Far From Free

It’s hard to imagine that the late Curt Flood could ever have fortold free agency in its current state when he campaigned against the Reserve Clause, that up until about the mid 70s, kept players with the teams they originally signed with until the team, with no recourse for the player, decided otherwise. Decade-long contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars like the ones the Angels gave Albert Pujols had to far exceed everyone’s imaginations 35 years ago, right? Nearly that long ago, Bill Gates was purported (inaccurately) to have said (paraphrase alert!) something like, “Nobody will ever need more than 640k of RAM.” Even though Gates never actually said that, according to Gates himself, one could imagine someone making a similar comment about the money in player contracts, couldn’t one? “Nobody will ever need to sign a contract for more than a few million annually.” I digress. On with this smear.

By today’s standards, the money Pujols signed for is really about par for the course. He is the best hitter around at the moment, and that is about the going rate. (Thank you Mr. Steinbrenner) Really though, much of the problem lies in the media and, yes, bloggers such as Shaun and myself. Anytime a legitimate superstar comes along, everyone with an opinion and an audience wants to crow about how so and so might be the best player ever. There has been plenty of that nonsense going around about Pujols. Is he the best hitter of his generation? Probably. Best player, or even just hitter for that matter, of all time? Puh-leeze. He’s adequate at first base defensively, but far short of good. Sure, he has two gold gloves, but the voting had to be colored by his offensive exploits.  Other first basemen like Derrek Lee, Adrian Gonzalez (both of whom have gold gloves themselves), James Loney (whose defensive excellence is obscured by his mediocrity at everything else), Lyle Overbay and a host of others are far better. You don’t need metrics to see it. Moreover, Pujols is either terribly slow, or fails to hustle 75% of the time. Best ever? Come on, let’s get real.

It’s been a while since we had some fun with one of our smears, having posted a few recently that could be categorized as a bit more serious. So I thought it would be fun to compose a few mock press releases about the free agency signings of players who you could legitimately make a case for, to be the best ever at their respective sports, except by today’s monetary standards for such excellence. Of course, we take a few MINOR liberties with creative license here, not the least of which is assuming they come out of retirement to play in 2012… in some cases, coming back to life to do so. Beware, it might get a little wordy so if you printed this out for toilet reading, be prepared to make up an illness for when your boss asks you where you were for the last 40 minutes and how come you’re walking like you have sandpaper in your shorts.

Ted Williams has signed a 8 year, $320 million contract to stay with the Boston Red Sox. Williams had been entertaining offers from the Yankees and Angels, but decided to come back to the team that he played his entire career with. With the imminent retirement of JD Drew, Williams should slot into right field, and be able to spell David Ortiz at DH occasionally, as Ortiz needs more days off as he gets older (see, that was funny right there… because… ah, never mind, it loses a lot in the explanation). With Williams, Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Ortiz, the Sox now have the most formidable left hand hitting line up in the pretend history of baseball.

There’s a bit of a parallel here, believe it or not. At age 41, in his last year, Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs. Pujols will be 41 at the end of his deal with the Halos. It’s definitely premature to say that Pujols is declining after hitting “only” .299 last season, but to think that he would put up Teddy Ballgame type numbers at 41 is a reach. Even in today’s dollhouse-sized ballparks, it’s a reach.

Willie Mays has agreed to join the Tampa Bay Rays for 4 years and $185 million. There was speculation he might look to join an NL team, but the opportunity to play in the warm climate that is Florida was too much to turn away from. And since Jeffrey Loria is a close personal friend of the Devil’s, that left the Rays. Mays last played in 1973 with the New York Mets and set the Big Apple on FIRE to the tune of…a .211 average. Still, the Rays have to rely on finding bargains to compete with the big money Yankees and Red Sox, and the short duration, comparatively speaking, fits into their budget.

The Say Hey Kid was, without a doubt and a due tip of the cap to Mickey Mantle, the best center fielder to ever play the game. If you conveniently ignore those last couple of years in New York, he defended the position like nobody ever has, before him, or since him. He could run like the wind, and (as much as I don’t love them) would break whatever algorithms the metrics folks rely on. He hit 660 career home runs, at five foot ten and 170lbs. There’s a good reason he is the lofty standard every center fielder who is ever called “great” will have to measure up to if they ever want to be called “best.” I’d actually have some nice things to say about Willie, but I hate the San Francisco Giants with every fiber of my being.

Sandy Koufax has signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for 5 years, $175 million. The contract is heavily backloaded, given the Dodgers’ current bankruptcy issues, and $173 million will be paid posthumously via Koufax’s estate into a college trust for his great great great grandchildren. Koufax underwent Tommy John surgery on the troublesome left elbow that caused him to retire at age 30, following a season in which he won 27 games and sported a miniscule ERA of 1.73, the best of his career. 

Willie Stargell once likened hitting against Koufax to eating soup with a fork. It’s impossible to predict the proverbial “what could have been” but the baseball record books would likely have had several more pages in them had medical technology in the 60s been as advanced as it is today. How many no-hitters would he have thrown? 10?

Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have signed identical one year, $100 million contracts with the Miami Heat. LeBron James was sported camping out in front of both of their houses at various times over the past three months, leading to rampant speculation that ultimately ended up being correct. NBA Commissioner David Stern reportedly tried to veto the deals because he’s a self-absorbed, narcissistic imbecile with a Napoleon complex, but after a visit from some “businessmen” that Jordan allegedly owed $98 million in gambling debts to, quickly abandoned that mission. Rumors that Magic and MJ plan to not actually play, rather taunt King James from the sidelines with the combined glare from the reflection off their championship rings, abound, but The Stain has been unable to find any corroborating evidence to support them.

Look, you could make an argument for both guys that they are the greatest to ever play basketball, and not sound like an idiot. Both guys were dominant in their own ways, neither with the advantage that Wilt Chamberlain had of being the equivalent of Cosmo Kramer in the karate class with a bunch of six year olds. I thought about giving each guy a 10 year, $1 billion contract, and in this context it would make sense, especially given the ridiculous amnesty clause in the NBA collective bargaining agreement. I’m not a legal expert so I can’t proclaim to know exactly how it works, but it certainly looks like it gives teams a do over when they make a stupid mistake by overpaying someone. If you make a decision that cripples your team’s flexibility in the future, shouldn’t that be something that was taken into account by the numbers crunchers before whatever stupid offer it was that put the team in the predicament was made?

Wayne Gretzky has put pen to paper on a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, just days after Sidney Crosby announced his retirement due to recurring issues with post-concussion syndrome. The NHL’s all-time leading scorer will be expected to fill the scoring void left by Crosby’s departure, and will team with Evgeni Malkin to form one of the league’s most potent power play units. Some teams stayed away from Gretzky, citing concerns that he wouldn’t be able to play at his old level with today’s advanced equipment, but he quickly dispelled those concerns by scoring in practice on a one on four break using a mop. Evidently, his sticks hadn’t arrived yet and he wanted to make a point. The deal reportedly will pay Gretzky $80 million over two years with a performance option that vests a third year at an additional $45 million.

People belly ache that the NHL has become too defensive in the post-no red line era, using neutral zone traps and 1-3-1 formations that keep teams from making controlled entrances into the offensive zone. But the truth is, if you look at old video from the 80s when The Great One was on the Oilers, teams were already trying to employ similar methods to slow him down, and it didn’t work. Hall of Fame broadcaster, Bob Miller’s call, “The Great One is now the greatest of them all,” after Gretzky’s goal to break the all-time points record is still accurate. Nobody, save for maybe Mario Lemieux, has even come close. Mike Bossy, if he never got hurt, might have gotten close too. No truth to the rumor he’s considering a come back with the Islanders.

Lawrence Taylor has agreed to a 6 year, $238 million contract with the Oakland Raiders. Only $1 million of the deal is guaranteed, and is reported to contain an underage hooker and narcotics clause. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced in the wake of the Taylor signing, that the Raiders last three games will be replayed. Apparently, this decision is an experiment to see how much of an impact morale has on the performance of a team. The signing of the game’s best linebacker ever should go a long way toward counteracting the negativity caused by the realization that the team traded two first round picks for Carson Palmer, who wasn’t any good in Cincy for several years before he retired rather than report to camp. Isn’t this the same team that once traded Randy Moss the season before he massacred all kinds of single season receiving records?

The word, “contract” means an agreement, does it not? I find it confusing that a guy can sign a contract worth a certain amount of money, but have only some of that be guaranteed. How is it that a team can sever the contract and not pay the player the agreed-upon amount, while if the player decides to hold out for better the team can suspend him and not pay him? Again, not a legal expert here, but the scales don’t appear balanced. Anyway, in a sport where 22 players are on the field at one time, it’s rare that one has a huge impact on how nearly every game results. Indianapolis Colts fans may disagree with me and argue that the difference between Peyton Manning and Curtis Painter and company is roughly the difference between 11-5 and an AFC playoff berth and a possible 0-16, but… well, no but. They might be right. In fact, Peyton Manning just signed a 25 year, $1.5 billion contract that… never mind.

I could go on. I could put something about Pele joining Manchester United on a $500 million transfer fee, and I might enjoy doing it, but it kind of steers away from the free agency angle since star players in World soccer are rarely in that spot, their teams electing to transfer them lest they lose them on a Bosman for nothing. And the players do have a say in their new destination, nearly all deals being contingent on the player agreeing to wage terms with their new club.

I said this was going to be a long one, and I wasn’t kidding. I also don’t want to get off of the point I was trying to make. Wait, did I have a point? If I did, I’m going to guess that it had something to do with the ridiculous money that free agents in today’s professional sports environment get paid. And if that was the point, it may also have included inferences to the money that free agents in today’s professional sports environment WOULD get paid if they were indeed the “best,” as so many are quick to anoint just about anyone who has put together a few all-star or MVP performances on their way to free agency. In their prime, who would you choose? Cliff Lee, or Sandy Koufax? Ted Williams, or Albert Pujols? Ilya Kovalchuk, or Wayne Gretzky? Just remember, the next time someone signs a contract for a king’s ransom, it could be worse. You know, if they really were the best.




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