Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lingering Items--Free Agent Edition

By the time the Cleveland Indians get around to putting Johnny Damon on the field, the Browns will be starting training camp, or so it seems anyway. Did he sign? Didn't he sign? Do you really care?

When the Indians were struggling to score runs at the season's outset, their front office sprung into action in the only way it ever does: slowly and desperately. But then the Indians went to Kansas City to face the Royals, the American League's version of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and found their hitting stroke, or so it seems anyway. So the slow and desperate chase of Damon grew slower though still on track, or so it seems anyway.

I don't have any particular problem with Johnny Damon. Indeed, just as Keith Hernandez became a poster boy of sorts for pathetic free agent signings of a previous era, Damon has a real chance to serve that purpose for today's more urbane fan. Indeed, by signing Damon, the Tribe’s front office ticks off nearly box on the their prospective free agent checklist: uneven history; vagabond; mercenary; no viable other options. If he were coming off major surgery, he'd be the first 5 tool free agent signee of the Mark Shapiro/Chris Antonetti era.

Again, though, I don't have any particular problem with Johnny Damon. Ok, I have one particular problem with the signing but it's not actually with Damon. It's the fact that the Indians are reportedly paying him well in excess of $1 million on the if-come. For a team that's as frugal at the Indians, they sure know how to throw around the small money, don't they?

The minimum salary for a major leaguer in 2012 is around $500,000. The Indians reportedly signed Damon for almost triple that amount. Given that Damon had no interest from any other clubs or, perhaps more accurately, no interest from any other club willing to pay him over $1 million, the Indians essentially bid against themselves for a player that had he not signed would be selling autographs at county fairs this summer just because he needed something to do.

If you want to understand what an awesome agent Scott Boras really is, don't consider the multi-year multi-million dollar contracts he gets for superstars. A 12-year old could negotiate those. Selling any major league team on Damon for almost triple the league minimum is an accomplishment of the first order. All I can think is that the sound of Boras' voice on the other end of the phone when Antonetti inquired about Damon's availability must have made Antonetti wet himself before getting out the checkbook and writing in whatever figure Boras told him to.

Supposedly the Damon contract contains an out clause so that Damon can leave Cleveland once Grady Sizemore is healthy, a phrase that’s turned into an oxymoron. Damon should probably unpack his bags. Sizemore is the very definition of unhealthy which is why, exactly, the Indians re-signed him in the first place.

There's some chance that Damon can help offensively. The only real question is whether he'll produce more runs then he'll cost since his defense, to use a nice baseball euphemism, is suspect. It's a nice way of saying that Shelly Duncan is a more reliable outfielder. Damon at this point is somewhat of a professional hitter and would slot in nicely as a designated hitter, assuming that slot was available. Alas it’s not. The Indians have an overpaid designated hitter that can't play the field in Travis Hafner, so on that level the signing of Damon makes perfect sense, assuming George Kostanza is your general manager.

I do give the Indians credit for making a move. I also give them credit for making it entertaining. Now if they could make it productive, that would be change we could all believe in.


The Browns, meanwhile, slide into a two-month off season workout program that's been tremendously altered by new rules that are part of last year's collective bargaining agreement.

The new rules limit contact and drills in favor of strength and conditioning. The intent is to enhance player safety by keeping the players' bodies from breaking down over such a long season. No doubt Browns' linebacker Scott Fujita is smiling at this accomplishment at the bargaining table as he defends himself in front of league officials for allegedly actively participating in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program designed to do the opposite.

The collective bargaining changes make sense because injuries are already too big a part of the NFL's season. We’ve seen that for years with the Browns because of a lack of depth. They can barely compete with a healthy starting lineup. Injuries from about the 8th game on is what tends to send them careening toward 4-win territory every year.

Don’t expect much news out of the conditioning portion of the offseason workout program unless a player gets a bit mouthy and decides not to show up because he’s pissed about something. A player that could have been in that category but is not is quarterback Colt McCoy.

With various Browns’ officials talking out of both sides of their mouths all offseason about whether or not McCoy is or isn’t the future quarterback of this team, McCoy had a right to at least question the direction of the team. McCoy, however, hasn’t embraced that fray and neither has head coach Pat Shurmur, who told the media that he didn’t seek out McCoy specifically to assuage any potentially hurt feelings.

There’s an argument that could be made for having Shurmur reach out to McCoy, as a matter of courtesy if nothing else. I’m also pretty sure more then a few conspiracy theorists will see Shurmur’s approach as evidence that the Browns are indeed pursuing a new franchise quarterback through the draft. Perhaps.

But then you have to remember that the only profession in America with less job security at the moment than professional athlete is Republican presidential candidate not named Mitt Romney. Coaches use the “you can be replaced anytime” line as their main source of motivating player performance. The churn in professional sports is tremendous because there’s always someone younger and cheaper willing to take your job.

That is the bargain these players buy into when they enter the profession and it does them no good to whine about it when they actually experience it. Besides, if McCoy's feelings are hurt, then that would say something about his ability to lead the team anyway.

I think McCoy has much more to show this team and will perform better when there are better players around him, mainly because that’s true of any quarterback. Whether McCoy is a transformative quarterback is less certain and thus pushing him by pursuing other alternatives isn’t a negative. Neither is failing to smooth any hurt feelings he might have as a result.

Browns’ general manager Tom Heckert held his annual pre-draft press conference, a ritual repeated in every NFL city at just this time of year. In some ways it’s my favorite press conference of the year because it represents the largest net difference between the excitement generated by it and the newsworthiness of it.

Let me save you the time of reading the transcript and just summarize it here: There are a lot of players the Browns like. They may trade down but may stay at number 4. They could go defense or perhaps offense. Every player they're considering is really good. They have no concern about any character issues of any players.

If within that summary you can find some news or even a clue as to what the Browns will do then you deserve a Pulitzer. Heckert is no more going to reveal anything of substance about the Browns’ draft plans then would you if you were in his shoes. There’s nothing good that can come from tipping your hand unless you have the number 1 pick in the draft.

My best guess, using past performance as a predictor of future events, is that even if he were so inclined, Heckert has nothing yet to reveal because he hasn’t yet decided what the Browns will do. So much depends on what teams around him want to do. Draft day tends to send panic through the veins of general managers, though the drawn out way it’s now conducted actually works counter to some of that drama. Still, without knowing until draft day how desperate a team can be (e.g. Atlanta last season) it does make it a tad difficult to plan for every contingency.

If the draft is clean, the Browns will stay at the fourth slot and pick an impact player on offense, probably a receiver. It’s such a glaring need that almost anything other than that would invite another fan insurrection. But if teams around the Browns begin to panic, I won’t fault Heckert if he uses it to the team’s advantage. The Browns don’t just have one need, they have at least 18. Almost anything Heckert does will serve the team eventually.

The only concern is if Heckert panics, though I don't see that happening and for much the same reason. The Browns' needs are vast and almost any direction they go outside of left tackle they can credibly say they drafted the best player at their most pressing need.


A few words about the Bruce Springsteen concert at Quicken Loans arena earlier in the week. It should have been required viewing for every player on every Cleveland sports team. They would have learned something about how to approach professional entertainment in a way that recaptures the passion and glory of their youth—you know, the reason they got into it in the first place.

Springsteen is 62 years of age and is as good now at his craft as he ever was. The secret, I believe, is the pure joy he gets from his chosen pursuit. It's never a job but a passion. He then takes that passion and translates it into an experience that makes every crowd in every city feel like they got a special, one of a kind performance. I've seen him perform well in excess of 100 times over the last 30+ years and can tell you definitively that he never mails in a performance. Never. Ever.

Every professional athlete on every Cleveland team could certainly take some lessons from Springsteen even if they don't care for his music. Keep yourself in shape (hear that, Chris Perez?). Approach each performance like it's the last one you may give. Respect your fans because they're the ones paying your salary. Don't play because you have to. Play because you want to. Don't be afraid to smile once in awhile.

The crowd at the Q on Tuesday night was electric, responding to Springsteen in ways unimaginable at any Cleveland sporting event. That's not a criticism of Cleveland sports fans, either. I've been to all the playoff games at all our local venues. Cleveland fans know how to make noise. Ultimately, though, they are no match for a Springsteen crowd in any city and they won't be until they have teams that approach their professions like Springsteen approaches his.

Another great show by the greatest rock and roll artist the world has ever known.

With the NFL draft approaching, a question to ponder: Is there any bigger waste of your time then reading someone's mock draft?

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