Thursday, May 24, 2007

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye, Carl Pavano

He needs to show a lot of people that he wants to go out there and pitch for us. ... It didn’t look good from a player’s and a teammate’s standpoint. … As another starting pitcher who has not been 100 percent all of the last two years, I know what it takes to go out there and pitch. … Actions speak louder than words.
- Yankee starting pitcher Mike Mussina on Carl Pavano during spring training in February 2007 (Article by Yankee beat writer Peter Abraham)

He hasn't been here. You can't really miss someone that hasn't been here.

- Yankee captain Derek Jeter during spring training in February 2007 when asked about Carl Pavano (Link to Article)

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.
- Gerald Ford after taking the Presidential oath of office on August 9, 1974 (Link to Speech)

More than $2 million a start. No, that is not what Roger Clemens will cost the New York Yankees this year. It is the return on the team's investment in Carl Anthony Pavano.

Prior to the 2005 season, the Yankees fought off the Boston Red Sox and other suitors to land Pavano on a four-year contract for just less than $40 million. Not bad for a guy who, while coming off an 18-8 season for the Florida Marlins, had a career record of 57-58 and a propensity to spend time on the disabled list (in his first five years in the big leagues, his highest single-season inning total was an underwhelming 136).

For its $40 million, the Yankees got 19 starts and a 5-6 record over the last two plus seasons, including one improbable opening day start this season when Andy Pettitte suffered an injury late in spring training. Now it looks like Pavano's career Yankee stats will be frozen right there, as he is about to undergo ligament-replacement surgery (known in baseball circles as Tommy John surgery), which, in a best-case scenario, would have Pavano pitching again in August of 2008, with two or three baseball months left on his Yankee contract. ( Article)

And, really, with Carl Pavano, when has anything followed the best-case scenario?

The guy made 17 starts his first year with the team, putting up a 4-6 record, before shutting himself down with a mysterious arm ailment that at first didn't seem to be season-ending, but ended up being just that. He proceeded to miss his entire second season with the team, succumbing to a series of injuries that had teammates questioning his toughness and desire to pitch. This year he managed two starts before hitting the disabled list with pain in his forearm.

Mike Mussina's quote set out above seemed to be a common view in the clubhouse. Last season, after one of his endless comebacks was derailed by two broken ribs sustained in a car accident (that he failed to report to team officials for several days), a teammate hung a newspaper with the headline "Crash Test Dummy" in Pavano's Yankee Stadium locker. ( Article) Of course, Pavano wasn't there to see the prank, because for most of his Yankee career, he was anywhere but with the team.

The unique aspect of baseball is that it features the longest season of any sport (162 games), with the fewest teams making the playoffs at the end of the campaign (four in each league). The season is a grind, with teams rewarded for being able to sustain excellence for long stretches. Short-term winning and losing streaks are less important, often balanced out over the course of a long season.

As a result, while baseball lacks the violent body contact of football or hockey, or the constant movement and cutting of basketball, the daily grind of playing every day takes its toll on players' bodies, and nearly every player is forced to deal with some kind of pain. The ability to go out and help your teammates when you are less than 100 percent is a valued trait among baseball players. Pavano was never viewed as being that guy.

The Yankees clubhouse is often called "business-like." It's used as both a compliment (the guys know what it takes to win) and an insult (it can be stodgy and less fun than in other cities). The result, though, is that there are not a lot of petty agendas amongst the players. Did you testify to a grand jury that you knowingly (Jason Giambi) or unknowingly (Gary Sheffield) did steroids? Didn't seem to matter. If you were a good teammate, you were welcome in the Yankee clubhouse. What about a history of drug abuse (Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry)? Again, are you a good teammate? Then, you are welcome.

For Pavano to make enemies and have it rise to the level of a quiet guy like Mike Mussina burying him to the press, he had to be doing something fairly extraordinary. He will be forever tagged as one of those guys who got his contract and put his engine on cruise control.

It is no secret in baseball circles that long-term contracts can be dangerous to players' psyches. Competitors like Derek Jeter (who is in the midst of a 10-year, $189 million contract) seem unaffected, driven to win regardless of his contractual situation. Other players seem to play for their contract and then relax once they have it. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, for example, signed a five-year, $64 million contract with the Seattle Mariners after batting .334 with 48 home runs and 121 runs batted in for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. He proceeded to hit a total of 44 home runs in his next two seasons while his batting average plummeted to the .260 range.

Sure, Pavano may have been unlucky and suffered injury after injury through no fault of his own. But the fact remains that he signed a long-term deal and then disappeared. When the news hits the Yankee locker room tomorrow (they're off today) that Pavano's Yankee career is probably over, I'm sure it will get no more than shrugs from his teammates. As Jeter said in the quote at the top of this article, you can't miss someone who hasn't been around.

But the closure of the Pavano issue, whether his teammates admit it or not, should provide them with a bit of an exhale, giving them some hope that they can stop answering questions about him or deal with him as an issue. For them, President Ford's quote of the nightmare being over may be more appropriate. Only, don't look for the players to issue Pavano any pardons.