Sports Nut

Spare the Franchise or Spoil the A-Rod?

We may never know what Alex Rodriguez is really asking for in the way of perks from the teams bidding for his services. But let’s assume that Mets General Manager Steve Phillips wasn’t completely fibbing when he told the press that Rodriguez’s agent Scott Boras demanded premiums befitting a Hollywood megastar: luxury boxes and jet airplanes, billboards lining the Long Island Expressway, an A-Rod souvenir tent at spring training, and marketing staff dedicated solely to promoting his image.

The Mets shot it all down, Phillips maintained, because it would destroy the social fabric of the club. It is one thing to pay a single guy five, 10, 50 times what his teammates make, quite another for him to receive privileged treatment.

This could turn out to be a Machiavellian plot by Phillips to drive down the market for Rodriguez, and he could very well succeed at it. Image is clearly important to the baby-faced Rodriguez, and for the moment anyway, Phillips has him looking like a world-class prima donna. Mets ace Al Leiter even went on record saying that if this is the price of landing Rodriguez, then he can take his game elsewhere.

The Mets, you see, consider themselves a real team, in the old-school sense. Manager Bobby Valentine’s post-World Series performance exemplified this. Choking back tears, Valentine described how hard his boys played and how proud he was of them, so on and so forth, sounding like the skipper of a Little League club that had just had their hopes and dreams snuffed out in Williamsport by a team of Korean ringers. It would have been hard to take, if only the sentiments hadn’t seemed so genuine and heartfelt. Valentine is known as something of a phony, but throughout the Series, he came across as legitimately concerned about the feelings and emotional stability of his team, notably the wounded pride of his $6 million a year closer.

At least he seemed legitimately concerned in those tender post-game moments. Such is the nature of professional sports that if those wounds don’t heal over the winter, the $6 million a year closer’s ass is grass come spring training. And know who else will be history by then? There will be an open revolt in the stands at Shea Stadium if the Mets even contemplate sticking the same lineup back on the field so they can try their darnedest one more time. This team will be retooled just like it was in the middle of last season when supersub Melvin Mora, a Valentine favorite valiantly playing out of position at shortstop to help the team, got swapped to Baltimore for veteran Mike Bordick. This didn’t end up working out quite the way the Mets hoped, but at the time it was universally viewed as a smart move, even within the clubhouse. This was doing what you have to do to win, everybody understood that.

So how come the prospect of throwing a few extra goodies Rodriguez’s way seems outrageous? To win the war of public opinion, Phillips is counting on sportswriters and fans to see baseball in a nostalgic light, and fortunately for him, this is how many sportswriters and fans do see baseball. We like to believe that blue-collar values such as team unity remain essential to winning ball games. Meanwhile, the entire industry of professional sports is adopting the bloodless tactics of the entertainment business. Putting together a team these days is like casting a movie. The winners ruthlessly reshuffle their rosters expecting a pennant every year. The formula is simple: Bag a handful of huge stars for exorbitant sums, fill out the supporting roles with solid vets and comers who don’t yet cost that much, and then cobble together the rest with kids, castoffs, and overachievers.

Just as an indie film will occasionally bust out of nowhere to grab big box office, there will sometimes be teams that barrel their way into the postseason with nothing but kids, castoffs, and overachievers, as Oakland did this year, and for baseball purists, these are the teams to root for. But they’ll only get so far. The World Series rings will belong to the likes of Atlanta, Cleveland, Arizona, and the New York clubs (and perhaps Los Angeles and Baltimore, if they get their acts together). They not only pay their players well, they take very good care of them in ways that the average fan probably does not want to know about (and that the average beat writer does not tell us). It isn’t just salaries that have skyrocketed in recent years—the perks have followed a similar inflationary pattern. It stands to reason that Rodriguez would want not only the most money, but the most everything. Extras such as private jets and luxury boxes are not unheard of among upper-echelon players, and there are probably tons of private arrangements that we have no idea about. Even the regular guys get pampered; the Yankees’ team masseuse was considered such a vital member of the team that she too got a key to the city from Mayor Giuliani after the victory parade.

So while Steve Phillips deserves credit for sticking up for old-fashioned values and exposing Alex Rodriguez, it may not be the best way for a big-market general manager to behave these days. He’s an entertainment executive and entertainment executives who take the high road can’t expect to keep their jobs for long. If you’re a producer and the price of getting, say, Tom Cruise to star in your film includes paying for him to commute to the set by helicopter because traffic jams bum him out, you’re going to cede to that demand. Big deal if it alienates him from the hard-working cast and crew—or galls you personally. He’s your star, your meal ticket, your clean-up hitter. And if you’re the Mets and you don’t want to lose another World Series to the Yankees, you might want to think again about giving Rodriguez all the jets and billboards and souvenir tents his heart desires, as well as that dedicated marketing staff. Given what Phillips has done to his reputation, he’s going to need it.