Thursday, December 16, 2004

Welcome to the Neighborhood

For five and a half years, Dodger fans had to put up with Adrian Beltre and his mediocre production, all while listening to the pie-in-the-sky stories of his seemingly limitless upside and potential. And yet we stood by him loyally, through the two-year appendectomy recovery and season after season of .260 batting averages and 20-odd homeruns, telling all the doubters and naysayers, "Just you wait. He'll be great someday, watch and see."

So, in 2004, he finally got great. He put up one of the greatest seasons for a third baseman in history, in his walk year, of course. And this is what we get for it? Jilted by Scott Boras, who drove Beltre straight to the team offering the fattest bi-weekly paycheck. The Dodgers offered more years and more money, although presumably at a lower annual rate. The loyalty of the fans and the organization who invested in him, was patient with him, and for whom he blossomed into a superstar obviously didn't matter in the least. He's a whore just like the rest of them.

And as we watch Tim Hudson get traded not to the Dodgers, but to the Braves, and see the holes in the roster turn into gaping chasms, we can all sense a more disturbing trend at work here. The Dodgers will no longer be contenders for the premium players in baseball. We will not be able to sign the big-time free-agents, or swing the blockbuster trade that nets us a superstar. The competitive, $100 million+ payroll we were promised by Frank McCourt was apparently a myth. The high-rent district inhabited by the Yankees and Red Sox and (ugh) Angels is now off-limits to us. We are now permanently relegated to the part of town that the A's and Pirates and Brewers live in. This is where the clubs who live off the scraps from other teams reside. Who can't keep their own stars from bolting at the first sign of free-agency. Who live and die on the success of their farm system and the wit and guile of their management. It's a precarious existence in this neighborhood.

We don't need to be like the Yankees, greedily gobbling up the premium players on the market every offseason. And we sure don't want to be like the Mets or Orioles, giving bloated contracts to undeserving or past-their-prime free agents. But we also don't want to be like the A's either, always skating by with a bargain-basement team that wins only if they overachieve. Don't get me wrong, I love a scrappy group of unheralded overacheivers as much as the next guy, but that's not the baseball model the Dodgers should be following. Hiring a Billy Beane protege like Paul DePodesta should have introduced an element of that, but that should not be the overall modus operandi for the tradition-rich, major-market Los Angeles Dodgers.

There is no reason we should have been spurned by our own star free-agent, especially considering the deal he ended up signing for was a lot less outrageous than I personally thought it was going to be. I can't believe the McCourts couldn't at least match the five years, $64 million Beltre got from the Mariners. That's less per year than Shawn Green is making and slightly more than Darren Driefort, both of whom will be off the Dodgers' books by 2006. And at only five years long, it's not as constraining as the six- or seven-year contract that the Dodgers were reportedly offering. For all his talk about the folly of tieing up a lot of money in a single player for a long period of time, DePodesta revealed that his only real constraint in re-signing Beltre was the thinness of Frank McCourt's wallet.

Major League Baseball thought they were going to keep a drag on player salaries by forcing the team in the 2nd-biggest media market in the nation into the hands of a cash-strapped owner. As this winter has seen, other teams like the Angels and Mariners have stepped up and brought back a return of the free-spending days of the late 1990s. And the Dodgers are left behind in the low-rent neighborhood, clipping coupons and shopping at Wal-Mart, while the Mariners and Scott Boras take Adrian Beltre out for dinner at Pastis and a spending spree at Barney's.

I guess I can't blame him. A whore has to look good, too.


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