Let us remember George Steinbrenner, not whitewash him

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This morning I said “I’m not a believer in whitewashing things when someone dies because the
last thing we should be doing when we lose someone is telling lies that
push their true essence further away from us.”

I really mean that.  There are damn few saints in this world. Even fewer who become billionaire businessmen. George Steinbrenner wasn’t a saint. I suspect he’d be the last person to even suggest it.  Watching the day’s coverage unfold on ESPN and on the Internet, however, and the Big Stein has grown more saintly by the hour.

If you read Bud Selig’s statement about Steinbrenner you’d think that the guy was the salt of the Earth. Rather than mere niceties at the time of one’s passing — which I understand — it’s actively deceptive. Maybe Selig and Steinbrenner were friendly on a personal level, but the fact is that Selig’s entire rise to power as Commissioner was premised on his and a group of like-minded small-market owners’ opposition to Steinbrenner’s financial largess. Indeed, the story of baseball labor relations between the advent of free agency and the 1994-95 strike cannot be understood without reference to the battle between big clubs led by the likes of George Steinbrenner and small clubs led by the likes of Bud Selig.

But Bud Selig is, at his essence, a politician, so I understand why such flavor doesn’t make it into his official statements.  But how, then, do we account for the numerous talking heads who have shown up on my TV screen today painting, however unwittingly, an inaccurate or, at the very least, incomplete portrait of the man?

No, I don’t expect people in the Yankees family, widely defined, to offer up unvarnished truth about their patriarch on a day like today, but could ESPN or MLB Network have found someone today who could shed some insight into — as opposed to making mere footnotey mentions of — his felony conviction for illegal campaign contributions and obstruction of justice?  Or how about Steinbrenner paying Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield so Steinbrenner might find a way to get out from under the ten-year contract he gave him?  And rather than merely use his parade of managers in the 1980s as a wide brush with which to paint color on The Boss, could someone be found who could point out that Steinbrenner’s erratic behavior in the 1980s probably did more to cost the Yankees championships than anything else that happened that decade?

I’m not suggesting that these uglier parts of the Steinbrenner legacy should be the lead story.  The man died just this morning for crying out loud.  But if you weren’t Steinbrenner’s family or his close friend, or if you didn’t work for or passionately root for the Yankees, it seems to me that you’re obligated to be thorough and balanced when it comes to covering his death.  The hagiography-to-news
ratio on the Death of George Steinbrenner is growing increasingly larger as the day progresses, however.

I stand by what I said about George Steinbrenner this morning. He was a great figure in baseball in general and for the Yankees in particular. His impact was massive and any true understanding of the game in 2010 is impossible without first understanding George Steinbrenner and his legacy.  The words “titan” and “icon” are thrown around too much when major figures pass, but they are entirely appropriate in the case of Big Stein.

But he was more than that.  In fact, he was a lot of things. The term “a real piece of work” probably describes him best, but under that very large umbrella lies rogue, champion, rake, father, felon, firebrand, leader, fighter and about dozen others I could think of.  I may even go so far as to say that the guy was — in the best sense of the term — a bit of a
sonofabitch too.  I bet he’d agree with me.

In light of that, I’m growing a bit distressed as the day goes on and King George starts to look more and more like Saint George.  It kind of galls me, really. Not because I have a thing against Steinbrenner — I really don’t — but because, when I die, I want people to remember me for what I truly was not for what they feel comfortable saying I was. To do otherwise is to whitewash and to whitewash is to paint over.

And once we’re painted over? We simply disappear.

UPDATE: Charles Pierce at the Globe managed to work in the sonofabitch angle.  The New York Times now has something with a color other than white as well.  And now Dave Brown at Big League Stew has a great post as well. The lesson: I write too damn fast sometimes. Next time I’ll wait for the backlash to come to me.

Angels rewarded for playing it straight with Mike Trout

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Tuesday’s big news featured Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who inked a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension. As the deal replaced the two years and $66.5 million remaining on his previous contract, it is effectively a 10-year, $360 million contract. As Craig argued earlier, Trout’s contract for over one-third of a billion dollars is actually quite a bargain for a player of his caliber in an industry seeing more than $10 billion in revenues.

The Angels got such a bargain and the privilege of retaining one of the greatest baseball players of all time because they played it straight with Trout since they drafted him in 2009. Trout was selected 25th overall in the first round. His talent was immediately obvious, as he hit .360/.418/.506 in 39 games at rookie ball preceding a late-season promotion to Single-A Cedar Rapids. Trout earned a promotion to High-A Rancho Cucamonga the next summer. In 2011, Trout started the season with Double-A Arkansas before earning a call-up to the majors in early July. In roughly two years, Trout went from drafted out of high school to playing in the majors.

The Angels did not try to manipulate Trout’s service time, something that has become increasingly common among teams holding the game’s top prospects. The Cubs held Kris Bryant down in the minors longer than necessary in 2015 in order to gain an extra year of contractual control. The Braves did the same with Ronald Acuña Jr. last year. Despite an injury, the Blue Jays were going to keep No. 1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in the minors to start the 2019 season anyway, at least until they gained their extra year of contractual control.

Trout, though? The Angels called him up to debut on July 8, 2011 against the Mariners, replacing the injured Peter Bourjos in center field. At the time, the Angels were just one game out of first place behind the Rangers. Trout hit an abysmal .163/.213/.279 in 14 games. The Angels, understandably, sent him back to Double-A once Bourjos came off the disabled list. Trout was called back up in mid-August, sharing the outfield corners with Torii Hunter and an underperforming Vernon Wells. Trout put up a healthier .768 OPS the rest of the way.

Of course, we all know what Trout would become from that point on. Trout won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, also finishing second in AL MVP Award balloting. He likely would have won the award if Miguel Cabrera hadn’t won the Triple Crown. In 2013, Trout again finished second in AL MVP voting (again, to Cabrera, who did not win the Triple Crown this time). Though the Angels could have renewed Trout’s salary for not much more than the $510,000 he earned in 2013, the club chose to pay him $1 million for the 2014 season, a record one-year salary for a pre-arbitration player. One month later, the club inked him to a six-year, $144.5 million contract, covering the 2015-20 seasons — Trout’s age 23-28 seasons. Trout accrued a ridiculous 36.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. The only other players in that neighborhood over that same span of time are Mookie Betts (32.9), José Altuve (26.0), and Nolan Arenado (25.3).

Prior to Tuesday’s extension news, many were already looking towards the free agent market after the 2020 season, when Trout would have become a free agent. Bryce Harper, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies earlier this month, openly talked about recruiting Trout to the Phillies. Trout is from Millville, New Jersey, which is roughly an hour away from Philadelphia. Trout grew up a Phillies fan and is commonly seen at Eagles games during the baseball offseason. It made sense to think Trout would test free agency and come back home. The Angels have made the playoffs once during Trout’s career: 2014, when they were swept out of the ALDS in three games by the Royals. The club has averaged an 84-78 record during Trout’s career. The Phillies are on the come-up. Why would Trout want to hang around the Angels, mired in mediocrity?

Trout, however, has been deeply invested in the Angels’ future. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman tweeted, “Something that stood out to me while in #Angels camp: how invested Trout was in LAA’s improving farm system. Eppler told me Trout would sometimes call and ask if he had noticed something in a minor league boxscore. To me a sign he was in with LAA’s future.” What are the chances that Bryant and Acuña, for example, share a similar feeling of devotion to their respective teams after having their service time shamelessly manipulated?

One benefit of not treating players as disposable labor is loyalty, a feeling of “we’re in this together.” The Angels didn’t jerk Trout around like teams have done with so many other top prospects. They willingly gave a pre-arb Trout a raise when they could have nickel-and-dimed him to save $450,000 in 2014. They invested nearly $150 million in him as a 22-year-old. That paid dividends down the road, as Trout is now so invested in the Angels’ success that he has foregone a chance at free agency, when he possibly could have become baseball’s first half-billion-dollar man. Having Trout secured at a relative bargain through the 2030 season, and currently holding players like Shohei Ohtani and top prospects like Jo Adell, makes the Angels an attractive landing spot for free agents, international and domestic alike. Current players will want to stay in Anaheim. Angels fans will get to see one of the best baseball players of all time in an Angels uniform until his late-30’s. He will go into the Hall of Fame wearing an Angels cap. The Angels will have another decade of Trout drawing fans to TV broadcasts as well as Angels Stadium where they’ll spend money on concessions, t-shirts, and jerseys. Trout is a once-in-a-lifetime player, but other teams should take note: treating your players with dignity and respect may cost a few extra bucks up front, but the long-term gains can be bountiful.