This Great Game Comebacker

The Week That Was in Baseball: February 3-9, 2014
A-Rod Throws in the (Very Expensive) Towel Goodbye, Ralph Kiner
The Fading Importance of Ballpark Naming Rights Quarterbacks as Ballplayers

Okay, You Win
And just like that, it’s over.

Alex Rodriguez saw the writing on the wall—multiple walls, in fact. There’s the wall that belongs to the judge, who wrote that A-Rod’s chances of overturning a 162-game punishment from MLB were slim at best. There’s the wall that belongs to his union brethren, who wrote how incensed they were for turning on them. And there’s the wall that belongs to his bank account, which wrote about the millions he was wasting on a decidedly losing battle.

Using a rare dose of common sanity, the embattled New York Yankee slugger, banned for the entire 2014 season, decided on Friday that his fight had likely hit his own wall of reason. He dropped lawsuits against both MLB and the players’ union, and also eliminated the last bit of suspense beyond that by announcing he wouldn’t join the Yankees for spring training later this month.

Who knows what the turning point was for Rodriguez. Perhaps it was all the legal experts saying he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Bud Selig’s microwave of overturning arbitrator Fredric Horowitz’s season-long suspension compromise. Perhaps it was the news from last month in which one union rep after another asked how to kick him out of the union. Perhaps it was a heart-to-heart with Mike Francesca. Maybe someday we’ll find out from Rodriguez himself, if we can catch him in a rare moment of truth.

All along, we had thought that Rodriguez would use the courts to delay the inevitable with the hope that he could sneak in some playing time in 2014 until all of his legal options had been exhausted. After all, he’s so close to so many milestones—his 3,000th hit, his 2,000 RBI, passing Willie Mays—that if he could get in just a few months of action while the courts considered his lawsuits and let him play, that would have been so sparkling for him. But after the public fury amongst his colleagues generated by his suit against the union, it appeared the only milestone Rodriguez was headed for was the season record for getting hit by pitches. (And that may still happen when he returns in 2015—if, that is, he does return.)

And so, baseball can all but move on from Biogenesis. There will certainly be books and maybe a movie forthcoming on the subject, and Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch’s legal problems are far from over, but the main event in the baseball’s latest and biggest steroid controversy has folded up shop and done what he was told to do a long time ago: Just go away.

So now, folks, you can fully focus on spring training and baseball without the Babylon element.

Ralph Kiner, 1922-2014
Baseball lost one of its greats this past week with the passing of
Ralph Kiner, who lived two lives within the game: First as a fearsome slugger who ate up home runs, and later as the long-serving broadcaster for the New York Mets from the team’s 1962 inception all the way through last season.

As a player, Kiner wielded immense power. He led or co-led the National League in home runs over each of his first seven years, hitting 40-plus five straight years and twice topping 50. He had Hank Greenberg to thank; the legendary Detroit star, returning from World War II, was sent to Pittsburgh in 1946 and taught the rookie Kiner the finer points of driving the ball deep. When Greenberg retired the next year, they changed the name of the left-field area at Forbes Field from Greenberg’s Gardens to Kiner’s Korner—and for good reason.

Kiner epitomized the glamour that came with being a home run star. A teammate once remarked, in an obvious bow to Kiner, that home run hitters drive Cadillacs while singles hitters drive Fords. The ladies waiting at the hotel apparently weren’t good enough for Kiner; he went after Hollywood starlets, and dated (at the very least) Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Esther Williams. The home runs and Hollywood connection grated on Pirates team president Branch Rickey, who frequently clashed with Kiner and, in 1953, sent him away to the Chicago Cubs—because, as Rickey famously smirked, the Pirates finished last with Kiner and could easily finish last without him.

Back problems soon followed and Kiner, at 32, was done with baseball—but only as a player. He soon was given a broadcast job with the Chicago White Sox, and that parlayed into his long and popular tenure with the Mets, where he gave new meaning to “Kiner’s Korner” with his pregame rambles—but also was dubiously remembered in the booth for his numerous bonehead on-air statements, such as: “Today is Father’s Day, so to everyone out there, happy birthday.” Kiner also confused the players of the day with his Hollywood past; he called third baseman Tim WallachEli Wallach” so often, Wallach’s teammates jokingly began to refer to Tim as “Eli.” Nevertheless, he endeared himself to Mets fans in a way that allowed him to keep his job for a half-century.

True Story
I had a meeting with a potential baseball-related client based in Palm Springs in the late 1990s, and the folks who reviewed my portfolio were not only impressed with the quality of my previous work but with my knowledge of the game, given that I was at work writing and designing the book that would eventually become This Great Game. But I lost out on the job to an agency run by Ralph Kiner’s son—because, among other things, he was locally based and, hey, he was the son of a Hall of Famer. —Eric

What’s in a Name? Try a Few Bucks
Seven years after their last ballpark naming rights deal collapsed, the Texas Rangers signed on a new face to the place formerly known as Rangers Ballpark at Arlington. The Rangers and Globe Life Insurance agreed to a ten-year deal that will rename the 20-year old ballpark Globe Life Park in Arlington; the inclusion of the city name was a non-negotiable for the Rangers, given that Arlington helped pay for the majority of the venue’s construction costs.

Originally called the Ballpark at Arlington, the facility was given a new name in 2004 when mortgage giant Ameriquest signed a 30-year, $75 million deal with the Rangers. That abruptly ended three years later when Ameriquest collapsed under the weight of the financial crisis. The Globe Life deal is estimated at roughly $4 million a year—a pittance compared to the $150 million Fox Southwest is annually paying the team for local TV rights. In fact, the Rangers will receive almost as much money from Globe Life as they will the Los Angeles Dodgers’ voluminous new local TV deal, as 30% of the the $340 million yearly revenue will be split among the other 29 teams.

Should the $4 million figure be accurate, it would be a naming rights deal exceeded by at least three other ballparks: Target Field in Minnesota ($5.3 million/year), Minute Maid Park in Houston (roughly $7 million/year) and New York’s Citi Field, where the Mets receive a whopping $21 million a year from the banking giant. Of all the other ballparks, Colorado’s Coors Field yields the lowest annual naming rights moolah at $1.1 million, while two others (St. Louis’ Busch Stadium and Toronto’s Rogers Centre) have never publicly released its naming rights fees.

Ten ballparks currently do not have corporate names, including four (Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park) whose names are so legendary that it would be sacrilege to change them. Also on the no-pay list is Atlanta’s Turner Field, named after former owner Ted Turner and likely to stay that way until the facility is demolished and the Braves leave for their new suburban ballpark in 2017; Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, named after the founding owner of the Royals; and four ballparks (Washington’s Nationals Park, Miami’s Marlins Park, Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Angel Stadium at Anaheim) for which you would think naming rights would have to be a top priority sooner than later.

Hang in There, Curt
Curt Schilling publicly revealed this past week that he has cancer, the latest off-field challenge for the former star pitcher who over the last decade-plus has dealt with bankruptcy, heart problems and his wife enduring her own cancer battle when see contracted (and beat) skin cancer back in 2001. Schilling did not disclose what type of cancer he has or how advanced it might be, and there’s no early report on whether he’ll carry out his duties as part of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball team this season.

Bushers Book

Here Comes Spring Training!
Hardcore winter may still be in midstride throughout much of the country, but spring training in Arizona started getting active this past week when the Diamondbacks and Dodgers became the first two teams to open camp in advance of the 2014 season. Of course, there’s an obvious reason as to why both teams are getting things going a week before everyone else; they’re due to get an early start on the regular season when they play a pair of games on March 22-23 in Australia.

All other teams will see pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona and Florida this week; position players will follow, with Colorado, Milwaukee and Minnesota serving up the last mandatory reporting dates on February 21.

Atlanta's Favored Son
Jason Heyward must have been feeling pretty good when the Atlanta Braves threw out his final two years of arbitration and signed him to a two-year, $13.3 million contract. Then he heard what the Braves gave Freddie Freeman that very same day: A franchise-record $125 million over eight years. Both deals signal a long-term commitment for Freeman—who has steadily and solidly emerged as a MVP threat last year at age 23—and a two-years-and-you’re-gone edict for Heyward, who has played well at times, erratically at others and has yet to fulfill the superstardom predicted back in 2010.

If Heyward, also 23, is feeling disrespect, he sure isn’t exuding it in public. His mindset seem to be this: Stay healthy, prove his worth and get ready for major bucks when he does become a free agent in 2016. He also understands that the Braves, receiving relatively little revenue playing in a public facility with no naming rights (see above) and a paltry long-term local TV deal paying them as low as $10 million a year, don’t have quite the funds to feed two rising stars at once.

Rockie-solid Protection
The Colorado Rockies announced this past week that
Todd Helton will become their first player to have his number retired. Helton, who stepped down last year, holds franchise career marks in virtually every offensive category after a 17-year career (all with the Rockies); he will have his number 17 officially retired in a pregame ceremony on August 17 at Coors Field.

This leaves Seattle as the only major league team that has yet to retire a uniform number. The Mariners’ team policy reportedly states that only former Mariners who make the Hall of Fame or who are no longer eligible for Cooperstown consideration after being on the ballot will be qualified for uniform retirement. So look for Ken Griffey Jr. to be the first such Mariner to be honored when he likely makes the Hall on the first try in 2016.

Forget the Mystery Team: Where’s the Mystery Talent?
Last week we listed
Stephen Drew as one of five free agents struggling to find a new home because the team that signs him will have to surrender a top draft pick. Somehow, Drew thinks he’s worth the money, draft pick and more; a report says he wants a contract that he can opt out of after just one year. This from a guy who hit .253 with lukewarm power for the Boston Red Sox last year, a injurious part-time experience the two years before that and for whom was once accused by his original team (Arizona) for having too much of a me-first attitude. Drew’s latest contract demand doesn’t make much sense until you realize who his agent is: Scott Boras.

Flaming Out
Among the many common players who called it quits this week was reliever
Joel Zumaya, whose promising yet unfulfilled career was anything but common. He blasted his way upon the major league scene in 2006 when, as a 21-year old, he threw up to 103 MPH while producing a 1.92 ERA that helped lead the Detroit Tigers to the AL pennant. That’s as good as it got for Zumaya, as his bruising fastball became too hard to maintain; one injury after another followed, some of them not baseball-related—such as the sore wrist from too much Guitar Hero, or the shoulder he separated trying to flee a wildfire near his San Diego-area home. His major league career came to a painful end in June 2010 when he collapsed in intense pain after fracturing his arm while throwing a pitch. He tried a comeback in 2012 with the Minnesota Twins but that, too, ended abruptly when he tore a muscle after throwing just 13 pitches in camp. Zumaya formally leaves the game at the age of just 28.

The Dual Life
Baseball and football are two diametrically different sports as the late George Carlin once whimsically pointed out, but quarterbacks have typically bridged the gap between wearing helmets and caps.
John Elway, Dan Marino, Archie Manning and Ken Stabler were all prime picks in baseball’s amateur draft; the Montreal Expos once gave Tom Brady a serious look, and although Colin Kaepernick was a 43rd-round pick by the Chicago Cubs, he nevertheless showed off his talent last year when a first pitch thrown before a game at San Francisco registered close to 90 MPH.

The trend continued this past week. Russell Wilson, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, made good on an offer to attend spring camp with the Texas Rangers, for whom he played minor league ball in 2011. But don’t expect Wilson to do much more than shake hands, smile for the cameras and take a few rips in the batting cage.

Also of note this past week is that the preseason All-American college baseball team includes another championship quarterback: Florida State’s Jameis Winston, who led the football Seminoles to the BCS title after winning the Heisman Trophy. Winston, who was also tabbed by the Rangers back in 2012 (he rejected them for college), is listed on the third team by Baseball America as a utility player, though his strength appears to be as a closer.

Auction of the Week
One of baseball’s great legends tells of
Babe Ruth going to the bedside of an ailing kid, giving him a signed ball and promising he’d hit a home run just for him in the World Series; he hit three, and the kid miraculously recovered. Much of this is actually true—although the kid, Johnny Sylvester, would have likely lived anyway. As proof of everything else, the ball signed by Ruth and given to Sylvester in 1926—as well as two letters sent by Ruth to Sylvester—was sold at an auction this past week. The price of the ball was tabbed at $251,000, while the letters fetched a total of $150,000; the buyer of the ball wished to remain anonymous.

Wounded of the Week
wounded of the weekThe Tampa Bay Rays received bad news this past week when they learned that starting pitcher
Jeremy Hellickson would miss action through May after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his elbow. The absence of the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year could open the door for prospect Jake Odorizzi, who came over in the same trade that netted the Rays last year’s top rookie in Wil Myers.

The news was equally bad (if not worse) for two NL West pitchers trying to scratch their way back to action after missing the 2013 season. San Diego’s Cory Luebke, who missed all of last year (and most of 2012 before it) with Tommy John surgery, found out this week that he’ll have to go under the knife again for a second reconstructive procedure and miss yet another year. And up the road in Los Angeles, Dodger reliever Scott Elbert should be back sometime in 2014 after missing last year with TJ surgery—but his rehab has been pushed back thanks to another matter: Appendicitis.

He Said What?
“(The farm bill) a jobs bill, an innovation bill, an infrastructure bill, a research bill, a conservation bill. It’s like a Swiss army knife. It’s like
Mike Trout.”—President Barack Obama, in Michigan touting the newly signed farm bill.

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