If you are a Boston Red Sox fan, odds are you do not like the New York Yankees – at all. You might even use words like loathe, despise, and hate. If you are a New York Yankees fan, you reciprocate those exact feelings right back to those fans in red. Unless you have a family member or close friend who plays for your rival, you would never consider even cheering one minute for a different team. Even then, it would be interesting to see if blood is thicker than the 100% cotton t-shirt you wear for your favorite team.
When it comes to players though, there is virtually no loyalty to a team. This is both a positive and negative of free agency. Any given team has the ability to sign any player they want. By ability I mean they can offer a contract to a free agent, and the player can sign it. The difference obviously is the amount of money and length of the contract offered. Most teams don’t have bottomless pockets, and this limits who they can sign in certain years. At the same time, there is never a guarantee that service time in a city alone will persuade a player to stay there.
While the New York Yankees are not willing to shell out $300 million for one player in Robinson Cano, they have been willing to spend almost as much on other quality players. Jacoby Ellsbury was a lifelong Red Sox hero on his way to becoming a legend in Boston had he remained there. The point being had he remained there. Surprisingly, the Red Sox felt they could better spend their money elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the Yankees felt the need to lure him to the Big Apple. If you can’t beat him, give him more money to come play for you.
Ellsbury is by no means the first player to go play for a division rival once he was on the open market. Johnny Damon jumped ship. He was loved one day in Boston then scorned the day he put a pinstripe jersey on. Even Kevin Youkilis chose to become a Yankee after he was no longer part of Boston’s team. Of all the teams to sign with, they chose the one team out of 29 others that would make them public enemy number one in Boston.
Tom Glavine was a member of the Atlanta Braves for many years, establishing himself as a dominant pitcher on a dominant staff. He then ended up in New York playing for the Mets, one of the most hated teams for Braves’ fans being a divisional rival. I understand that at the Major League level, any job offer is worth taking if it is given to you. Staying out of the Minors is the objective and staying employed is even more important than what town you play in. Luckily it hasn’t become a trend to make a longtime rival a player’s first choice for his new home year in and year out.
Rivalries such as Boston and New York are great for baseball. The Giants and Dodgers are one of the best west coast rivalries. When players go from one of these teams to the other, it creates friction between that player and the fans, at least in the minds of fans. It’s not a personal thing when someone like Ellsbury signs with the team that he was supposed to hate while playing in Boston; it is a matter of them offering him a lot of money with a secure long-term contract. Any player would want that.
Money decides where free agents end up
If there were different teams who had the most money each year, there probably wouldn’t be as much animosity when free agents leave. If Ellsbury had signed with the Kansas City Royals for the same contract, Boston fans would not feel as offended. However, only certain teams are able to sign players like Ellsbury. He has proven to be a great player and is now getting paid like it. Despite many teams trying to employ the Moneyball theory that Billy Beane implemented in Oakland, teams like the Yankees can use that as well as give the undervalued players more money to still bring them to New York.
This makes it even more difficult for lower payroll teams to compete as the higher payroll teams begin to use the same tactics. “You don’t reinvent this game.” A team may find a loophole to expose in player evaluation, but after a while, other teams will figure it out or find a better way to locate the talent needed to get more wins on the field. In the end, a bigger budget means signing who you want and when you want.
Thankfully, the Yankees haven’t given in to Robinson Cano’s ridiculous salary demands. The last time they did that for a player they were stuck with Alex Rodriguez. Stuck is a loose term, as he has contributed to the team over the years, but his issues now are starting to outweigh the positives that he provided earlier in his contract.
There are free agents that leave teams every year. There are players that are then brought in to replace those that left. This makes farm systems and the draft as important as ever to restock and replenish teams once they do lose a player of Ellsbury’s caliber. One tactic that the Tampa Bay Rays have used is giving younger players contracts that may have seemed to large at the time, but that have created security in retaining that player during the prime of his career. They may pay more up front, but then are getting a bargain later on at the back end of the contract.
I’m not saying that teams need to give 20-year-olds 10-year contracts, but it might be wise to start securing young stars by giving them more money upfront rather than having to compete with the free agent market after their career year. It may not be coincidence when a player has a great season in the last year of his contract to get a bigger free agency deal then fall off in production once he no longer has to prove he is worth what he signed for. Baseball contracts are guaranteed for the most part, and players know this. That is why you shouldn’t be surprised to see them agreeing to multi-year deals, especially when they are over five years.
There are rivalries at every level of every sport. You have high school rivals, college rivals, and professional rivals. The difference at the professional level is that your rival has the ability to give you money to lure you away. This is not the case in high school or college (legally), and players may have more of a loyalty at the collegiate level. Once those dollar signs are thrown in front of someone though, all bets are off the table. Anybody will sign with any team at any given moment given the right price.
Would you be surprised to see Derek Jeter in a Red Sox uniform or David Ortiz in a Yankees uniform? You shouldn’t be if they become free agents and one of those teams is the suitor offering the most money. Baseball careers are short lived, and players are trying to cash in while they can. Most jobs after baseball do not pay as well as actually playing baseball. While it may be disappointing for Red Sox fans to see one of their favorite and most productive players leaving for New York, it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all.