Even in an off-season where arguably the greatest player in the game admitted to taking steroids earlier in the decade, a manager who guided his team to four World Series championships went off in print on his former boss and players, and the second-ever World Baseball “Classic” took place, the imploding global economy made the most noteworthy mark on the National Pastime.
To be sure, free agent C. C. Sabathia enjoyed Major League Baseball’s off-season, inking a seven-year deal worth $161 million. So did Mark Teixeira (eight years, $180 million), A. J. Burnett (five years, $82.5 million), and Derek Lowe (four years, $60 million). For most of the current class, however, 2009 was not an ideal moment to cash in on past performance. Manny Ramirez had to settle for the Dodgers’ two-year deal worth $45 million, the same one the team had offered him months earlier.
Another case in point: left-handed slugger Adam Dunn. While receiving grief for dizzying strikeout totals and less-than-stellar defense (negative traits that also belong to Phillies first baseman and Most Valuable Player runner-up Ryan Howard, who curiously attracts little criticism by comparison), the 29-year-old can still boast a slugging percentage of .518 and very healthy 139+ OPS (ballpark-adjusted on-base plus slugging). Having hoped for a long-term deal, Dunn ultimately consented to a pay cut (two years, $20 million) to play for last season’s doormat, the Washington Nationals.
Sports financier Sal Galatioto sees the economy as the culprit in the plight of Dunn and many of his brethren: “If you are premier you will get paid. But if you are fringe or middle-market it’s going to be a lot tougher to get what you thought you were going to get.”
Not so fast, says uber-statistician Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus and fivethirtyeight.com fame, pointing out that the amount of money being dished out to free agents had dropped last year, before it was clear that the economy was failing. Moreover, Silver maintains that baseball executives have become more astute as a group, handing out big paychecks to superstars but doling out fewer long-term and lucrative deals for good-but-not-great players.
Regardless, the economy has taken its toll on baseball, particularly when it comes to season tickets and sponsorships, even at the new Yankee Stadium. “Let’s face it, if you’re taking TARP funds, it’s really hard to justify getting a [luxury] box,” explains a real-estate agent hired by the ballclub to sell the team’s most expensive seats. Bank of America, a TARP recipient, terminated negotiations with the team over what would reportedly have been a $20-million sponsorship deal. Citigroup, which has also received billions of dollars of federal aid, was able to fend off anger about its $20-million-per-year stadium-naming-rights deal with the crosstown Mets, since the deal was signed prior to the company’s fall from grace. Even the long-awaited sale of the Chicago Cubs has not yet been finalized, thanks in part to the bankruptcy filing of its seller, the Tribune Company.
Los Angeles Dodgers skipper Joe Torre and Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci collaborated on a book about the former’s days as the New York Yankees’ manager. Torre took shots at general manager Brian Cashman, accusing him of – among other things – dishonest dealings during Torre’s ill-fated attempt to remain manager following the 2007 season. Alex Rodriguez was not portrayed flatteringly either, with Torre claiming that the superstar third baseman “slathered on the polish” in order to ingratiate himself with his new teammates, who responded by labeling him “A-Fraud.”
The revelation that Rodriguez had taken steroids during three seasons with the Texas Rangers (2001–03) dominated headlines, even though the fans who said they would go to the ballpark less frequently this year are far more likely to blame the economy than performance-enhancing drugs (PED).
Miguel Tejada lied to congressional investigators about his involvement with PED, but a guilty plea will likely spare him jail time. Meanwhile, the perjury trial of home-run king Barry Bonds has been postponed yet again, perhaps until the end of the year — not that any team wants to draw the ire of Commissioner Bud Selig by signing Bonds, anyway. Fox Sports contributor Dayn Perry believes that, after years of investigation and tens of millions of dollars, the five-year legal crusade will yield no conviction.
Despite the continuing criticism Selig receives for his response to the ongoing PED drama, he deserves credit for staging a wildly successful World Baseball Classic, captured again by Japan. Attendance was up. Television ratings jumped. Unfortunately, injuries piled up for the American squad, which got knocked out in the semifinals.
The Baseball Writers Association of America voted into the Hall of Fame outfielders Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson. Rice’s election remains controversial, as is pitcher Bert Blyleven’s continued snub. Any fallout from the Henderson vote centered around why any voter would not pick him. (He won 511 of 539 votes cast.)
Other noteworthy events included the cable launch of the Major League Baseball Network, the long-overdue canning of Nationals GM Jim Bowden, new homes for outfielder Matt Holliday (Oakland A’s), hurler John Smoltz (Boston Red Sox), and relief aces Francisco Rodriguez and J. J. Putz (New York Mets). Pitchers Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina have retired. On the lighter side: a Japanese independent team signed a female knuckleballer who is still in high school, and the Pittsburgh Pirates gave minor-league contracts to two former javelin-throwers from India after they finished first and second in a reality-show contest called Million Dollar Arm.
Billy Werber, the oldest former player, has passed on at the age of 100. Werber might not have earned more than $13,000 in a single season, but he played in arguably the coolest bridge game in American history, frequently teaming with Yankees colleague Bill Dickey against legends Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
Others who have left us include: The Hardball Times and Baseball Daily Digest columnist John Brittain; pitcher Dock Ellis, who claimed to have been tripping on LSD while pitching a no-hitter; manager Herman Franks; player, scout, coach, and manager Preston Gomez; Hall of Fame third baseman and announcer George Kell; Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad; Mets and Yankees front-office executive Arthur Richman; pitcher Preacher Roe, a spitball-legalization advocate; Cleveland Indians pitcher and announcer Herb Score; Negro League infielder Carlos Manuel Santiago; and hysterical journalist watchdog site FireJoeMorgan.com.
For those of us who remain above ground, the annual “Rebirth of Hope” — “audacity” was already taken, the editors politely informed me — takes place on Sunday evening at 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2.
– Jason Epstein, a diehard Mets fan and Nationals season-tickets holder, is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC.