Thursday, January 12, 2012

How To Leave

There was a time when professional athletes didn't leave their teams. Sure, there was a sense of loyalty, of identify, of place, but that had far less to do with the stability of players than the fact that players couldn't leave their teams. The early American professional sports contracts were like, well, pretty much all early labor contracts; feudal. The owners controlled everything and that was that. Then, just like in all labor contracts, the workers eventually got sick of it and fought for a better one. They eventually won the right to have some control over who they play for and how much they are paid for doing so.

The next couple of decades were a nice mix. Players could move and many did, but many others chose to not move. As the free agent system matured, the economics of sports changed, and the sports agent became powerful, the “home town discount” has almost vanished into the world of general stores with rocking chairs on their porches; nice to think about, but you never actually see one. For better or for worse, and again oddly mirroring the working world in general, it is now much more common for a player to play for several teams than just one. It is now a part of the milieu; a player will leave.

As with all things, there are good ways to leave and bad ways to leave, and both the players and the teams can really make a mess of things. In the last few years though, I've seen two examples of what I consider the right way to leave, from both the player's and the team's perspectives, that I think illuminate some of the ways to not trample on the hearts of fans. They both come from Boston teams, because they're the teams I know about, not because I think Boston teams are paragons of virtue. They've made their mistakes and I'm sure other teams of done it right. It's just, nobody's paying me to do this (would anybody like to pay me to do this?) and there's only so much time in the day, so the scope of my knowledge is somewhat limited. Caveat, caveated. On with the point.

If you were at Fenway, you wanted it to be a close game going into to the ninth, because Shipping Up to Boston would start playing and Jonathan Papelbon would make his rock star entrance. Whatever you thought about Papelbon, this was one of the coolest sports experiences available and I am bummed that I'll never get to see it again. But it's important to remember that Papelbon's association with the Dropkick Murphy's cover of a Woodie Guthrie fragment has nothing to do with some deep spiritual connection between Pap and the city of Boston. It was blasting over the loud speaker, the Sox were celebrating, and Papelbon threw down an ersatz jig. Major League moment born.

Papelbon's true relationship with the Boston Red Sox was made clear in an interview he gave after the first contract negotiations after he had established himself as a premier closer. The Sox made an offer. Papelbon shot it down without a moment of thought and openly (I believe using the term “ixnay,”) admitted the swiftness and completeness of his rejection. I think we can safely assume the first offer included a “home town discount.” Though Pap always pitched his guts out when he was on the mound, though he was always an intense presence in the Red Sox organization, though he was passionate to the point of psychosis on the field, Papelbon made it clear that it was baseball and not Boston fueling his furnace.

I was bummed to see him go to the Phillies this off season because he's a great closer and a lot of fun to watch. But the important thing about his leaving is that Papelbon never pretended he was going to stay. He never acted as though Boston were unique to him. He never assured us that he was pitching for a retired number. He stayed because we paid him enough the first time and left because he wasn't going to get a long enough contract from us this time. And that was it. I, personally, am not a fan of the whole “business is business” philosophy of professional sports, but I am even less a fan of players and owners telling us one thing and doing another.

There are a few phenomena in the NHL that one could truly describe as “weapons” and Michael Ryder's snap shot is one of them. His release is one of the quickest out there, the puck comes off the stick faster than most, and he can let it go from just about anywhere. We also know he's got a pretty good glove hand in case he needs to see time in net. But when the Bruins assessed their team after the Stanley Cup, and given the NHL salary cap, it was hard to see how Ryder fit in the long term. Sure, it would be great to have that weapon, but with Tyler Sequin, Jordan Caron, Zach Hamil, all waiting in the wings and the younger stars already there, it was hard to justify Ryder's salary.

There were a lot of ways the Bruins could've handled this. They could have thrown him a “home town discount” offer, they could have tried to bid him up and make him take up more cap room on another team, they could have tried to finagle a contract that made cap sense (like Mark Savard's) and tied him up in a long negotiation, but they didn't. They told Ryder to see what was out there. If he found something he liked, then good luck to him. If he didn't, they'd try to work something out. Dallas was out there and Ryder liked it.

In a lot of ways, leaving well isn't that different from acting well in other emotional relationships. We're not burning Paplebon jerseys because he never promised to stay and never promised to never be a Philly (Hi, Johnny Damon.). Where he played was always business to him and we can't be mad at him for making a business decision. We all hate Lebron James because he played mind games with his fans. It would have been a different story if at the end of the season he said something to the effect of, “Though I've loved playing here, I think it's clear that we are not capable of bringing a championship to Cleveland. This has been my home for years, but now it is time for me to move on and the organization to try a different strategy.” He still could've had his disgusting ego session deciding who he would play for, even after being clear who he wouldn't. (And I personally have no doubt he was done with Cleveland.) And he probably would've had a Crawford-like ad in the local paper.

That openness is key to how a team moves a player as well, unlike how the Red Sox handled Jason Varitek this off-season, despite a decade of being one of the most important factors in their success. He had to find out second-hand they signed another catcher. Could the Red Sox have worked out a productive contract with Varitek? I guess we'll never know because the Red Sox never tried. (Was the clock ticking on Shoppach? And they clearly didn't take my advice about carrying three catchers.)

There is a lot we can learn from the way players leave and our reactions to it (perhaps mostly that we should tone it down a bit, but, would sport still be fun if we did?) but this is what sticks with me; being a good professional athlete or team, isn't all that different from being a good person.

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