The Week That Was in Baseball: January 20-26, 2014
Masahiro Tanaka Goes Broadway • Does the Union Want A-Rod A-Gone?
Greg Maddux's Blank HOF Cap • Hockey Night at Dodger Stadium
Will Super-Masahiro Save New York?
The Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes came to a well publicized and, alas to many, predictable outcome this past week when he chose the New York Yankees as his new team. The contract: Seven years, $155 million. Before Tanaka has thrown one major league pitch, he is already set to earn more dollars per season than all but seven pitchers. Additionally, the Yankees will pay the required $20 million cut to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka’s former club in Japan.
The deal once again proves that the Yankees are second to none in making sure they outspend to get what they want. (The Los Angeles Dodgers are trying, but they apparently came up short with a bid of their own which they would not publicly release.) The deal deflated earlier reports that had the Arizona Diamondbacks insisting that they would not be outbid for Tanaka, followed by intense rumors that the Chicago Cubs were in the driver’s seat to land the ace who finished 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year in Japan; both of those teams reportedly offered six years for roughly $120 million. Even the laughable (51-111 last season) Houston Astros gave it a shot—offering Tanaka a $100 million package and a public lobbyist in Roger Clemens.
If the money wasn’t enough for Tanaka, the odds of winning a World Series for the Yankees seemed far more realistic than, say, had he opted for the Cubs, Diamondbacks or certainly the Astros.
Omamori or Bust?
Tanaka is the fifth primary player the Yankees have courted straight from the Orient. (Pitcher Hiroki Kuroda doesn’t count because he didn’t begin his American career with New York) There’s a mixed bag of success and failure for the Yankees with the previous four:
Hideki Irabu. A celebrated hire at the time, the portly Japanese pitcher was to be the Yankees’ answer to Hideo Nomo, who a few years earlier permanently opened the gates for Asian players in America. But Irabu would prove to be a complete bust with a slower-than-advertised fastball, sloppy performances and the occasional “screw-you” ‘tude. It rankled George Steinbrenner to the point that he famously referred to Irabu as a “fat pussy toad.” Irabu played six years for three different teams, amassed a 5.15 ERA and briefly returned to Japan for before retiring to Los Angeles—where, in a sad denouement, he hung himself in 2011.
Hideki Matsui. The second Hideki proved to be the charm for the Yankees. Matsui was as popular at Yankee Stadium as Irabu was vilified, as “Godzilla” quietly stormed over opponents for seven years in pinstripes. He played every game through his first three years, and hit at least 20 homers with 100 RBIs in four different seasons with New York before playing out his career for three different teams. As a Yankee, he batted .292 with a .312 postseason average—finishing his New York tenure in style by being named the MVP of the 2009 World Series, belting three homers among eight hits over just 13 at-bats.
Chien-Ming Wang. A right-hander of deceptive size (6’4”, 225 pounds), the Taiwanese native was plucked away by the Yankees and pitched with more finesse than power; opposing hitters found it difficult to hit home runs off of Wang, but not grounders—many of which were turned into double plays. He became an immediate pitching star by winning 19 games in each of his first two full seasons, and was on target for something similar in 2008 when he broke his foot running the bases during an interleague game against Houston—leading to another public Steinbrenner tantrum, this one blasting interleague play. Wang didn’t pitch again that year and hasn’t been the same since; he got off to a disastrous start in 2009, was released and has been average at best in comeback attempts with both Washington and Toronto.
Kei Igawa. A strikeout artist in Japan, the southpaw was largely impressive but also criticized for his roller-coaster waves of success and disappointment. Nevertheless, the Yankees liked what they saw and paid $26 million to the Hanshin Tigers to talk America with Igawa—and another $20 million (over five years) to sign him. Buyers’ remorse quickly settled in; in his 2007 Yankee debut, Igawa was 2-3 with a 6.79 ERA in 13 appearances (11 starts) before being demoted to the minors. And that’s where he stayed for much of the next four years, struggling to regain form while making only one more Yankee start (a short, awful outing in May 2008) before returning to Japan in 2012.
Watch Your Back, Jack
Okay, so everyone expected Bud Selig and MLB to have it in for Alex Rodriguez. But now the players apparently have jumped on board the Hate Train as well, according to a Yahoo Sports report. A recent conference call involving all 30 team representatives for the union quickly turned into an anti-A-Rod fest, as they discussed how Rodriguez could be expelled from the union. There reportedly were no dissenters to defend the suspended Yankee star; some even were heard to say that he’d be a marked man if he ever stepped on a baseball field again.
Outside of the call, Boston’s Jonny Gomes likely spoke for a majority of ballplayers when he told the Boston Herald of Rodriguez: “I don’t think it’s really a good idea to go after our union. Down to my (expletive) kids, down to the benefits we have, down to our retirement fund, the union makes our lives better. We pay dues to the union for our rights.” By the way: Those dues Gomes speaks of add up to $12,000 per player, per year.
The union’s hatred for Rodriguez is understandable. After all, Rodriguez sued the union as well as MLB in the aftermath of his defeat at the arbitrator’s office, which ended in his being suspended for the entire 2014 season—and that, along with the fact that hard-earned players’ union dues will now go to a possible long legal fight has left many players incensed. Legal experts say that Rodriguez has no choice but to sue the union along with MLB; it adds potential legal weight to his argument that everyone was out to get him. And if and when he comes to bat for the first time after his suspension, he may discover that to be the absolute truth.
The question now becomes: Who has more friends in baseball? Rodriguez or Jose Canseco? (Hey A-Rod, if it’s you, you always have Mike Francesca.)
Biogenesis: Coming to a Theatre Near You?
Tim Elfrink, who broke the Biogenesis saga a year ago for the Miami New Times, has reached a deal with Penguin Books to write a book on the saga—with the hope that it might be adapted for film. What’s already revealing about Elfrink’s project is what’s stated in his book proposal; he states that Rodriguez was taking steroids as far back as high school (a thought previously discussed in Selena Roberts’ 2009 book that outted Rodriguez), that A-Rod’s reps tried to squash the New Times’ story before it ran, and that MLB paid Biogenesis top dog Anthony Bosch $250,000—double the amount MLB’s Rob Manfred claimed in his interview with 60 Minutes.
This Bud’s For You, Bud
Modesty continues to be in short supply in Commissioner Bud Selig’s office. Last week he announced that he would embark on a self-congratulatory tour (or “congratulatour”) of all 30 major league ballparks in this, his final season running the baseball mothership. This past week comes news of the inaugural Commissioner Bud Selig Leadership Award, presented annually in "recognition of baseball executives for extraordinary support of the organization." And the winner is: Bud Selig.
Legend Without Representation
Let more debate begin about Cooperstown—as if baseball’s Hall of Fame needed any more of it. It was announced this past week that two of this year’s six inductees—pitcher Greg Maddux and manager Tony La Russa—will not be represented by any one team, joining 42 other Hall members with the same lack of distinction.
Fans in Chicago and Atlanta will squabble with one another over which team—the Cubs or Braves—should represent Maddux. The 355-game winner began and (nearly) ended his career in Chicago, but it was his lengthy tenure in between at Atlanta where Maddux was in his absolute prime, and let’s face it—fans everywhere will be inclined to remember Maddux as a Brave, not so much a Cub. Similarly, there has been some verbal armwrestling over whether La Russa should go in as a White Sock, Athletic or Cardinal.
Currently, the Hall of Fame ultimately chooses which team should be represented by inductees but does seek the opinion of new members. There was a time when the inductees got to choose on their own, but Dave Winfield and others ruined it for everyone else when they began selling their representation to the highest bidder; in the case of Winfield, the San Diego Padres were willing to pony up more than the Yankees. That practice was halted in 2001. And what do Maddux and La Russa think? Maddux is “glad” not to be represented, saying “both (Chicago and Atlanta) mean so much to me,” while La Russa was equally diplomatic as he publicly waxed nostalgic about his time in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis.
Will it Play in Dubai?
The wintertime invasion of the National Hockey League upon dormant ballparks was at full strength mode this past weekend with games held at Yankee Stadium and, yes, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Everyone wondered how they would pull it off in Southern California—especially in the midst of a prolonged winter heat wave of sorts—but the problems actually cropped up in New York when Sunday’s game between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils was delayed 90 minutes because of glare from the sun. (Will this plant a seed in the minds of outfielders seeking a delay until the sun’s not in their eyes anymore?)
At Dodger Stadium, the atmosphere was all Hollywood. A beach volleyball court was set up between the hockey rink and the bleachers in left field—and over in right, the rock group KISS “warmed” up the crowd with a short, fireworks-saturated pregame concert. Naturally, KISS was followed up by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully—who along with Kings counterpart Bob Miller welcomed the 54,099 in attendance; as for the game, the Ducks won by a 3-0 count as the ice held in 60-degree weather, with mild complaints from the players of a sticky rink and higher-than-normal humidity.
Continuing a trend of aging major league stars taking time off, refueling and eyeing a comeback, Bobby Abreu—who didn’t play in 2012—signed on to the place where it all began for him in 1998: Philadelphia. The Phillies inked the 39-year-old, who had a fabulous wintertime warm-up session in Venezuela, to a minor league deal; he’ll be guaranteed $800,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster. Abreu had a better offer with more money and a potentially more active role from the New York Mets, but he decided to stick with the Phillies—even if it means doing little more than coming off the bench—because he had great memories of his first go-around when he shined for nine years..
Former Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones made the mistake this past week of dumping fireplace ashes outside of his home in Roswell, Georgia—while they were still hot. A fire began shortly afterward and spread into nearby woods, but neither Jones’ home nor anyone else’s was impacted. Firefighters arrived quickly and took 45 minutes to douse the flames, and Jones was not charged—although he did have a fun time tweeting about it, sending numerous “oops!” texts and photos of burning trees.
Check Your Metal at the Door
On the eve of a Winter Olympics in Russia dogged by terrorist threats, MLB sent out a public order to all 30 teams to place metal detectors at all ballpark entrances by the start of the 2015 season. The Seattle Mariners have already got a headstart on the protocol, placing walk-through metal detectors at Safeco Field for fans to walk through this season. MLB partnered with the Department of Homeland Security to finalize details.
Failure is Always an Option
If baseball teams were universities, then nobody would want to attend Baltimore Orioles U.—because it’s become a lot harder to pass the exam. A month or so back, closer Grant Balfour thought he had a two-year, $15 million deal to pitch for the Orioles, but it fell through when the team became wary of his shoulder after seeing the results of the physical. (Balfour inked with Tampa Bay this past week for two years and $12 million—and yes, he passed the physical.)
Now outfielder Tyler Colvin is under the same microscope after recently signing a contract with Baltimore. The Orioles aren’t saying what’s concerning them, but speculation rests on Colvin’s back, which restricted him to an emaciating .160 average over 75 at-bats with the Colorado Rockies last year.
Team physicals are typically mere formalities, a just-in-case maneuver a team performs to cover its butt and make 100% that the player undergoing the tests isn’t broken goods. But the Orioles have either run into a lot of bad luck with unexpectedly disabled players or they have an especially sensitive case of buyer’s remorse. Orioles fans smell a rat and believe it’s owner Peter Angelos meddling about with second, third and fourth thoughts. Meanwhile, less than a month before the doors to spring training open, the Orioles still have yet to make a single major (or even moderate) free agent pick-up to try and boost their chances in a very difficult AL East.
Auction of the Week
In a time before rings were given to World Series champions, players made do with various swag for a job well done. In 1923, Babe Ruth received a pocket watch for helping the Yankees win their first-ever World Series; the timepiece is now up to the highest bidder, as it was announced this week that it would be auctioned off with a starting bid of $750,000. The watch had quietly changed hands through the years and was most recently bought by its current owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) for $200,000. He’ll profit from the sale but pledges to give the proceeds to charity.
They Said What?
“It’s a perfect day for hockey’—said by no one in Los Angeles, ever.” —Tweet from the Los Angeles Dodgers before hosting an outdoor hockey game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks; the statement didn’t sit well with hockey fans.
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