Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Rod Miscalculates, But Pays No Price

I was so proud.

On October 29, when I wrote how smart the Yankees were to cut ties with Alex Rodriguez, and how good it was for the team's future that he would be gone, I was a happy man. For two years, general manager Brian Cashman had developed a plan to right the Yankee ship, moving away from long-term, big-money contracts; seeking to rid the clubhouse of bad influences; and relying on the newly developed quality in the minor leagues (mainly the pitching prospects) to build around. For the first time since the Yankees were winning championships between 1996 and 2000 behind a lineup of home-grown stars and carefully selected, modest trade and free agent additions, I was truly proud to be a Yankee fan.

Then, in one day, it was all over. I returned from a trip out of the country on Thursday afternoon, and when I was in a taxi heading home from JFK, I heard on the radio a story tease that had to be some kind of mistake: The Yankees were going to re-sign A Rod.

By now, we all know the story. During the fourth game of the World Series, A Rod's agent, the universally reviled Scott Boras, announced that A Rod would be opting out of his contract with the Yankees without giving the team the chance to talk with the player directly or make an offer of a contract extension. With one voice mail message to Cashman, Boras made the nearly $30 million due from the Texas Rangers to the Yankees disappear, much like a post-season fastball disappearing into the catcher's glove after an A Rod swing and miss.

The Yankees big shots, seemingly true to their word, declared the Alex Rodriguez era over, and vowed to find another third baseman via trade or free agency. Meanwhile, Boras whined about why the Yankees wouldn't negotiate with A Rod while talking with their other free agents (uh, Scott, I'll give you 30 million reasons why ...), watching as his whole plan -- having the Yankees and another team bid each other into numbers that surpassed the gross national product of many third-world countries -- unraveled faster than A Rod's image. The bank-breaking offers from the Angels, Giants and/or Dodgers never materialized. Teams publicly declared themselves out of the A Rod derby with such speed and decisiveness, you would think they were talking about Barry Bonds, not the soon-to-be-crowned American League Most Valuable Player.
In a nutshell, A Rod was royally screwed. He was universally reviled for the timing of his opt-out announcement. There were no suitors rushing to pay more than the Yankees were willing to offer in an extension. Things had not gone to Boras's script, which is usually as prescient as a crystal ball. If you believe press reports, A Rod was angry at Boras for miscalculating so badly, and disappointed he could not continue his career with the Yankees.

Or, put another way, the Yankees had all of the leverage in the world, and A Rod was at their mercy.

With things unraveling, A Rod contacted Warren Buffett to see what he should do. Buffett's advice? Go to the Yankees directly, without Boras. And he did, contacting a Goldman Sachs pal who got the message to the Yankees that A Rod wanted to come back.

At that point, with all the leverage in the world, the Yankees should have said, "Well, if this isn't about the money, and you really just want to come back to New York, you should be happy to take the extension offer we were going to make, 8 years for about $225 million, minus 10 percent for the crap you put us through, and minus the $30 million we lost from Texas thanks to your opt-out decision."

But, as we all know, in life, we don't always say what we should say. Instead, the Yankees, having been spurned by A Rod once, and holding all of the negotiating chips, instead offered A Rod a monster ten-year, $275 million contract, plus a share of any revenue generated by A Rod's pursuit of the career home run record. Who were they trying to outbid?

If this was simply the Yankees spending more money than they should have, then it would be hard to be too angry. After all, what's $70 million between friends? Unfortunately, this isn't about paying retail when a discount store had the same item for half the price. Rather, this signing could single-handedly kill the Yankees' championship hopes for the next ten years. It certainly doesn't help any.

The Yankees have guaranteed themselves that for the next ten years, they will be saddled with a $27.5 million anchor pulling them away from where they want to be. And I'm not just talking about the last years of the contract, when they will be paying $27.5 million a season for someone who is 39, 40, 41 and 42 years of age. No, more importantly, for the next ten years, we will be talking about A Rod and his need to be in the spotlight, rather than discussing winning. The Yankees will have a player in the middle of their lineup that has a record of failure in the post-season that is historic. A player that for four consecutive playoff series has disappeared when his team needed him most. A player who has not had a hit with a runner in scoring position in a post-season game since around the time that Bush stood under that "Mission Accomplished" banner. A player who has never played in a World Series. A player whose teammates tolerate him, at best. Simply put, a player who has yet to prove that he can actually help his team win important games. (In my October 29 column, I went into more detail how having a slugger like A Rod is not a necessary component to winning championships.)

The Yankees had a plan. Cashman had found ways to strip ego-driven, controversy-courting malcontents like Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson from the team, all while getting good young players in return. He had also avoided committing to long-term contracts for pricey free agents, instead giving opportunities to kids like Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano. Sure, 2008 would have been a bit rough without A Rod's numbers in the middle of the order. But the strength of the farm system and the paucity of albatross-like contracts on the books had positioned the Yankees to make the right trades and signings that could have resulted in a team that could return to prominence in 2009 and beyond. It was all right there. And, with the monster contract going to A Rod, it's all gone.

I honestly believe that the tragedy of the A Rod signing is that it puts an end to Cashman's two-year, carefully constructed plan that had revived hope for the Yankees. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that what also bugs me about the signing is that there were no consequences for A Rod. He can blame his agent all he wants, but his agent works for him, not the other way around. When he chose Scott Boras as his agent, he knew exactly what he was getting. A Rod is ultimately responsible for every ridiculous thing to come out of Boras's mouth on his behalf. As the expression goes, if you lie down with dogs like Boras, you wake up reviled by everyone. Okay, that's not exactly how the expression goes, but you know what I mean.

In the end, since Game Four of the World Series, A Rod's decisions and messages have been clear and consistent: Money was paramount for him. As I wrote in that October 29 column, it is his right to maximize his earnings, but he can't have it both ways. You can't go for the money, but pretend not to be a mercenary. But thanks to Hank Steinbrenner, A Rod is getting it both ways. He took the path of securing the most money at all costs, and when it didn't work out, he played the "I want to be a Yankee card" and got to come back to New York, all while still breaking the bank. A Rod was not asked to pay any price -- that is, to give any discount -- for his miscalculation. And that just feels wrong.

I'm feeling sad that for the next ten years, when I go to Yankee Stadium (old or new) to watch the Bombers, I will have trouble rooting for my own club's clean-up hitter. And I'm not the only loyal fan that will feel that way. With one cave-in to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have destroyed two years of Cashman's building. I am not feeling pride in my favorite baseball team right now. And that's a shame.