Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Slippery Slope

The Rocket relaunch in New York has been put on hold until at least Saturday, so that his aching groin can heal. A few weeks ago after Clemens made his dramatic announcement that he would be rejoining the Yankees one of his new teammates made a comment about the fact that his contract allows him to be absent from the team when he wasn't pitching. Kyle Farnsworth said that while he didn't have a problem with it, he thought that some others in the clubhouse might. Farnsworth mentioned that he had pitched with other hall of fame pitchers (Randy Johnson & Mariano Rivera, to name just two), and he wasn't sure how they would react if another pitcher were given that kind of preferential treatment.

It does seem to me that making this kind of exception for one player could lead to some clubhouse dissension. Roger Clemens is an extraordinary pitcher, but at this point of his career, he is not the best pitcher in baseball. Johan Santana, who has won two of the last three Cy Young awards in the AL would probably currently hold that distinction. He is also going to be a free agent in one more season. How would the Yankees or any other club for that matter handle it if Santana said that he would make his decision as to which team he would play for next based upon who would be the most flexible with his schedule? At this point, considering the precedent has already been set with Clemens, some team would undoubtedly give in to his demand. I'm not saying that this would apply to all players, in fact most of them wouldn't have the leverage required to make such a demand, but there some elite starting pitchers who this could definitely apply to. After a while the demands would start to be made my mediocre pitchers as well. Just look at this off season where pitchers with sub .500 career winning percentages were being paid upwards of $50 million. Quality pitching is at such a premium these days that clubs are willing to pay "star" prices for mediocrity.

Perhaps we are headed toward the day when starting pitchers are not really part of the team. They just sort of show up like hired gunslingers on the days that they are supposed to pitch. There is a lot of value to having a starting pitcher around even on the days that he is not pitching. He can scout the opposing teams hitters, he can offer advice to that days pitchers, he can try and pass along pitching tendencies to his hitters, he can support his teammates in the field that day. Or he can sit at home, or go see his kids play a high school football game, or see his daughter's volleyball game, or see his wife in the community theater play or go shopping for a new pair of shoes. Baseball teams already make exceptions for players to leave if they have family emergencies. Baseball is not life and death and clearly there are other things in life which are more important. The problem I have with the "Clemens Exception" is that it doesn't make a distinction between important and mundane events. The Yankees don't have any discretion as to when Clemens is there and when he's not. The only thing he's required to do is to show up to pitch. Other than that, he's free to do what he wants.

If you make an exception for one, it is really just a matter of time before you'll have to make an exception for another one and then another. Players contracts are usually littered with incentives and bonus clauses and extras besides their contracts. Some players negotiate for luxury box seats, some for first class plane tickets, some for car rentals. There is seemingly no end to the things that are provided for in baseball contracts. Those, however, can be justified on an individual basis. For example, Ichiro gets first class seats to Japan twice a year from the Mariners. That makes sense considering that's where his family is. I don't believe that the Clemens contract falls into that category though. The Astros allowed Clemens to come and go, but he lived close to the ballpark, so he was always within driving distance. If he leaves the Yankees and for some reason he is needed on a day he's not scheduled to start, he may be thousands of miles away from New York. I don't think that he is going to take advantage of the clause in his contract. I personally think that he will be there most of the time. But the problem isn't whether he opts to show up to the stadium or not, the problem is the can of worms that has been opened up by this contract. The Astros are really the ones to blame for this. They agreed to include that clause in the contract in order to coax Clemens out of "retirement" (although I think Clemens retiring means about as much as Brett Favre retiring).

I would hope that this clause is eliminated once Clemens is out of baseball, but it wouldn't surprise me if in a couple of years we see another big name pitcher ask for and get the same deal.



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