Examining the Alex Rodriguez screwed Seattle legend

DMZ · February 19, 2008 at 10:00 am · Filed Under General baseball, Mariners 

Part two of a long series of chunks o’knowledge to be cited in the constantly arising arguments. Suggestions, thoughts welcome.

I’ll start off by saying that the title’s chosen intentionally. In the first one of these I wrote, “Refuting the Randy Johnson quit on us canard” it’s entirely clear that Johnson played as well as he could under the circumstances, and the evidence against the myth is overwhelming.

This one’s a little more complicated. Things that have happened since he left have determined the perception of Alex-the-person, Alex-the-teammate, Alex-the-Yankee… we’ll get to that.

I’ll examine first the central assertion, and then move on to the secondary issues.

Alex Rodriguez chose to sign with the Texas Rangers because they offered him the most money.

Which comes with some secondary assertions:
- He was greedy
- He lied about wanting to stay with the Mariners
- He lied about wanting to sign with a team that was competitive

Was Alex greedy to take the offer with the most money? Greed’s used because it has such a negative connotation, but really, there are two questions: was greed his only motivator, and is it bad for him to be greedy?

There is are two important decisions that show Alex made his decisions on other factors than money.

When he signed with the Mariners after being drafted in 1993, he did so against the advice of his agent (uh, “advisor”) who wanted him to hold out and re-enter the draft later. Alex wanted to play, even for the Mariners, who hadn’t finished higher than fourth in their division in franchise history, who since 1977 had finished over .500 once. Sure, they had Lou Piniella, and Griffey, but he could have held out until he was drafted by a team that would give him more money, was told by his agent to do so, and he didn’t. No matter your feelings on the draft, he made a choice that clearly demonstrated he wanted to sign and play far more than he wanted a chance at a greater signing bonus, or a chance to play on a team in a better competitive position.

Then, his extension. Same deal: Alex signed a deal with the Mariners while being advised that the path to more money and faster was to turn it down, go to arbitration every year, and seek free agency as soon as possible. He didn’t do it then, either.

It’s clear that while his desire for money was less important to him in those decisions than other factors. The worst thing we can say about Rodriguez heading into the free agent year would be “He wasn’t greedy before he had a chance at free agent riches.”

He did turn down a 1998 extension offer of 7y, $63m to start in 2001. At the time, that salary would have made him one of the highest-paid players in the time, but it didn’t take much to see that when those years came around, that wouldn’t be much (and it wasn’t — in 2001, his extension wouldn’t have put him in the top 25 salaries). And then later, he turned down eight years, $117.5m starting in 2000 (this is all coming from Thiel’s book), which must have been at least somewhat tempting.

It’s reasonable to assume then that his decision on which free agent offer to take at least took into consideration other factors, like competitiveness. Alex twice demonstrated he was willing to make deals that traded potential salary for other factors, and he’d also shown that there was a limit to how highly he’d value those things.

Which brings us to those other factors, and particularly competitiveness. He’s often mocked for his comments about Texas being a competitive franchise as a factor in his decision. But whether or not he was being sincere, which is unknowable to us, there’s nothing in the fortunes of the franchises that contradicted that. Certainly, Texas didn’t accomplish much after he joined, but in the years leading up to his free agency in the 2000-1 off-season, the contrast wasn’t at all clear.

Both had relatively new, money-generating stadiums. The Mariners had moved into spacious Safeco Field, which generally punishes right-hand hitters, while the Rangers played in hitter-friendly Ballpark at Arlington. In 2000, Alex hit .306/.414/.573 in Safeco and .366/.447/.774 on the road. Looking ahead to his career marks, that must have been on his mind.

Both had been competitive, but the Rangers were the better of the two.
2000: M’s 91-71, second in the division, went to the playoffs. Rangers 71-91, fourth in the division
1999: M’s 79-83, third in the division. Rangers 95-67, first in the division.
1998: M’s 76-85, third in the division. Rangers 88-74, first in the division.
1997: M’s 90-72, first in the division. Rangers 77-85, third in the division.
1996: M’s 85-76, second in the division. Rangers 90-72, first in the division.

In the last five years, the M’s won one division pennant and went to the playoffs twice, while the Rangers won the division three times.

In terms of ownership groups, the M’s had the Baseball Club of Seattle, the majority share held by a Japanese owner who never attended games. How much they were willing to spend fielding a team was open to question: they had, after all, lost Griffey and treated Johnson badly in his departure. The Rangers, meanwhile, had a ton of money and were itching to spend it.

payroll_96_to_00.png

We know the M’s opened the pocketbooks that next year – their payroll went way up for that 2001 team – but at the time, it wasn’t clear that would happen.

There’s no reason to believe that Alex knew that the Rangers would spend their money horribly in the coming years, while the Mariners would not. Looking back, it’s clear that the M’s were the better choice from that point on, but to use that hindsight as evidence that Alex, armed with knowledge he had at the time, made an indefensible choice, is entirely unfair.

At the time, if Alex did value a franchise’s competitiveness, we can see why Texas at the least would have been on the same level as the Mariners.

Given that, the greed assertions are a little less damaging. If the Mariners offered him a rich three-year deal and the Rangers a much richer one, with escalator clauses, opt-outs, all kinds of fringe benefits and opportunities to make more money, and the other factors are equal, then Alex would have been weighting loyalty to the team against $170 million. The M’s offered three years, $54m, with a two year option bringing it to five years, $92m.

At that point, how greedy is it to take that deal? It’s difficult to come up with a valuation for loyalty that makes the two contracts comparable. Say Alex took the view that he liked playing in Seattle, it was great, and he’d take… 10% less. Or $5m a year. Any value you can reasonably assign to that is lost in the Texas deal.

And if that value difference was so huge as to be overwhelming, then it takes the life out of the other charges. Alex indeed talked a lot about his desire to play for his one team his whole career, and off-the-record charmed local reporters with his desire to be like Cal Ripken and other franchise players, and they were angry they fell for it when he signed elsewhere.

I’m reminded of the Office as I write this.

Would I ever leave this company. Look, I’m all about loyalty. In fact, I feel like part of what I’m getting paid for here is my loyalty. But… if there were somewhere else that valued that loyalty more highly, I’m going wherever they value loyalty the most.

— Dwight Schrute

Should Alex, knowing he would be testing free agency, have shut his yap about wanting to stay with the same team, and said nothing at all? He’d have been pilloried for his silence on the subject, and I don’t think it would have done anything to change the later perception. He said what he said. Perhaps he didn’t forsee that any team would make that kind of offer, and thought the M’s would be within shouting distance.

It did not help, though, to have the people in the Seattle media feel like he’d played them for fools, and that went a long way towards defining the narrative of his departure.

Many people say that he never had any intention of staying with the M’s. We don’t know that – we can’t know that. We can’t know what Alex was thinking that last year, or what he discussed with Boras. We can’t know what Boras told him about the potential contract offers ahead, and even then, they’d both know they were educated guesses about bidders, hopes and projections. What reason do we have to think that Alex was lying about his desire to stay, while omitting that there was of course the chance that the difference in salary and situation would be so great that he’d leave despite that desire?

This is the crux of the Alex-is-greedy argument, to me: Alex is disliked for having left the Mariners through free agency for an amazingly huge contract. He’s not credited for having signed and played for below-market value for so long, making the team ridiculous amounts of money. It’s assumed that the team, in drafting him, took the player with the most talent, who would be the most underpaid for their contributions and make the team the most money. But when the player is given the same opportunity, it’s greedy to make the choice for the most money.

The only way Alex could have escaped the greedy tag was to take their offer, and sign for much less, without the clauses, and so on. He’d have to have given up 50% of Texas’ offer right off the top.

If Alex placed a value on staying with the team and being a one-team franchise player like Cal Ripken, that value was somewhere between 0 and the difference in the two offers. He doesn’t have to place much of a value on the money before that value overrides the gap.

Which brings us to a larger issue: that the M’s offer, while dwarfed by Texas’, should have been enough. That Alex should have said “Seattle is so great, I want to be a franchise player, and the money they’re offering, while comparatively smaller, is still a huge amount, so I’ll take it.”

Yet we can here repeat the same reasoning, with more factors (how highly would Alex have to have valued playing and living in Seattle over Texas plus loyalty/franchise player mystique to make up for the gap?) but I doubt that would disprove the argument. This is really an argument about player salaries being out of line with their value, and ties into an important part of why Alex is resented: the contract he signed was so huge, so precedent-setting, that everyone who thinks it’s ridiculous that profession-of-more-societal-or-personal-value only makes x while Rodriguez signed a contract for a quarter of a billion dollars directed all their hate and resentment at him.

That argument’s outside the scope of this. We live in a world that, for better or worse, pays people with certain skill sets, particularly those in entertainment fields like top actors, athletes, and so on amazing amounts of money compared to the average salary. Whether that’s just is up for debate, but it’s a big part of the view of negative view of players. In signing that deal, Alex became the greediest of greedy.

And yet, if blogging about the Mariners suddenly became one of the most lucrative professions in the country and I had a chance to move from USSM to, say, an ESPN blog and make $quadrillion, my head would swim with all the awesome stuff I could do (buy a Lamborghini!), causes I could fund, and places I could travel. If I weighed those things and came to some private valuation that pushed me to the ESPN job, does that necessarily make me greedy for taking it?

This is complicated, of course, by Alex the person. Alex doesn’t get a lot of attention for his charity work, and certainly not as much as he’s gotten in New York for things like his penchant for redistributing wealth to working women through transactions at strip clubs (and so on). He did not come out looking good in his exit from Texas. The free agent saga this off-season was a massive PR disaster. The perception of Alex now does not put his thought processes back in 2000 in a kinder light.

Yet Mariner fans booed him at the time. I’ve never understood it. Alex was a consummate player, one of the greatest the franchise has ever seen, and played for years for almost no money, and then signed an extension to play for years for less money than he might have received.

How can anyone see Alex’s contract as an example of greed and not see his previous actions as an example of generosity?

Back to the original statement of myth.

Alex Rodriguez chose to sign with the Texas Rangers because they offered him the most money.

We don’t – and can’t – know that. We know that money was not the only factor in previous decisions, and it’s reasonable to assume that it wasn’t the sole factor then.

Which comes with some secondary assertions:
- He was greedy
- He lied about wanting to stay with the Mariners
- He lied about wanting to sign with a team that was competitive

The greed thing, we don’t and can’t know how much money it might have took to override the other factors, only that it did.

We don’t know if he was lying about wanting to stay with the Mariners, but it’s reasonable to assume that he was sincere, and that if he knew he’d leave for a sufficient difference in money, or even if he could see the future and knew that there would be offers that would overwhelm that concern, he understandably left that part out.

We don’t know if he was lying about wanting to sign with a team that was competitive, but all the evidence is that if he was telling the truth, it would might even have encouraged him to sign with Texas.

All of this leaves us in an ambiguous place. Did he lie? Was he deceptive? Is he greedy, and how much so?

There are a couple of interpretations we can take:
- Alex is a jerk, lied, and manipulated local reporters and fans to try and drive up support for the M’s to retain him, and then took the better offer
- Alex shares to some degree his critics’ values of loyalty, stability, and so on, but the value of the contract and possibilities offered by Texas outweighed them
- Alex made a choice we can’t know the reasoning behind, and made some statements we can reasonably believe were true

It’s hard to see where Alex did or might have betrayed the team. He played hard while under team control, and left when he had the chance. He didn’t hold out, or force a trade by making a stink about how underpaid and underappreciated he was, dogging it on the field, or anything like it. That the hatred for Alex has hampered the recognition of how great he was as a Mariner is disappointing, because he’s one of the true Hall of Fame talents the Mariners have seen, and was an amazing player to watch while he was here, even if he left to have a somewhat troubled and controversial career after he left.

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