Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The Anatomy of a Brilliant Move
And his reward? The best pitcher on the free agent market. He landed a former afterthought who had earned the right to squeeze every last penny out of his one big pay day, but took significantly less money to play for the Philadelphia Phillies. Ruben Amaro Junior sold Cliff Lee on the losingest franchise in professional sports even though the winningest one offered him a princely megadeal.
Too often people look at sports free agency as a matter of economics, a calculating game of cost-benefit analysis that matches agents against owners. We overlook psychology, where the art of salesmanship meets the very human object of the negotiators' affections. To track the psychological prep-work of this deal you have to return to 2009.
The Phillies acquire Cliff Lee from the Cleveland Indians in a trade. Lee's stellar pitching down the stretch in the postseason propels the Phils to their second straight World Series where Lee dominates the Yankees in a losing effort. The Yanks begin to openly covet Lee, and although he was already a Cy Young Award winner and a hot commodity, his value grows immensely as he gains notoriety as a "big game" pitcher. Lee also discovers he loves Philadelphia; loves the manager, the fans, the city, and decides he would like to retire as a Phillie.
End of Year 2009: The Phillies trade Lee to the Mariners after acquiring Roy Halladay in a separate deal. A publicly remorseful Lee packs his bags and moves to Seattle. I think many figured that this trade would sour Lee on the Phillies, turn him bitter. But it didn't. I think Lee also recognized that the Phillies built his legend, they made him desirable, and eventually this trade indirectly leads him to playing in his second straight World Series, this time as a member of the Texas Rangers. Besides, Lee still loved Philadelphia, the packed ballparks, the manager he adored, and the clubhouse many consider the most tight-knit in the league.
End of Year 2010: As soon as the Giants win the 'ship everyone starts talking about Cliff Lee. Tons of teams throw their hats into the ring, but the Phillies don't make much noise. Amaro knew that the Yankees and Rangers would emerge as the favorites, and that all of those other teams (Angels, Nationals, Dodgers etc.) would ultimately cede. Why would Amaro get lost in the milieu by jumping in with these other characters? If he waits he can at least guarantee that he will be in the final three after the Yanks and Rangers drive everyone else out of the market. So Ruben waits...
This Week: As negotiations wind down Amaro springs back into action. He knows Cliff Lee's choices, and he's been surreptitiously throwing him low-ball offers in order to gauge his interest. Just as Amaro thought, Lee is very interested, but he needs a better offer.
Now I imagine Ruben's final pitch to Lee looks something like this:
"Cliff you have two choices. You have the Yankees. They're giving you the most money and in New York you can become a celebrity. But you don't want to be a celebrity and your wife openly expresses disdain for the city and its fans. Besides, if you take the megadeal with the Yankees you'll become a villain, just like A Rod (the last Ranger to become a Yankee) or even Teixeira (generally despised in the Baltimore-D.C. area he grew up in).
You can go to the Rangers. Obviously you like the clubhouse and they're offering you big money. But you want to win a World Series, soon, and the Rangers might be a one-and-done kind of club. They're losing Vlad Guerrero and you don't have much help on that pitching staff. If you get hurt the season might be shot.
So now you have a third choice, join the Phillies. It's less money, but you'll become a folk hero in the Delaware Valley. The fans always adored you, now they'll shower you with praise. Plus you get to part of the greatest pitching staff of all time. Even if you or someone else gets hurt, the Phils will still be there at the end of the year. You love Philadelphia, you love Charlie, you love Rollins and Victorino and Ibanez...
Oh and there's this, you get to continue building the legend of Cliff Lee. You've made a career out of surprising people, and now you can deliver the biggest surprise of all. You can spurn your high profile suitors and you can do Cliff Lee really wants to do...remain enigmatic."