Within Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s gutteral emission upon the trade of Tommy Pham to the San Diego Padres, you could find a plea pondered almost as long as professional baseball’s been played. If you wanted to.
On the surface, Snell fuming aboard the social media outlet Twitch was negative amazement that Pham would be surrendered for lesser elements: “We gave Pham up for [Hunter] Renfroe and a damn slap[penis] prospect?” And he has a pretty point, since the Rays may or may not have received equal value in return.
Baseball administrators are nothing if not men and women seeking the maximum prospective performance at the minimum prospective cost, of course. Pham earned $41. million in 2019 and was liable to earn more next season following salary arbitration; Renfroe earned $582,000 in 2019 and isn’t eligible for arbitration until after next year. And the damn slap[penis] prospect, Xavier Edwards, was ranked number five on the Padres prospect list before the deal.
Renfroe in 2019 was the Clete Boyer of outfielders, hitting 33 home runs against a .289 on-base percentage, rather companionable to the longtime Yankee third base legend’s 1967 with the Braves, 26 home runs and a .292 OBP. And Renfroe is a promising defender in his own right. But the Rays are renowned for mulcting large results out of small costs and the words “salary dump” come to mind for some, surely.
Snell apologised almost post haste. “[J]ust saying I’m sorry I’m just upset we’re losing a guy like Tommy who helped our team in so many ways!” he said. “Didn’t mean any disrespect to Edwards who I didn’t know who he was until after I said that. I was just sad to lose Tommy . . . It’s tough losing someone you respect so much and enjoy being around.”
Thus does Snell invite deeper examination, where you may find the unenunciated very present plea for loyalty and the noticeable absence thereof. Except that when you do enunciate it, you provoke another tirelessly tiring debate on where the loyalty disappeared among, well, the players, who need to learn a thing or three about loyalty while they pursue their unsightly riches, yap yap yap.
It’s been that way ever since the advent of free agency, of course. Once upon a time it amused, if only because those bellowing against the lack of player loyalty were only too obvious in their ignorance, willful or otherwise, regarding the lack of team loyalty even to Hall of Famers. In both the so-called Good Old Days and the days, years, decades to follow. It’s still somewhat amusing, even when it gets somewhat annoying.
Referencing Hall of Famers was something I did about a decade ago, for another publication, when pondering the “loyalty” question. (That publication ceased to exist not long after I published my old finding.) It began then and now with there having been but one single-team player (Walter Johnson) among the inaugural five players enshrined in 1936. The first single-team Hall of Famer to follow: Lou Gehrig, in 1939.
It goes from there to those whose careers were entirely or mostly reserve era. Thirty-six single-team Hall of Famers played all or mostly in the reserve era; eighteen (allowing the prospect of at least Derek Jeter and Thurman Munson being elected for 2020 induction) played all or mostly in the free agency era. Out of all 232 Hall of Fame players (Jeter and Munson included), it means 54 players—23 percent, not even one quarter of all Hall of Fame players—were single teamers.
The reasons vary as much as their playing or pitching styles do. Age is one. The chance to bolster or reconstruct a roster, hopefully without downright tanking, is another. Issues off the field, which didn’t begin with Rogers Hornsby’s trade after winning a World Series (as a player-manager) because he was a horse’s ass so far as his team (and a lot of baseball) was concerned and didn’t end with the Phillies’ barely conscionable mistaking of a slumping should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen for lacking heart or passion, are others.
Still others are organisational philosophy changes, and economic hardship real (think of Connie Mack’s fire sales breaking apart two separate Philadelphia Athletics dynasties) or alleged. (Think of M. Donald Grant’s capricious purge of Tom Seaver in 1977, to name one, or Charlie Finley’s capricious practically everything around the dynastic-turned-rubble Oakland Athletics of the 1970s. Among others.)
The loyalty issue has been with us since the signature dried on the Messersmith-McNally ruling that ended the reserve clause’s abuse in 1975 and provoked the immediate firing of arbitrator Peter Seitz, who heard the evidence real or imagined and ruled properly on behalf of Andy Messersmith. (The intending-retirement, non-playing Dave McNally, technically an unsigned player, signed onto the action as an insurance fallback in the event the refusing-to-sign Messersmith wavered during the 1975 season.)
And almost invariably it begins with rare diversions forward with player loyalty. The fact that owners pre- and post-free agency felt little if any comparable “loyalty” to their players remains underrated if not undiscussed if not untouched at all. The millionaires-versus-billionaires debate is an exercise in fatuity; the loyalty-versus-disloyalty debate exercises a lot of plain nonsense by people who’d impress you otherwise as being old enough and smart enough to know better.
This week Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner said plainly that the team could afford to keep only one of two now-free agent World Series heroes/homegrown Nats, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, but not both. Lerner’s are economic reasons by his own proclamation, never mind that between himself and his father they’re baseball’s second-richest owners at this writing. Warble not about “loyalty” when Strasburg and Rendon—neither now under binding contract, each free to negotiate on a fair and open job market—are told, pending an unforeseen change of mind or heart, that the team who raised them can’t afford to keep both.
Last March Mike Trout looked at two seasons to come before his first free agency and no small speculation as to whether he’d stay where he was or move elsewhere, and as to how many teams would prepare to mortgage the gold reserves to bring him aboard. That talk included a certain freshly-signed, $350 million Phillie whispering sweet nothings toward Trout regarding keeping the City of Brotherly Love very much at the front of his mind.
Then Trout and his Los Angeles Angels agreed mutually to make him an Angel for life to a $450 million extent, the major talk of which surrounded how richly he deserved the dollars while there seemed little enough appreciation for Trout himself proclaiming publicly, without sounding sirens or fireworks, that he was plenty enough content where he was. And, by the way, hoping more than kinda-sorta that the Angels, maybe, finally, might reconstruct themselves into a team their and baseball’s best player could be proud of.
That was a mutual exercise in loyalty by player and team that went noticed to a glandular level over the fact that Trout would earn the equivalent of a small country’s economy for the rest of his playing career and to a dust bunny’s level over their hard-earned loyalty to each other. Remember it the next time you eavesdrop upon or partake in yet another exercise in the just plain nonsense that baseball loyalty debates become, at least as often as Trout steals a home run from over the center field fence, or hits one there.