Thursday, 2 September 2010

Too Hot to Touch?

After watching Manny Ramirez perched in the White Sox dugout during their game with the Indians on Tuesday night as question cropped into my head: at what point does the baggage a player bring with them out way the value of their playing ability?

It seems that this question varies, or at least should vary, on where that team is in the standings and where it hopes to be come the year’s end. For example, a poor team, facing diminished gate receipts as they fall out of contention should probably covet the services of a controversial star more than a team in the middle of a play-off race who can ill-afford to risk their team chemistry for the sake of some extra pop in the line-up. Of course this has not proven to be the case. If it were true then why would the out of contention Dodgers place Manny on waivers and why would the contending White Sox (who are crammed full of good power hitters) take the risk?

Of course it is Manny, the baseball definition of the exception that proves the rule.

It must be said that Manny is not all that controversial in the grand scheme of things. Yes, he was suspended for 50 games last year, yes he has spent the majority of his Dodgers career holding out for obscene amounts of money and yes he did leave the Red Sox in less than dignified circumstances. But he’s clearly not yet reached the level of controversy necessary for team to avoid him like the plague. I’m sure that still being capable of 30HR 120RBI .300+ seasons doesn’t harm his chances either.

When we talk about controversial players there will always be one name that looms large over all others: Barry Lamar Bonds.

Bonds (allegedly) was so keen to sign on with a team in 2008 that his agent offered Barry’s services to all 30 Major League teams for the league minimum, pro-rated. Even that minimum salary was to be “given to kids” and yet no team offered Bonds a contract. Now, while its been rumoured that this was more a PR stunt designed to salvage Barry’s less than stellar public perception than a genuine offer it does provide an interesting discussion point. Assuming that the offer was genuine, why was no team prepared to give Barry a spot in the line-up for half a season?

Obviously the negatives with Barry are well-documented; allegations of steroid use, long held reputation as a club-house cancer etc. But the fact remains that, even at his most hated and reviled, Barry Bonds drew people to the ball-park. Think of the marketing possibilities had Barry signed on with the Royals or the Blue Jays: “Barry Bonds, after defiling the consecrated ground of the National League dares to infiltrate the AL, quickly hurry down to Kaufman stadium to boo this villain”. The Royals would make an absolute killing in merchandise and ticket sales and could easily use this money to finance getting in some legitimate free agent talent come seasons end.

And of course, let’s not forget that Barry Bonds come the end of the 2007 season was far from done as a big league hitter. He didn’t limp towards his final game in the way Giambi, McGwire and countless other ageing sluggers have. He still had the intimidation factor, still had plenty of pop left in his bat and was still putting up video-game level OBP. He could have made any number of teams better, not just AL teams. Manny Ramirez was still ‘playing’ LF for the Red Sox at the time and I’m that even a 44 year old Barry Bonds can’t have been that bad in the field. Hell, people were still paying Adam Dunn money to play the outfielder in 2008.

Yet with Bonds it is clear that his reputation, tarnished legacy and the inevitable headaches having him and what he has come to represent on the ball club were considered more important to Major League GMs than what he might be able to contribute financially and offensively. In Bond’s case this is probably fair enough, although I would argue that it is the job of every GM in baseball to wheel and deal in order to field the best, most competitive team possible. If Bonds is allowed to play by Bud Selig and the commissioner’s office and is willing to play for the minimum then I don’t see how any GM has any moral duty to refuse to sign him. Frankly if Bonds is a disgrace to baseball and a cheat then he should have been suspended and removed from the game publically by Selig. That he wasn’t and isn’t means that he is fair game (although there is every chance that teams did want to sign Bonds and Selig told them not to, he could have been black-listed like Jose Canseco keeps claiming to have been).

All in all, while there are holes in the idea that Bonds’ reputation is too big an albatross for the sensible franchise to bare, I can sympathise with teams shying away from signing players like Bonds on this basis as long as there is consistency. I’ve got no problem with it if there is some sort of united front presented by baseball which states that players with a certain degree of infamy are not to be hired.

It is however wholly inconsistent to have the Giants herd big Barry out of the back door of AT&T park with embarrassed looks on their faces and then have the Cardinals offer Mark McGwire the hitting coach job. Since when was McGwire any less culpable that Bonds is for the so-called ‘steroid era’? Sure, McGwire admitted (in a manner of speaking) to using PEDs and isn’t facing perjury charges like Bonds and Clemens but this doesn’t make him any less guilty when it comes to allegations of cheating the game/defiling history etc. Plus, at the time of his appointment Big Mac hadn’t owned up to anything. There are many problems with having McGwire as a hitting coach (e.g. what can a all-or-nothing slugger like McGwire teach Holliday and Pujols about hitting?) but the most startling is that MLB is allowing this to happen in the first place. Are we going to see Clemens sign on as a pitching coach somewhere? I doubt it. I know there is an argument to be made that Bonds and Clemens are untouchable as long as there are current legal proceedings active against them but that really doesn’t pass the smell test. Didn’t Miguel Tejeda start this season with the threat of jail time and deportation hanging over him?

Clearly there is some sort of ranking system going on here, Bonds, Clemens, Canseco, Palmeiro and a few others (John Rocker hopefully) are to be ostracised and banished from the game whilst some, equally tarnished players are to be given second chances (Sosa, Ramirez, A-Rod, Giambi, McGwire). If we are to truly put the steroid era behind us and move on there needs to be some sort of clarity about this issue. Either they are all guilty and all excluded or they are all to be given the opportunity to return and make amends like McGwire has.

1 comment:

  1. Matthew - Just an fyi, the email address listed for you within the Baseball Bloggers Alliance is out of date. Could you send me an email with your correct contact info? Thanks.