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The Best Fit Isn't Always Obvious

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.

Now, the Angels don't sound so happy. The Nats and Orioles (reportedly offering $150 million for seven years) have set the price of poker. "We have a level salary and years we're comfortable with," Angels GM Tony Reagins said this week. "We think it's fair. Whether that gets it done or not, I couldn't tell you."

Sounds like a team preparing its fans for "no."

The Red Sox are mum, as befits the mighty. They prefer to leak only their bad ideas, confident that, somewhere, there will always be a Steinbrenner desperate to outbid them. "When the Red Sox and Yankees are quiet, you worry," a Nats source said.

The Nats wake up scowling and go to bed with their stomachs in knots. Ask GM Jim Bowden whom he wants and he says: "Teixeira. He changes the franchise. No one else like him is coming along for years." Who else? "Did I mention Teixeira?" he says. "If not him, then Teixeira."

Three things matter to Teixeira, who has a clean-cut, almost corporate image: family, business and winning. His dilemma: He can't get all three in the same place.

Boston is 400 miles from Severna Park. But the Nats and Orioles are 400 miles from the World Series.

Which team can negate the distance and how? The Red Sox can't move Boston south. But the Nats and Orioles can claim that their position in the standings will move north.

The Nats, by luck, showed themselves to best advantage in March against the Braves at their packed-house, presidential first-pitch Opening Night at Nationals Park. Teixeira was watching from the visiting dugout. But the Nats also picked a horrid year to lose 102 games. Even the 73-89 mark of '07, with less talent, would make for an easier sell.

"No player is excited to see a team lose 100 games," Boras said this week. "The issue of interest becomes, 'How are they planning to win long-term?' "

Ted Lerner, his family, team execs and everybody except Racin' Teddy Roosevelt has addressed that "issue of interest," explaining the Nats' master plan and how Teixeira arriving accelerates it. Perhaps he remembers how the signing of Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez turned the 119-loss Tigers into a World Series team in three years.

"With him here, with Stephen Strasburg [the Nats' likely No. 1 overall pick in the '09 draft, also a Boras client], with our farm system and the budget room we have [by '10], we think he can see how we'll be a winner in two years," a Nats executive said. "But other teams will say, 'Do you want to wait four years to find out if Washington can win?' "

Sometimes, there's a perfect fit. Usually, there's not. The future of franchises is murky. Mike Mussina left Baltimore to be a champion Yankee. Last month he retired after eight years and many millions, but without a Series win. Maddux turned down the Yanks, went to Atlanta for 11 years and never finished anywhere but first.

Since free agency began, one pattern seems clear. Some players can be happy anywhere; they should go where they think they'll win. Others know the place that will make them happiest. Go there. Win eventually. And get to smile while you wait.

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