The news that Alfonso Soriano is retiring is a good reminder that a lot of us — myself included — probably think about player contracts too much.
It’s understandable that we do. We all like to analyze baseball and a huge component of baseball analysis is about team building and roster construction. And if you have a guy who is overpaid or underpaid in an extreme way it definitely impacts his team’s ability to field a good team. Indeed, it’s analyst malpractice not to consider contracts when talking about a team’s chances and a particular player’s place on it.
But we often go too far with that. And again, I’m not excluding myself in this. We often, when assessing a player’s performance and, quite often, his inherent worth and sometimes even his character, pay too much attention to his salary. In doing so we think of fine players as bums if they don’t truly earn their paycheck. Or, sometimes, we think of cheap players as better than they really are, simply because they’re bargains. We assign traits like grit, moxy, laziness, complacency, loyalty, greed, virtue and all manner of other things to them based on the free agent deal they either took or forwent.
Soriano is one of the greatest examples of this in recent history. When he was with the Yankees, Rangers and Nationals he was talked about in a certain way. When the Cubs decided to give him a contract that was too long and too big, he was talked about in quite another way. He was more likely to be a punchline than anything. And even if it was never truly meant personally by anyone or if it was more of a dig at Jim Hendry and the Cubs than it was at Soriano, it certainly dominated the conversation about him for several years.
That dissipated a bit as other players became the so-called Most Overpaid Player in Baseball. But I don’t think most of us ever went back and thought about Soriano the baseball player as much as we ever thought of him as Soriano the payroll albatross.
So, on the day after we learned about his retirement, I feel like it’s worth thinking about a guy who slugged .500 for his 16-year career, not the guy who made all that money because his GM made a poor choice. A guy who made the 40/40 club once and came close a couple of other times, displaying a power-speed combo we don’t see all that often. A guy who played all over the field. A guy who, by all accounts, was super nice and a guy who worked very, very hard, was always prepared and was never accused of not being in shape and ready to play. A guy who, if it weren’t for Luis Gonzalez, Mariano Rivera and the crazy events of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, would be remembered as a postseason hero for that homer he hit in the 8th inning of that game. Off of Curt Schilling of all people.
I’m sure I’ll fall into the trap of thinking too hard about player contracts once again. It’s just something I’m hard-wired for, I suppose. But I’m going to try to keep that in the proper context and not allow it to interfere with what I think about players outside of how they fit on a team’s roster and in their payroll. Because doing that is pretty rewarding. It allows to do things like think of how fun it was to watch Alfonso Soriano play rather than always search for a punchline about how much money he makes.