On Thursday afternoon, roughly 14 hours after the Astros lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Nationals, Gerrit Cole tweeted his thanks to the Astros organization and to fans. He wrote:
Houston, last night was a tough one for us and the heartbreak hasn’t gotten any easier today. Before I became an Astro I didn’t know much about Houston, but after just two years you have made it feel like home. So here’s what I know now. You have been overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming, and kind to my family and me. The Astros organization has been such a pleasure to play for, the Cranes are indeed special people and great owners. I’ve met lifelong friends on the team and in the community and learned a little about pitching along the way. [winking emoji] Playing in front of you is really something special and has been such an honor. The incredible support and passionate roars inspire our team to play at [the] highest level we possibly can. This is a relationship between a team and [its] fans like no other that I know. Thank you for making us better people and better players. This was a great season. We have a lot to be proud of.
To a segment of the Astros fan base, Cole’s sentiment rang hollow as he refused to wear an Astros cap when speaking to the media immediately after Game 7. As Hunter Atkins of the Houston Chronicle reports, Cole was resistant to speak to the media in the first place, bargaining with media relations director Gene Dias. Cole, making his case to not have to talk, said, “I mean, I’m not employed. I’m not employed.” Dias said, “We would like for you to do it, but it’s your call.” Cole relented, “All right, as an affiliate of myself.” He then put on a Boras Corp. hat, the company of his agent, Scott Boras.
Cole can file to become a free agent one day after the World Series ends. He is clearly going to do so and will be the most sought-after pitcher on the free agent market. Many expect the 29-year-old to break pitcher-specific contract records in both average annual value and total value. Justin Verlander holds the AAV record at $33 million and David Price holds the total value record at $217 million.
It’s easy to see why Cole will be the prize in free agency. He finished the 2019 season a 20-game winner, leading the American League with a 2.50 ERA, and leading all of baseball with 326 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings. The last pitcher to strike out that many batters was Randy Johnson (334) in 2002 for the Diamondbacks. Cole’s 2019 was on the heels of a season in which he posted a 2.88 ERA with 276 strikeouts, so it clearly wasn’t a fluke performance.
Still, Cole’s refusal to wear an Astros hat left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. Players come and go, but ownership is usually entrenched which is why fans tend to root for the name on the front rather than the name on the back, as they say. But Cole shouldn’t be hated for putting on his Boras Corp. hat.
We expect loyalty from players but rarely, if ever, ask that of the owners. Players give up their bodies on a year-in, year-out basis only to be discarded the moment they no longer provide value for their teams. “Baseball is a business” we often hear, but it’s only ever uttered to justify disloyal, impersonal decision-making by front-office types. Why should players have to feign loyalty when ownership doesn’t?
Cole was a mercenary for the Astros for two years and now he’s going to in search of a potentially record-breaking contract, as he should. Hopefully more players follow Cole’s lead, no longer feeling obligated to do extra labor for teams that wouldn’t do the same for them. The players have had way more leverage than they have given themselves credit for having over the years. The hat debate is symbolic of the larger, neverending battle between baseball ownership and its labor force. Cole, in this way, is a trendsetter.