Monday, October 30, 2006

Gary, Meet Jake

Back in the day, the Phillies employed an eminently forgettable outfielder by the unforgettable name of Sixto Lezcano. He could field pretty well, had a little pop, and was occasionally a pretty decent hitter, but the really interesting thing about him was his nickname - "Jake". "Jake", of course, is a baseball term meaning "to not try your hardest", and Sixto somehow acquired a rep of, well, jaking it every so often. He always played hard when I was watching, but I wasn't exactly a discriminating view in those days, and the nickname stuck with me as the enduring memory of this guy down the years.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Gary Sheffield. Rewind to last spring training, and you'd be treated to the sight of Sheffield trying, clumsily, to pressure Yankees GM Brian Cashman into picking up his $13M option for the 2007 (Sheffield's, not Cashman's, just in case you were wondering) through tactics that could only really be interpreted as threats. Now, one mostly-injured season later, Sheffield smells the free agent dough and is upset that the Yankees did pick up his option - exactly the thing he was adamant about back in March.

The shift in logic, if not entirely admirable, is simple. With his option picked up, Sheffield has no control over where he plays next year. Wherever the Yankees decide to trade him is where he'll have to play. Even worse, if he stays in New York he's caught up in the Matsui/Abreu/Giambi/everybody and their brother logjam for playing time, exactly what an aging slugger who needs to make numbers to guarantee the next payday doesn't want to see. So the reaction is simple - threaten to be a "problem" for whatever team he's traded to, hope to poison the well, and force the Yankees to release him so he can pick his final destination.

This is not new behavior for Mr. Sheffield. He's made threats about how unpleasant he'll be before, and publicly admitted to jaking it in order to get out of Milwaukee, the city where he started his career. He's not the only player who might have done it - Randy Johnson's mysterious swoon just before he was traded from Seattle to Houston, and magical recovery afterwards certainly raised a few eyebrows among cynics - but he may be the only one to have boasted of having deliberately played poorly.

In an odd way, I almost find that attitude more of a crime against baseball (whatever that means) than steroid use. Yes, the needle brigade is gunning for unfair advantage, but that advantage is at least partially directed towards the winning of ballgames. Nobody takes steroids to lose; they take them to perform better, hopefully racking up better stats and winning more on their way to better job security and a bigger payday.

Sheffield, on the other hand, has tried to lose, or at least not tried to win, and he's threatening to demolish whatever team he ends up with. As a fan, which sort of player would you rather be stuck with - a cheater, or someone trying to sandbag your team? Neither option is appealing, but there's something less nakedly venal about the guy who's trying to win over the guy who's trying to be so bad as to force a trade.

Then again, Sheffield is another one of those "accidental" steroid users, so the question is moot. But what is curious is why the whole situation is being treated with a chuckle by the press, a case of Gary being Gary without any of the attendant hysteria that came of Manny Ramirez' situation this past year. It's unpleasant to watch, and part of me hopes that the Yankees let Sheffield rot on the bench for his $13M, keeping him someplace he can't do any damage. You can't blame a man for wanting to make as much money as he can, and for wanting the widest control over his choice of workplace as possible. That being said, there is a subtle contract between players and audience, one in which the audience agrees to support outrageous salaries in exchange for the players giving effort and making the attempt to win. Everything else in sports fandom is secondary to that arrangement - our love (and money) for your effort (and skill). Sheffield's maneuver calls that compact into question, which, long-term, isn't good for Mr. Sheffield or anyone else. If fans can't trust that the players are trying, they'll cease to be fans, and nobody's going to get paid - least of all $13M in an option year.
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