signed is greatly irritating (c’mon, he didn’t
even sign it while drunk in Las Vegas), it was not the most outrageous
public posturing to occur in the off-season. While Clemens is a unique player, with
negotiating leverage stemming from his irreplaceable skill, Omar Vizquel of
the Cleveland Indians… isn’t. In fact, when Omar Vizquel was originally
signed to his seven-year, $21 million contract, some (including Baseball
Prospectus
) touted him as a leading candidate for "the luckiest man
in baseball." The guy had fewer hits to his credit than the football
version of Deion Sanders, was 29 years old, and blocking the career path of hot
shortstop prospect Enrique Wilson. Who knew Vizquel would start taking the
occasional bad pitch? Who knew that baseball’s new math would give players
like Alex Gonzalez $2.6 million per year to wear out a path between the
batters box and the dugout? Suddenly John Hart looked less like Vizquel’s
generous benefactor and more like a shrewd GM. It seemed one of those
win-win situations where everyone involved should count their blessings.


But Vizquel didn’t count his blessings. It seems that during the off-season,
he and his agent took stock of the situation and realized that Vizquel is
no longer particularly close to being the most overpaid player in baseball.
Vizquel’s current contract just wasn’t going to cut it and, at Vizquel’s
age, waiting for it to expire before asking for more just wasn’t an option.
Rather than plead their flimsy case before John Hart in private, they
gnashed their teeth publicly through the media, implying that without a
renegotiation, Cleveland might go into the 1999 season without the services
of their veteran shortstop.


There is nothing inherently evil about renegotiation. In a reasonable
business relationship, unforseen events sometimes happen and make
renegotiation beneficial for both parties. When the Marlins decided to dump
salary, Gary Sheffield‘s no-trade clause was a big barrier. They placated
him with a richer contract, he dropped the clause, and the Marlins got to
shop Mike Piazza around while Sheffield got to play for a team that has a
legitimate shot at the World Series during the next few years. The whole
affair was basically resolved in private. Vizquel, however, does not have a
leg to stand on. He can refuse to play, and the Indians can then refuse to
pay. Who loses more in the bargain? Vizquel forfeits more than $12 million and
his career, while the Indians replace their 32 year-old shortstop with the
major league-ready Wilson. And in an era where players are viewed as greedy
for taking every dollar that’s offered them, the Indians come off looking
like the victim.


Is Vizquel underpaid in today’s market? The answer is yes and no. Yes, were
Vizquel a free agent today, he’d probably sign for more money per year than
he’s currently earning–guys like Jerry Colangelo and Pete Angelos make sure
of that. But Vizquel is not being paid only in cash. The security of his
contract is a form of compensation, and that can only be evaluated in terms
of the market when he signed the contract. Signing a long-term deal
is a lot like buying insurance. A player can hedge his bets by singing for
what seems like a reasonable sum of money for a long period of time. If he
gets injured or his abilities decline, the team does not have an out and
the player is the big winner. If the player develops beyond predictions or
the market takes an unforseen turn for the better, the team has the player
locked up and is the big winner. The system can only work if both sides
adhere to the conditions of the contract, regardless of the outcome. If
your home doesn’t catch fire next year you won’t be able to demand that
your fire insurance premiums be refunded. Insurance is intangible, but has
an intrinsic value unto itself. This is the overlooked component of
Vizquel’s contract. In light of the context of the day that he signed the
contract, Vizquel has a great deal.


I’m not opposed to high player salaries. I’d rather see $90 million go
into Mike Piazza‘s tax-deferred annuities than into some rich owner’s
pockets. I’d rather see J.D. Drew test his value in a free marketplace
than see his value artificially deflated by the indentured servitude of the
amateur draft. But there is something truly ugly about public whining by a
player, especially when it involves a contract peppered with his John
Hancock
and chaw residue. When a player like Clemens does it, it is
obnoxious. But when a player like Vizquel does it, it’s merely ludicrous.
Leave that kind of nonsense to Samuel L. Jackson.

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