Baseball teaches us that most valuable commodities can’t be purchased
By Thomas Boswell,
If exactly the right man says just the wrong words, a blurred image can snap into focus. Like a smack in the face, we see the picture more clearly.
“I could play for the worst team if they paid the most,” said Zack Greinke, who signed the second-biggest contract ever for a pitcher at $147 million for six years to be a Los Angeles Dodger. “It’s obviously the number one thing.”
Greinke made clear in an interview with CBSSports.com that, in picking the Dodgers over the Rangers in free agency, as well as voiding a trade to Washington a year earlier, his primary goal was to find out just how much money he and his agent Casey Close could get on the open market.
“I wanted to see” the free agent process, Greinke said. “If it was going to be only one year for $1 million, I wanted to see for myself.”
Instead, only CC Sabathia ever got more guaranteed money to pitch. But Greinke also joined a team with some of the most gifted salary-dump problem children and damaged-goods ex-stars with big contracts ever collected in one room.
Greinke didn’t mean to symbolize the 2013 season. But he may have done it anyway. If you are a fan of the Dodgers, Blue Jays or Angels, three of the top five favorites to win the World Series, then this is the year of the high-priced teammate with baggage and the mega-budget clubhouse full of strangers with troubles. For those teams, it’s a season to gamble on talent.
However, for seven of past year’s 10 playoff teams, the offseason theory has been exactly the opposite. The World Series champion Giants and pennant-winning Tigers — as well as the Nationals, Reds, A’s and Orioles, who won 98, 97, 94 and 93 games last year — have tried to keep the chemistry they already had. Some had financial constraints. But most stood pat by choice or else added players on short contracts with “good makeup,” such as Torii Hunter (Tigers) and Dan Haren (Nats).
Las Vegas odds show that gamblers think falling in love with team synergy is tantamount to cheap complacency. The O’s and A’s, who did almost nothing in the offseason, are 40 to 1 and 30 to 1 to win the Series. The Giants and Reds, who had slight net-negative winters, are just 12 to 1. The Tigers, 8 to 1, and Nats 17 to 2, with selective additions, get respect. The view of the smart money is clear: Follow the cash. Character optional.
In the past eight months, the Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels have assembled players with every headache known to the sport. Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Josh Hamilton have three traits in common: big talent, fat contracts and thorny issues that led previous employers to trade them as part of salary dumps or else pursue them tepidly when they became free agents.
The Dodgers are pure reality TV. Every day brings a different tough question. How much has Gonzalez’s power slipped? His homers have dropped from 40 to 31 to 27 to 18 last year. And he hit just three in 36 games for the Bums. Hitting at Dodger Stadium never helps. L.A. owes him $127 million.
Will Crawford ever be himself again after wrist surgery in 2011 and elbow ligament reconstruction to the same arm last year? In two years with the Red Sox, he hit .260 with his stolen bases cut in half. The Dodgers hoped he would do his offseason rehab at a team facility. Crawford preferred to stay in Houston. But for just $103 million, how much employee loyalty can you expect?
Beckett should love the In-N-Out Burger in L.A. What an upgrade from fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse during pennant race games.
My favorite Dodger Happiness Indicator will be the sight of Ramirez back at shortstop. Florida moved him to third base because he got too bulky to cover ground and walked after balls that were still in play. Los Angeles put him back at short for 56 starts last season. Stat analysis: Ramirez might get to 70 fewer balls this season than he did at age 22 to 24. Couple that with a two-season slump (.252 average), and there may be interesting moments when Greinke, known to show up teammates such as Jerry Hairston in the 2011 NLCS, gives H-Ram the icy eyeball.
Across town, the Angels signed a $123 million diva of their own in Hamilton. The Halos ignored every aspect of his departure from Texas, the team that knew him best. Hamilton went into a funk in the AL West-deciding series against Oakland. When Manager Ron Washington called him out, Hamilton argued with him in public on the bench. After the season, the Rangers stayed so far away from offering Hamilton a market-value contract that they might as well have worn Hazmat suits to negotiation.
How will Hamilton, who missed games because he consumed so much caffeine that his tear ducts stopped working, suit no-drama Albert Pujols?
Of the slapped-together teams, only the Jays, the current Series favorite, have much chance to jell this year. With classy Jose Bautista and R.A. Dickey to set an example for maturity, Toronto may have a clubhouse that can even withstand the addition of the prima donna Reyes and PED-cheater Cabrera.
Let it be noted that, after Cabrera’s 50-game suspension last year, the Giants left him off all postseason rosters, replaced him with journeyman Gregor Blanco — and won the World Series anyway. Yes, chemistry.
Since free agency arrived in ’76, teams have tried to force baseball to yield to their wallets. By and large, it hasn’t worked. In this century, baseball continues to display remarkable parity, both in the variety of teams reaching the playoffs and in those that ultimately reach or win the World Series.
A big reason is the role of harmony, interconnectedness, resilience and the ability to learn as a group that baseball rewards over its seven-month season. That grind tears apart those who are divided among themselves and raises up those who enjoy depending on each other.
In the past dozen seasons, at least 10 eventual Series champs would be described as teams that knew each other, had risen together and valued each other as something akin to friends, as well as teammates, rather than as mere great-on-paper collections that somehow clicked. Even the Red Sox didn’t win until they finally grasped (for a while) a crazy camaraderie.
Does bonding precede, or merely accompany, victory? That may be too tough a question. But teams that already have a winning identity possess a large leg up on those who are merely trying to find it on the fly. That’s the way it works almost every year. Just watch, it probably will this time, too.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
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