A recent spate of signings this spring continues a trend that began happening in baseball a few years ago. Young players are being signed in their second year in the big leagues to extended contracts. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals and Evan Longoria of the Rays were two of the first to ink their name on a dotted line to what were deemed as team-friendly deals. On the other hand, the players signings voided any attempts at arbitration and extended the original five-year length of a major league contract. Recent signings have been by Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. Both players knowingly signed their contracts to focus on just playing baseball. Rizzo signed for an additional 7 years and $41 million with escalators and incentives. Goldschmidt signed for five years and $32 million. While Rizzo’s contract was based on less than a 140 game sample, Goldschmidt had almost 2 years under his belt. For Goldschmidt, the signing bought him a release from the pressure and he is having an all-star type year as is Rizzo. But Goldschmidt has not put up these type of numbers before. Rizzo, meanwhile, is on page to hit 40 homers and drive in 110 runs. These players are just two players that might signal a death in free agency as we know it. The test will come when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who are both in their second year, either reach arbitration or ink similar type deals to keep the players in the fold during their peak years.
Free Agency began shortly after Curt Flood‘s ill-fated lawsuit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. However, shortly thereafter, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first free agents in 1975. At the time, the average salary for a professional baseball player was less than $30,000 a year. 4 years later, Nolan Ryan signed a 4 year $4.4 million contract with the Astros. One year later, Dave Winfield was making $2.5 million. By the end of the 1980s, Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett inked a 3 year $9 million contract.
The 1990s saw an unchecked growth in free agency and a rise in steroid use. I, for one, think the two go hand-in-hand as players looked for any advantage to get that big free agent deal. In 1996, Albert (aka Joey) Belle, signed a deal worth over $11 million a year with the White Sox. It took a while for the White Sox to get out from under the deal. On December 10, 2000, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10 year $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. That deal would be torn up in 2007 when he signed a new deal for pretty close to the same numbers with the Yankees.
In response, five events in the 2000s changed how baseball executives looked at free agency.
1. Steroids – The Mitchell Report (2007) took away any competitive edge steroid and amphetamine users had in the game. Now, if a players risked using them, they also risked suspension of major dollars. The heydays of the 1990s of McGwire, Sosa, and others grooving mammoth home runs was going to be over. There were now too many dollars at stake. Home runs plummeted after the Mitchell Report from a high of over 5600 in 2000 to a low 4552 in 2011.
2. Moneyball – In the early 2000s, the price of competition had created big market teams that could afford to go after high cost free agents and those that could not. Most notably, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane stood out by finding other ways to win by focusing on Sabermetrics like on base and slugging percentages taking on more value than batting average and runs batted in. The resulting book by Michael Lewis highilghted Beane’s methods in evaluating and drafting talent. For teams that did not have cathedrals for ballparks to bring in the much needed cash, Moneyball became another way to compete between the lines with the large market teams.
3. Youth Movement – In the wake of the Mitchell Report, the players got younger as youth was valued more and more. They had fresher legs after all and more strength. In the steroid era, it wasn’t unusual for a player to hit 40 homers at age 36. Alex Rodriguez is now that age, along with many other greats of the 2000s and they are now shells of the players they were in their prime. Steroids were not the only drug that shaped baseball. For years, amphetamines had just as much an influence in the game for players in a grinding 162 game schedule, especially for those who played day games after night games. The need for younger players who could sustain their strength through a season was needed. The Tampa Bay Rays (GM Andrew Friedman) and the Washington Nationals (GM Mike Rizzo) began the trend of signing players to keep them in their prime years (27-30 years of age). The Cubs recently have done the same with Stalin Castro in addition to Anthony Rizzo. For all three teams, they were trying to build teams by developing talent. For Friedman, signing Longoria was the foundation for the franchise as was Ryan Zimmerman for the Nationals. For the Cubs, they refer to the term “core pieces.”
4. The Market Changed – In recent years, many teams have begun to shy away from long-term free agent deals. When players hit free agency for the first time, they are usually in their late 20s. To sign them to a long-term deal is not seen as financially sound anymore. Case in point, Alfonso Soriano. His $18-19 million a year contract was seen as an albatross hanging over the franchise when Theo Epstein too over the team. Unexpectedly, Soriano was seen as not living up to his contract. Then last year, he slugged over 30 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Soriano’s contract with the Cubs has been up and down as has Alex Rodriquez’s when he has been healthy. Most General Managers now view a signing as paying for future performance.
In the past, while the GMs hoped they were paying for future performance, but in reality, the contract was roll of the dice. Today’s market signings lock up their “future” stars through their prime years and a little beyond. The two winters signing of Albert Pujols for ten years will test those “old” assumptions in the coming years. However, the signing of Josh Hamilton might be a new market force. Hamilton’s contract lasts only for five years but his production is already bringing that contract into question just based on the staggering amount of dollars involved even if only for five years.
5. The Branch Rickey Effect – Most people know Branch Rickey cemented his place in history by signing Jackie Robinson. What most people don’t know is that Rickey set up what is today the minor league system in the late 1920s. Rickey’s belief was that by using a farm system that developed players, a team could be competitive indefinitely. The St. Louis Cardinals have not deviated from that philosophy in the 80 years since.
In today’s market, that development of players now includes foreign markets in the Dominican, Japan, Korea, and Venezuela as well as others all over the world. Scouting, whether it be by sabermetrics or old school scouts, or as Cubs Pro Scouting Director Joe Bohringer calls for, a mixture of both, has taken on a new dimension of finding the latest talent at the cheapest price all over the globe. While Rickey did not mine Latin America for players as it is done today, his followers are doing so in his shadow of the minor league system. Why waste $250 million when you get the same production by investing a few million and develop that talent. In fact, for $250 million, you can get 50 or more players rather than just one player. In addition, teams are now pouring money into scouting as well as player development to avoid that large loss of production and dollars via free agency.
Free Agent Trends for the Future: Free Agency, most likely, is not dead. But it is changing. Role players are becoming more in demand. Specialists like a “loogy” (left handed reliever) garner more attention because they fit a certain niche. The team’s need is dictating what teams spend their dollars on. If they can bring up a player like the Orioles did with Manny Machado last fall, teams will. The Pujols, A-Rod, and Soriano contracts are warnings of the dangers of long-term contracts. As the dollars increase for free agents, some teams just will step out of the way, while other GMs and owners will step up, some foolishly. While the Rizzos and Goldschmidts contemplate their deals, for GMs, the contemplation is smaller and less risky.
In the end, I think Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will set the future role of free agency as they will reach the market at the ripe old ages of 25 and 26. They would still not have reached their prime years of 27-30. That, to me, is unfathomable what they could bring on the open market. Will they be the first $30 million a year players? On the other hand, they might be the outliers rather than the norm. Their GMs will do everything they can to not let them get to the open market.
From the second Rick Monday was drafted, his place in history was written in stone. Monday was the first player ever selected in a draft for amateur talent in 1965. The Kansas City Athletics selected Monday who had a stellar career at Arizona State University. His selection marked a turning point in baseball. No longer would the richest teams select and over pay for the best talent, teams would select players in order based on their record from the season before. It was a new era.
The era also was a time of great upheaval. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and the Vietnam War was reaching its zenith. These two great moments in history created a combustion of frustration and protest unlike anything America had seen since the Civil War. Monday reached the majors quickly in 1966 at the age of 20. He made his debut for the Athletics and soon would play alongside his college teammate Reggie Jackson beginning in 1967.
Monday was a good player, not great, but good. He had some power, played CF, and had a good glove.
After the 1971 season, Monday was traded from the A’s to the Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman. After the trade the A’s went on to win three World Series Championships in a row without Monday.
With the Cubs, Monday wore #7 and hit leadoff most days for the next four years. When the 1976 season began, Monday got off to hot start. It would be his best season as a pro. On April 25, 1976, the Cubs traveled to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers.
In the time period, burning the American flag was seen as a sign of protest. To Monday, a former Marine Corps Reservist in the 60s, it was desecration. In the fourth inning, Monday noticed two men running on to the field to try to burn an American flag. The quick thinking Monday did them one better. He stole it from them before they could burn it.
Rick’s actions caught the nation’s attention. To many he was a hero.
For Monday, he never thought twice – his actions were just reaction.
“In between the top and bottom of the fourth inning, I was just getting loose in the outfield, throwing the ball back and forth. Jose Cardenal was in left field and I was in center. I don’t know if I heard the crowd first or saw the guys first, but two people ran on the field. After a number of years of playing, when someone comes on the field, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it because they had too much to drink? Is it because they’re trying to win a bet? Is it because they don’t like you or do they have a message that they’re trying to present?
“When these two guys ran on the field, something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t right from the standpoint that one of them had something cradled under his arm. It turned out to be an American flag. They came from the left-field corner, went past Cardenal to shallow left-center field. That’s when I saw the flag. They unfurled it as if it was a picnic blanket. They knelt beside it, not to pay homage but to harm it as one of the guys was pulling out of his pocket somewhere a big can of lighter fluid. He began to douse it. What they were doing was wrong then, in 1976. In my mind, it’s wrong now, in 2006. It’s the way I was raised. My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corp Reserves. It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.
So I started to run after them. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what was running through my mind except I was mad, I was angry and it was wrong for a lot of reasons. Then the wind blew the first match out. There was hardly ever any wind at Dodger Stadium. The second match was lit, just as I got there. I did think that if I could bowl them over, they can’t do what they’re trying to do. I saw them go and put the match down to the flag. It’s soaked in lighter fluid at this time. Well, they can’t light it if they don’t have it. So I just scooped it up. My first thought was, ‘Is this on fire?’ Well, fortunately, it was not. I continue to run. One of the men threw the can of lighter fluid at me. We found out he was not a prospect. He did not have a good arm. Thank goodness.”
Monday would go on to have his best season as a professional. That winter he would be traded from the Cubs after a contract dispute. Ironically, he would be traded to the Dodgers on January 11, 1977, for Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus, and he would win a World Championship with them in 1981.
Former Teammate Darold Knowles said of the incident:
“Rick got more recognition out of the flag incident than he got as a player. He was getting letters from all over the country, all the time _ from VFWs (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and American Legions organizations. Every place we’d go, somebody would honor him with a plaque. He let us read some of the letters (from) people thanking him.”
“The letters I’ve received from that day have run the gamut of emotions. They’ve been from children who were not born yet and had only heard about it. They’ve been from Vietnam veterans, including one yesterday. This soldier wrote that there were two things that he had with him in two tours of Vietnam. These two things kept him in check with reality. One was a small picture of his wife. The other was a small American flag that was neatly folded. The picture was folded inside the flag and in the left breast pocket of his uniform.
He would be in mud for weeks and months at a time. Those two things were what he looked at to connect him with reality, other than his buddies, and some of them were lost in battle. He wrote in the letter, ‘Thanks for protecting what those of us who were in Vietnam held onto dearly.’
That means something, because this wasn’t just a flag on the field. This was a flag that people looked at with respect. We have a lot of rights and freedoms — not to sound corny — but we all have the option if we don’t like something to make it better. Or you also have the option, if you don’t like it, [to] pack up and leave. But don’t come onto the field and burn an American flag.”
Later that season, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis gave Monday the flag back. Monday still has the flag is always eager to talk about the incident. It has survived hurricanes and still hangs proudly at his home in Vero Beach, Florida. Monday now is immortalized in the Hall of Fame as the first player taken in the Amateur Draft and for what many Americans think is the greatest catch in baseball history.
Monday’s selfless act was quite shocking considering the time period. Many players did not take stands about the Vietnam War. But for Monday, this was not a political act. His actions dictate his thoughts only about the flag. For that time period, it was a radical action (as in the Latin definition) that evoked something America hadn’t seen in a while.
Here is a video tribute from the Dodgers on the 30th anniversary of the catch.
This blog was suggested by Clark Lorensen of the famous Larcher and Lorensen Sports Show in Chicago.
Chicago Tribune Newspapers Articles from the time period
Quotes came from
Yesterday, my lovely wife and I went and saw the movie 42. The baseball period piece looks at the trials and tribulations Jackie and Rachel Robinson went through when Jackie broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
If you are looking for an accurate, and historical, depiction of the challenges Robinson faced, you will not get that in a two-hour film. If you want an accurate account of the historical record, that will not happen in this film either. If you want to get the essence of the historical moment, good acting, and an entertaining docudrama, then that is what you will good.
The film begins with Branch Rickey seeking ways to win the National League Pennant. Rickey, who had only been the Dodgers general manager for three years, wanted to steal the thunder from the rival New York Giants, but more so from the Cardinals, the team he built through player development in a minor league system he helped established some 20 years prior. Excellently played by Harrison Ford, the acting echoes Ford’s finest work since Witness and Blade Runner. My wife and I forgot we were watching the same man who was Han Solo, Indiana Jones, the President in Air Force One, and Jack Ryan. We really believed he embodied Branch Rickey. The relationship between Rickey and Robinson is a key element in the film and touching at many key points in the film and in Jackie’s journey.
However, the key relationship in the movie is the one between Jackie and his wife, Rachel, also well performed by Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie. You do feel the tension and the chaos they endured from the historical significance that the time period placed on them. Other excellent performers include Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith, and Alan Tudyk’s racist rants as the Phillies manager Ben Chapman. It was uncomfortable at times to listen to the language and hate being spewed at Jackie, but Tudyk’s performance created “sympathy” for Robinson, something the character Branch Rickey pointed out that it would.
The film does claim its fine share of historical inaccuracies including the events surrounding Leo Durocher’s 1947 suspension. The film portrays Durocher’s suspension as something to do with an affair with a Hollywood starlet while in reality the suspension involved gambling with players.
The film also does not include the thoughts of Happy Chandler, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball. Chandler said of the inclusion of blacks into baseball,
“If they can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal (and) in the South Pacific, they can play ball in America.”
It is not often that I plug someone else’s work, but when I do, it is really good. This week’s issue of Sports Illustrated has an article called, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance to Me.” It is extremely well written by Tim Layden and I found it an engrossing tale! It is something that would fit very well on the pages of The History Rat. Go pick it up at your local newstand. Give Tim Layden a shout out @SITimLayden.
Miguel Cabrera wins baseball’s triple crown! He is the first player in 45 years to lead his league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Boston Red Sox Carl Yaztremski was the last to do so. It is also only the 19th time this feat has been done in baseball history.
In less than a week, the baseball season will be over and I will begin dreaming of fantasy baseball drafts. I will also, as a Cub fan, start dreaming of next year. In fact that has been a never-ending fall experience for the past 50 falls. In fact, next year will not be here for a few more years. This year’s Cubs team will most likely lose 100 games come next Wednesday. They are going to be rebuilding for at least 2 more years. The Cubs currently play their games in Wrigley Field. 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ball park. But is it time to build a new Wrigley Field? For intents and purposes, while a landmark, the field is a money pit needing constant make overs and upgrades. While at the same time it the center of the Lakeview (Wrigleyville) community. This post will examine the history of the park and whether or not any team can win there in its current condition.
History of the Park
Charles Weeghman had a lot of bright ideas in his day. Working his way up from a waiter, Weeghman became one of the richest men in Chicago in the early 1900s by selling cold sandwiches at 16 diners in Chicago. He was Valued with a net worth of over 8 million dollars. He also loved baseball and saw an investment opportunity in a new baseball league called the Federal League. Weeghman bought the rights to own the Chicago Whales. The team needed a place to play. Weeghman decided he would build his own park in 1914. Fellow Whales owner Walker both put up $125,000 to help finance the park designed by Zachary Taylor Davis. Unlike other owners in the league who were going to playing at previously built parks, the Whales were going all in a new field. To help make the venture succeed, Weeghman had signed Joe Tinker for the exorbitant sum of $40,000. Once the construction began, it only took two months to complete the mostly steel and concrete structure.
Opening day was April 23, 1914. The dimensions changed drastically the first year. Left originally had a distance of 345 feet. Then it was moved in to 310 feet in May, and after a large amount of home runs, left field moved back in June to 327. Center was a constant 440′ from the plate while right field fluctuated between 356′-345′. Back then, the field didn’t really have a fence per say but more an area where the field ended as this picture shows.
Despite the new field, the Federal League and the Whales did not last. Instead, Weeghman bought the Cubs for $500,000 in late 1915 and moved them in to his new ballpark. On April 20, 1916, the Cubs debuted with a 7-6 win over the Reds. Despite making it to the World Series in 1918, the Cubs played the Red Sox and Babe Ruth in Comiskey Park due to its larger capacity.
In 1918, the restaurant business began to sour for Weeghman. He was losing money left and right. In an attempt to right himself, Weeghman sold the Cubs to William Wrigley – the chewing gum magnate. With Weeghman out the picture, Wrigley renamed the field Cubs Park. In 1922, Wrigley began the first of many changes to the park. Original architect Zachary Taylor Davis expanded the grandstands. More seating created a “dog leg” down the first base line. In addition to baseball, the stadium was also the home of the Chicago Bears through 1969.
In 1927, the field name changed to Wrigley Field. In 1927, construction began on adding a second deck and by the early 1930s, the iconic brick wall and numbers in the outfield were added along with scoreboard. In 1937, General Manager Bill Veeck (the same one who would later own the Indians and White Sox) planted the ivy, Wrigley’s most recognizable feature. Its current dimensions of 355′, 400′, and 353′ remain today. Lights were scheduled to be added in 1942. However, after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Wrigley donated the materials to the war effort.
The only major change to the ballpark in the last 70 years had been lights. Added in August of 1988. Still the ballpark undergoes numerous renovations and upgrades constantly due to its age and proximity to the lake air. The latest changes include a remade playing surface, clubs, suites, and a new right field bleacher section. Beginning in the middle 1990s, attendance has been near 3 million a year. It has been hard to get tickets until this year.
But Can the Cubs Win at Wrigley?
I remember as a young boy of 7, 8, and 9 year old and going to an afternoon game and sitting in the front row in the early 1970s. Wrigley Field is a great place to see a game. There is no experience like walking up out of the concourse into the cathedral of green and ivy in the late morning sun. It is breathtaking! To me, there is no better place to see the national pastime. But that doesn’t mean it is an easy place to build a winner. In fact, the ballpark is most likely a hindrance to building a winner.
1. The Conditions
Wrigley sits a few blocks off of Lake Michigan. Depending on the month, the wind conditions change drastically, sometimes within in minutes. In April and May, cool northwesterly winds come in off Clark. Other times, the wind generates a northerly breeze from Waveland. Occasionally, the wind blows in directly from Sheffield and the east. In June and July, the wind blows out as warm summer breezes work their way in from the west. On a really warm and humid day, howling winds from the south send any fly ball out of the stadium. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, General Managers Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry tried to stock the team with power hitting right-handed hitters. It failed. The type of team needed to win at Wrigley year round has to be a versatile team that can rely on speed, pitching, defense, while on being able to play small ball, and be heavy-handed right-handed hitting one day, and heavy hitting left-handed the next. It is very hard to find players with those kind of attributes. As for pitching, it also takes a variety of pitchers to pitch in Wrigley Field. Ideally, sinker ball pitchers would work best there to get grounder after grounder in spite of the varying wind conditions. Yet, in ignorance of that reality, the Cubs are trotting out pitchers who are flame throwers. This year, at Wrigley, sinkerballer Jeff Samardjiza did well at home (except in June) with his splitter as did Ryan Dempster. In addition, once Travis Wood and Paul Maholm learned the key to pitching in Wrigley was off speed stuff, the team did well in July (15-10). Fergie Jenkins, Rick Reuschel, and Greg Maddux did well at Wrigley by changing speeds routinely.
2. The Lights and Day Games
The Cubs are one of the few teams to commonly play day games. After the installation of lights in 1988, the Cubs have settled in to a routine of playing night games Monday through Thursday and occasionally Sundays. Day games have been relegated to Fridays and Saturdays, along with getaway days. The day-to-day changes of playing day and night intermittently takes a toll on a player’s body. Kerry Wood claimed this was one of the major reasons the Cubs swooned in June and July every year. The Wrigleyville neighborhood would never subject itself to night game after night game after night game.
3. The Facilities
When it comes facilities for the players, the Cubs are criticized for the cramped clubhouses, poor weight facilities, and batting cages under the bleachers. Part of Theo Epstein’s plan as President of Baseball Operations mentioned facilities as a definite need for the club to not only attract free agents, but also to develop players. Recently, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts has tried working with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in getting financing to upgrade the stadium including adding a museum and shopping center.
So What to Do?
The questions are simple for ownership: Can a World Series winning team be built in Wrigley? Or, will the Cubs go to the suburbs and build a stadium in a more weather friendly atmosphere?
Honestly, I can never see the Cubs playing anywhere else but Wrigley Field. On the other hand, I am sure Yankee fans would have said the same thing about Yankee Stadium or the Cardinals about Busch Stadium. Cub traditionalists would never support a team in any other place but Wrigley. I cannot see them moving to the suburbs, nor can I envision the pinstripes in another locale. However, this year saw the fan base erode. They did not come out and support a 100 loss team. Many games on TV saw empty seats everywhere. Moving to a new stadium could see the Cubs having the same attendance issues as the White Sox. Heck, the next two years may see the Cubs have attendance issues again if the team is not competitive.
The key lies in the next two years. This winter, the Cubs payroll will see several salaries come off the books. As of October 4th, only Garza, Soriano, Castro, DeJesus, and Samardjiza are signed for above the minimum MLB salary. With an estimated total salary of $60-70 million, the Cubs could be spenders this winter. The problem, however, is the pickings are slim for what the Cubs need – pitching, 3B, and maybe some outfielder should Brett Jackson not be ready after spring training.
For Theo Epstein and company, the mantra should be simple: If you build a winner, they will come. For Cub fans, that is all they want. The problem is: how long will are they willing to wait?
Three months after this was written, the Cubs showed off possible changes here: