Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Budget Fillers

There was a time in Cleveland when Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Omar Vizquel formed the heart of a team that gave Indians fans their most significant reason to cheer in decades. They were great players growing into the prime of their careers that several times put the Indians on the precipice of a World Series title that now seems further away then ever.

But players like Thome, Ramirez and Vizquel were never going to spend their careers in Cleveland. We can bitch about the reasons why but the truth is that the identity of a particular player and a particular team is as outdated as the reserve clause.

One of the byproducts of the system that Marvin Miller sold first to the players and eventually to the owners was a revolving door concept of player movement. You take two greedy parties—players and owners—whose economic interests naturally clash and eventually you end up a league full of players who, if there's any length to their careers, each probably average having played with 4 to 5 different teams by the time those careers are over.

If the Indians didn’t create the concept of “small market team” then they were at least at the forefront of the concept. When baseball’s runaway financial structure, driven by the kinds of dollars teams were willing to throw at players like Thome and Ramirez in particular, became too dizzying of a ride for less heeled owners around the league, teams either had to find a better way to make use of the money they had or become, well, the Kansas City Royals.

So for the Indians, like their West Coast cousins, the Oakland As, it was easy to say goodbye to players they never intended to keep and replace them with someone who might vaguely replicate their production at 1/10th of the price.

As a result, every off season in Cleveland is filled not with splashy free agent signingsbut a smattering of goodbyes followed by acquisitions like Casey Kotchman, Kevin Slowey and Cristian Guzman. Even Derek Lowe fits the profile. It’s the only way that the Indians can think of to keep a budget within reason while still turning a profit for their owners.

But it’s a myth that only teams like Cleveland and Oakland do these sorts of things. The Indians and As may do more of this kind of barrel scraping then others, but there isn’t a team in the major leagues that isn’t in the market for an aging veteran pitcher with a history of success and coming off of arm surgery. Heck, Bartolo Colon was a big part of the Yankees’rotation last season.

That’s why it’s fascinating to watch when players like Thome, Ramirez and Vizquel, players who were such a big part of local fans’ dreams, face their comeuppance. No longer are they prizes to whom teams are still willing to throw indiscriminate money toward but instead they are, in effect, some other team’s Kotchman, Slowey or Guzman.

When the Oakland As signed Ramirez earlier this week, it more than drove home the point. Ramirez is mostly a discredited two time violator of baseball’s drug policy. He could be signed on the cheap because he grew fat and remained stupid and he has a 50-game suspension that still must be served.

But the other reason the As would take a chance on Ramirez is for the same reason that aging baby boomers will still buy tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. McCartney may be 70 years old but his voice is still good enough to make you remember when it was coming out of a 25 year old body.

So it is with Ramirez. He could get as big as Prince Fielder but as long as the sweet batting stroke remains in tact, and As general manager Billy Beane assures us it is, then there is very little to be lost except maybe a half million dollars if Ramirez is a complete bust. As cheap as teams can be, they still think little of giving away $500,000 to a player who could credibly occupy a final roster spot.

Still there is a certain pathetic underpinning to it all, isn’t there? Assuming Ramirez’s lack of self-discipline extended to matters financial, the assumption is that Ramirez signed because he needs the money. He never came across as someone who loved the game given his abject indifference toward its formalities for so many years. It's the sad epilogue really to the far headier days when he and his agent dangled the disingenuous notion of his re-signing with Cleveland under a “hometown discount” before maxing out with the Boston Red Sox.

Take away the two drug violations and Thome’s story closely parallels Ramirez’s. He left Cleveland in much the same way, with his agent trying to portray Indians’ management as the bad guys for not paying him his “value” even as he chased the maximum cash that any other team was willing to pay him knowing full well it wouldn't be Cleveland.

Thome had great years with the Phillies and became a very solid 1 percenter in the process. But age and weight and injuries caught up with Thome and for the last several years he’s been a hobbled mercenary looking for a few bucks and a way to extend his career. He’s now on his fourth team since 2006.

It, too, seems just a tad pathetic. And yet there is something gratifying by the way Thome, like Ramirez, has had to humble himself to those he exploited now that he's just another spare part, a plug hole in some team’s budget, as he clings to baseball even after making well in excess of $100 million during his career.

Then there’s Vizquel. He didn’t get there in the same way as Ramirez or Thome but he’s there all the same. Never the splashy free agent that either Ramirez or Thome was it could well be argued that his value as a baseball player was at least as high as either of them.

Vizquel didn’t leave Cleveland because he was chasing free agent dollars. He left because general manager Mark Shapiro kicked him, his 37 year old body and his relatively modest $6 million a year salary to the curb in favor of a potentially promising Jhonny Peralta who worked much more cheaply. Since then Vizquel went on to start for the San Francisco Giants for years but now finds himself as a 45 year old trying to keep a million dollar salary coming in. As long as he can still field the ball on occasion and doesn’t make waves, he’s the perfect plug hole in some team’s budget as well.

That Vizquel still clings to baseball as a bit player is a sad end to a glorious career. There's no reason not to take the money that some team wants to throw your way but it really is rather sad that in the pursuit of another dollar a player of his stature is willing to tarnish an otherwise glorious career.

In retrospect, it all seems rather ludicrous to have gotten so excited about trying to retain at least Ramirez and Thome, even as I still question Shapiro’s decision to jettison Vizquel when he did. Even if they all had remained in Cleveland and had put up exactly the same numbers as they did for their new teams, there is no certainty that the Indians would have won a World Series.

But even more to the point is simply that they more then prove that as much as major league baseball markets its superstars, the only real way to remain committed as a fan is to love the game more. Players come and go quickly, particularly these days, and their self interests will always break your hearts. But the game itself still endures and is the reason to watch. It’s the only way to be a fan in Cleveland and, frankly, every other city with a major or minor league team.

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