Top free agents keep getting away from L.A.
Once again, major league baseball in Los Angeles has been reminded of its identity, the annual winter flea market defining the palatability of this region’s two teams in two words.
We are chopped liver.
We are the place where premier free agents blow in, then blow off.
We are the place that Mark Teixeira thumbed, Paul Konerko conked and CC Sabathia spurned. We are the place where Roy Halladay would never dock, and John Lackey simply left.
Just this week, we were the place that Carl Crawford craved … before beating a path to Boston.
In what may be the saddest of possible words, we were also the place that somebody named Matt Diaz just rejected for some place called Pittsburgh.
The last time anybody in town signed a premier free agent was two winters ago, when the Angels brought in Torii Hunter, but that doesn’t count, because Hunter famously loves everyone.
The last time the Dodgers signed a premier free agent, they made Kevin Brown baseball’s first $100-million man, but that was a dozen years and a million Kevin Malone jokes ago.
It’s not pretty, people. Every winter, the baseball world is abuzz with gossip about the destination points for its great players. Yet increasingly, every winter the Dodgers and Angels don’t make it past the first lull in the conversation.
These days, they don’t even last as long as the Washington Nationals, whose $126-million contract for Jayson Werth borders on the clinically insane, but at least the Nationals are players.
These days, it doesn’t seem as though the Dodgers or Angels are even players, even as their players are pushing them door to door like cheap magazines.
Could anybody have recruited the potentially perfect Angels left fielder Crawford harder than Hunter? Was anybody more devastated when Crawford opted for a few more bucks and went to the Red Sox? Folks are saying that Arte Moreno came close to Crawford’s $142-million deal but that it was too little, too late … and maybe too Angel?
After reading gregarious Hunter’s dismayed quotes in Wednesday’s paper, I attempted to contact him and received an answer that was perhaps the most stunning thing the guy has ever said.
“No comment,” read the text.
Yeah, it’s that bad.
The Angels are now going to be forced to play big money to second-tier guys like Adrian Beltre and Rafael Soriano, while the Dodgers may be forced to start the season with a ghost man in left field, and it makes you wonder.
When is the last time someone really wanted to play baseball in Los Angeles?
The easy answer is that our teams just aren’t paying the silly money, and that’s true for the Dodgers, but the Angels have thrown out big bucks and it still doesn’t work, sluggers avoiding us like we’re a doctor holding a paper cup or, worse, Kansas City.
What’s wrong with us?
“Nothing wrong, the Dodgers and Angels are still two premier franchises, it really is about money,” said Fred Claire, former Dodgers general manager.
However, remember when Claire persuaded possibly the most un-hip baseball free agent in history to step into the glitz? Kirk Gibson never liked this city — he was robbed here once — but the free agent loved the Dodgers.
“Gibby wasn’t an L.A. guy, he was far from it,” Claire said. “But we were very aggressive in signing him. And we certainly talked about the Dodger tradition.”
Then remember when Claire did what was seemingly impossible by convincing prized free-agent third baseman Todd Zeile to take less money to come home?
“I never had a free agent tell me he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles,” Claire said.
Those days are gone, as witnessed by this year’s Dodgers failure to sign Diaz, a mediocre left fielder for the Atlanta Braves last season who battled thumb problems before recording an .833 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the second half. He wasn’t a top free agent, but he was a warm body, and the Dodgers wanted him, but he went to Pittsburgh instead for similar money.
In his case, and surely in others, the buzz of Los Angeles baseball no longer overcomes the battle that is Los Angeles baseball.
If you come here, you will be living either in an antiquated clubhouse in a traffic-choked area or in a distant suburb that doesn’t feel anything like Los Angeles. Those might be simple things, but they are things that matter in the simple culture of baseball players.
If you come here, you will never be this town’s biggest star, that role currently reserved for the hottest Laker.
If you come here, you’re not even guaranteed to play much on national television or find your way to the national headlines, the baseball world now centered on New York and Boston.
The coolest town in the world isn’t so cool to baseball players, not even with their hero Scott Boras sitting behind home plate in one of the two stadiums every night.
There has long been a theory that teams from smaller or struggling markets have to overpay to attract top talent. This theory certainly applies to the Nationals and a moody supporting actor like Werth.
Could that now be the case here? With only one world championship between them in the last 21 years, could the locals now be seen as yokels?
Though the Dodgers won’t have the money as long as the McCourts still own the team, the Angels can test this theory immediately. Do they have to now overpay to get great players?
It’s time to ask Cliff Lee.