Thomas Boswell: The Best Fit Isn't Always Obvious for Free Agents Such as Teixeira

Free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira grew up in Severna Park and still has local ties. He has a decision to make after a 33-homer, 121-RBI year.
Free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira grew up in Severna Park and still has local ties. He has a decision to make after a 33-homer, 121-RBI year. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)
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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 12, 2008

There's a soft part of Mark Teixeira, but some hard bark, too. When you understand both, you'll see why the Angels probably can't sign the prize free agent, why the Red Sox are still the favorite, but not prohibitively, while the Nationals or Orioles may best suit his needs and nature.

You'll also know why the earnest Nats, with their credibility on the rise after an eight-year, $160-million offer, will have constant nightmares about Boston until Teixeira, who hopes to pick by Christmas, finally makes his choice.

The soft side of Teixeira wants to bring his wife and kids, age 1 and 2, back close to his boyhood home in Severna Park, near his mother, Margy, now cancer free, and his father, John, a former Navy pilot, who recovered from a benign brain tumor several years ago.

Teixeira loves his roots and makes commitments, just like his boyhood baseball model, Cal Ripken Jr. He's seen how happy, as well as rich and famous, Ripken became by staying close to those who cared about him most, while playing before those who appreciated him like neighbors.

"Players sometimes go where they feel that they, and their families, will be happiest over the long term. And they end up winning there, too," said Nats President Stan Kasten, who once signed free agent Greg Maddux in Atlanta when the Yankees were actually offering more.

Few in baseball, however, think Teixeira is going to sign for anything except the last dollar or a scintilla from it. That's where the hard edge of Teixeira comes in. It goes back to his youth, too. The switch-hitting first baseman, who may get a contract in Derek Jeter territory ($189 million), learned the tough way that baseball is a business.

Projected as a first-round draft pick after high school at Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore, Teixeira told the Red Sox that a $1.5 million bonus offer would not be enough to sign him. Boston, he believes, put out the word that he was unsignable, determined to go to Georgia Tech, so don't waste a draft pick. Boston (now run by a new regime) has a different story. What matters is how Teixeira took it, how it formed him.

"The Red Sox told everybody that I wouldn't sign and when it got to a late enough round they said, 'Let's take a flier on him,' " Teixeira told Baseball America in '06. "They spoiled me for everyone else." The Red Sox still offered the $1.5 million. But Teixeira, with a "ninth-rounder" slur next to his baseball name, turned it down.

In this context, maybe we can sense why Teixeira's agent is Scott Boras, Mr. Hardball. The kid wised up, maybe hardened up, too. After three years at Tech, he got $9.5 million to sign with Texas. But a pattern began. Someday, Teixeira knew he'd have the deck stacked his way.

When the Rangers reportedly offered him $144 million for eight years in '07, Teixeira said no. When mega-moola isn't enough, a team gets the point. So the Rangers traded him in midseason to Atlanta, his wife's home town. Were the Braves hoping to play on the soft-Teixeira side?

By this July, the Braves decided they couldn't sign him, either. So he was traded to the Angels, who immediately proclaimed him their top signing priority for this winter. Teixeira tore up the league, finished with 33 homers, 121 RBI, then hit .467 in the postseason. His résumé is tight.

Teams seldom focus on words they don't want to hear. The Angels may have been tone-deaf. Teixeira calls himself an "East Coast person." The Angels assumed Southern California was irresistible. "It would have been different if maybe he never had a chance to play here for a couple of months and gotten to experience it," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said.

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