Sunday, July 30, 2006

Happy Birthday! (Belated)

Alex Rodriguez must be traded. Now. To the Pirates for Joe Randa, Roberto Hernandez, Jeromy Burnitz and a case of Michelob, if necessary. If not, to the Red Sox for a PTNBL out of low-A ball. But then again, the Red Sox probably wouldn’t want A-Rod, not even if the Yankees sent along enough cash to top off the contracts of Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, and David Ortiz.

Why? ‘Cause the Red Sox value chemistry. They know that having a guy that’s booed in his own ballpark isn’t just going to affect the way he plays—and particularly, the way he throws—but it has to affect his teammates, their morale, their performance. Why, even Barry Bonds isn’t booed at home, which isn’t to say that the Yankees shouldn’t trade Rodriguez for Bonds, given Jason Giam…

[Ed. Note: SLAP!]

Uh, thanks. Sorry about that. I was just momentarily beguiled by the hypnotic arguments of the talking heads on Baseball Tonight, telling us that the Yankees must trade Alex Rodriguez. Must…Trade…Rodriguez…

Wait! No need to slap me again. I'm over this. To be perfectly fair, I floated the idea of trading Alex Rodriguez before it became fashionable. At the time, I hadn't realized two things, first because it hadn't happened yet, and second because I'd simply forgotten it. First, there is no way to get fair value in a trade of Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees would be trading Alex at the low point in his career, when he’s not hitting and when he looks like a guy who’s overmatched at third base, rather than a shortstop in exile. The last guys who attempted to trade for A-Rod’s contract needed to unload the second-highest contract in the game as part of the deal, which raises a question as to whether there is any other team who would be ready to take on the financial commitment that Rodriguez represents.

Second, and more important, Rodriguez has a no-trade clause in his contract. So not only do the Yankees have to find a trade partner willing to take on Rodriguez’s salary, they also have to make sure the deal would be one the thirdbaseman will not protest. As a quick review, there are three prime reasons why a ballplayer with a no-trade clause accepts a trade (in no particular order): a move for more money, a move to a contender, or a move to get the heck out of a bad work environment. Now, Rodriguez isn’t going to find any team who is willing to sweeten his existing deal—to the contrary, it’s likely a trade partner would ask Alex to defer some of his contract. Any team with as good or better shot at the postseason than the Yankees would likely be unwilling to part with the quantity of talent the Yanks would seek in return for Rodriguez.

Which leaves us with the thesis that has been espoused by Steve Phillips on Baseball Tonight—that Rodriguez should want to get out of town because he will never win New York fans over. This doesn’t work for Rodriguez, either. Alex Rodriguez is an elite athlete, perhaps the best all-around player of his time. There is every indication that he wants to be discussed in that inner circle of the best ballplayers, ever.

If he begs out of New York after a half-season of boos, he can forget about that inner circle. When you think of the cream of the crop in Cooperstown, did any of those guys, in their prime, ever get drummed out of town for failing to perform? Do you see Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Ted Williams meekly accepting such a trade? Rodriguez is stuck in New York—even if he wanted out of town, he can’t leave under these circumstances. It would be like tattooing “I crap my pants when I’m under pressure” on his forehead. The stink of it would follow him to any major league clubhouse in the land.

Of course, there’s a certain irony to Steve Phillips noting that Rodriguez can’t catch a break from New York fans. It’s a little like Osama Bin Laden complaining about increased airport security. Is Phillips too humble to recognize his role in Rodriguez’s plight?

Flash back to November, 2000. The Yankees had just beaten the New York Mets in the World Series. Throughout the baseball season, and even as the Mets won the Wild Card, and advanced to the World Series, some Mets fans already had their eyes fixed on the off-season, when Alex Rodriguez, best player in baseball and childhood Mets fan, would be a free agent.

Fans and media alike wanted Rodriguez to come to Shea. Rodriguez himself seemed to want to play in New York, across town from his buddy, Derek Jeter. The one person who seemed not to favor Rodriguez coming to the Mets was the Mets’ GM—Steve Phillips. As early as July, 2000, it was rumored that Phillips favored signing Mike Bordick, rather than blowing his budget in a Scott Boras-led bidding war.

So in mid-November 2000, Phillips held a conference call with the New York media, announcing that after a single face-to-face meeting with Boras, the Mets were dropping out of the hunt for Rodriguez. Phillips aired a little dirty laundry about Boras’s proposed package for Rodriguez, which included a number of perquisites Phillips derided, characterizing Rodriguez as a “managed” athlete. At the time, Phillips was quoted as saying, “I have serious reservations that a structure where you have a 24-plus-one-man roster can really work. In fact, I don’t think it can work.”

A cynical person could think that Phillips never wanted Rodriguez, never intended to bid for his services, and that the GM only met with Rodriguez’s agent to get ammunition so as to make Rodriguez less desirable to Mets’ fans and the New York media. Regardless of Phillips’ motives, the effect of his preemptive strike was that—for the first time, really—people looked at Rodriguez as something other than a nice guy and a great ballplayer. Now he was a pampered snob, a hothouse flower who couldn’t survive being just one of the guys on a major league roster. When Rodriguez signed with Texas, the “24-plus-one” meme followed him, along with a nasty undercurrent of hatred for the man and his “greedy” contract.

Five and a half years later, the highest-paid player in baseball is booed at home—in the same city where Phillips threw down the gauntlet against him—whenever he makes an out with a man on. Maybe it would’ve happened without Steve Phillips’s help, but we’ll never know that, will we? What we do know is that trading A-Rod is one of those things that is easy to demand, hard to justify, and even harder to execute.

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