I grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan, and a Cal Ripken Jr. fan. Because of that, I got to experience something that is extremely rare in sports these days: watching your favorite player play for your favorite team his entire career.
Earlier today, in non-baseball news, LeBron James signed a deal to return to Cleveland. I’m not a basketball fan at all, but it’s pretty impossible to avoid the drama that surrounds LeBron James in free agency. A few years ago he left Cleveland — his hometown and the team that drafted him — to go to Miami and win a championship. Now that he’s won a few titles, James is returning to Cleveland. While there was celebration over this story, I couldn’t help but find the whole situation to be cheap and uninspiring.
The better story would have been James sticking around in Cleveland. It would have involved James trying to win a title in Cleveland. As I said, I don’t follow basketball much, but I can assume it would have been more difficult to win a title in Cleveland, as opposed to joining Chris Bosh in free agency and signing with Miami, to pair up with Dwayne Wade. In one corner, you’ve got a chance to really do something special, by leading your hometown team to a title, and winning your first title with that team. In the other corner, you’re going to a team that is trying to buy a title, and basically checking off the “Win a Championship” accomplishment just like you’d check off an item you picked up from the store.
I don’t find James’ return to Cleveland special, but that’s because I think the better story would have been him staying there all along. I’m saying this as a person who has no vested interest in anything involving the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James, or the city of Cleveland. In fact, most of my experience with Cleveland involves this video.
Unfortunately, the LeBron situation represents the landscape of sports. Fans can’t really get attached to players, because 99% of players won’t remain with their teams. You need a very specific set of circumstances for a player to remain with one team his entire career.
1. The player must be good enough to keep around. This is pretty obvious, as no one really focuses on bench players who spend their career with one team. While this is obvious early in the career, it becomes an even bigger issue later in a player’s career. Will the player age and decline, or will he stay productive through the end? Derek Jeter is a prime example of this. He was a valuable player up until last year. The Yankees got about 17 productive years out of him, saw him miss most of the 18th season, and are seeing a less productive version during his final year. It’s easier to keep a guy like that around. It’s harder when the player starts to decline after 8-10 years.
2. If the player is good enough to keep around, you need one of two team situations.
A. The team must have a lot of money, where the only decision is “Do we want to keep [insert good player here] around?” Example: The Yankees and Jeter.
B. The player must leave a lot of money on the table, giving the team a big discount to remain with them for the long haul. Example: The Rays and Evan Longoria. I’d include Ryan Braun or Joey Votto, but I’m not convinced those teams will hold onto those players for the duration of their deals. Just look at the Rockies discussing a Troy Tulowitzki trade right now as an example of how players with a long-term deal can be talked about as on the move.
Disclaimer: I’m only referencing Major League Baseball here. Other sports have salary caps, salary floors, and revenue sharing, which makes it possible for any team to sign an elite player.
The Pirates have a situation like this coming up in a few years. Andrew McCutchen is one of the best players in the game, and he’s currently under control through the 2018 season. He will become a free agent for his age 32 season. He should still receive a huge contract. By comparison, Robinson Cano just received $240 M over ten years at the same age.
The Pirates won’t be able to afford a $240 M contract, or whatever McCutchen could command on the open market. They’re either going to have to let McCutchen walk, or hope he signs a Longoria-type deal and leaves a lot of money on the table.
It takes a rare person to go that route. Going to the Longoria example, he is set to make at least $117.5 M in guaranteed money from 2008-2023. He could have made triple that amount in his career by avoiding extensions. He would have also been playing for another team by now. But the flip side is that Longoria is set for life, instead of being mega set for life. He also has something rare that most players don’t have, which is the ability to say he has played for one team in his career.
I’m not going to say that Andrew McCutchen should do the same as Longoria. That’s his decision to make when the time comes, and he doesn’t really owe any discount to anyone. It’s also a decision the Pirates have to make. There’s no guarantee that McCutchen would even be the option that makes the most sense when his contract is up after the 2018 season. Of course that assumes he’s starting to decline early, while the Pirates have an elite outfield prospect coming up to replace him. The latter doesn’t seem far-fetched.
I will say that McCutchen (or any player who turns down money and easy championships to stay with their original team) has the opportunity for something extremely rare: icon status. This isn’t an unfamiliar situation in Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux is the prime example.
The LeBron situation and the McCutchen situation a few years down the line are a sad reminder of the current landscape in sports. When I was growing up, I knew that I could watch my favorite player play for my favorite team throughout his career. Now? That’s an extremely rare thing. Getting attached to a player now is like getting attached to a hit TV show. You’ll probably only get a chance to enjoy it for 5-7 years maximum before it’s gone. If you’re lucky, you might get a few more years of enjoyment as the show gets extended. But you’re not likely to see many players take the “Simpsons” route and stick around forever.
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