David Ortiz is one of the main reasons the Red Sox aren't sitting on 96 years without a World Series crown right now. Credit: Getty Images
Chances are you’ve participated in a conversation about David Ortiz and his contractual aspirations with the Boston Red Sox this week. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone has chimed in with that opinion. And that’s part of the problem – at least according to Ortiz, who, mind you, is the same person that created the firestorm to begin with.
Yeesh. That’s a lot to digest. If you’re just joining the party, here’s a quick refresher: In a vacuum, Big Papi’s Big Problem is that he wants a contract extension, but still has one year left on his current deal. The consensus opinion is that Ortiz is significantly underpaid. Even as he closes in on 40, Ortiz is far and away the best designated hitter in baseball, but dollars aren’t Ortiz’s chief concern, years are.
Papi has not been shy about this issue – initially expressing his contractual desires in a television interview with WBZ's Steve Burton, which engendered considerable media backlash (mostly in the form of “Shaddddupp and HIT!”). Bothered by the media scrutiny, Ortiz took it upon himself to address to said-backlash in an expletive-filled rant to John Tomase of the Boston Herald.
Now, no matter how this saga concludes, the underlying angles in the Papi Power Struggle are fascinating, if only because we’re supposed to be smarter nowadays. Like, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we? The characters are different, while the plot remains the same. Media manipulation gone wrong, faulty talking head narratives, and the interests of the local sports team are all at stake here.
So, let’s try to answer questions about a (somewhat) unreasonable situation in a (somewhat) reasonable manner, in what we’ll call The 2014 User’s Guide to Understanding A Star Player’s Contract Negotiation.
1. Should a player complain to the media about their contract?
Sure. Why not? In fact, if I’m an agent I’m encouraging my client to talk to the media about their dissatisfaction with a contract. Maybe they capture some momentum, earn the support of the fan base, and make ownership squirm. After all, in terms of fandom we understand that players come and go and you root for the laundry – that’s all a given – but the obnoxiously wealthy owner doesn’t have a place in that equation.
Deion Branch’s holdout in 2006 immediately comes to mind as a prime example of the worst case scenario coming to fruition. It was an ugly contractual standstill that led to the former Super Bowl MVP’s exodus to Seattle in the preseason, and then worsened the following postseason, when Branch’s absence left Tom Brady without anyone to throw to in the closing moments of a devastating loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship game.
Given John Henry’s comments in the aftermath of the Herald story, it doesn’t appear the Ortiz-Red Sox marriage is headed for a divorce. Ortiz will get his years. It’s only a matter of time.
Key Takeaway: Fans root for star players – until, that is, they are star players somewhere else. Even former championship MVPs.
2. Well, what about those guys with the pens, microphones, and cameras – what’s their role?
We have to get a few things straight: THE MEDIA loves everything about Ortiz’s public diatribe. They even love that he acknowledged the backlash he received from – yup, you guessed it! – THE MEDIA. Papi’s expressed anger at THE MEDIA lets THE MEDIA know that it matters, and no one loves that power as much as THE MEDIA. Disturbing stuff, but very true. All of it.
But more important than any of that? Content! Content!! Content!!!!!
Who needs to research story lines when you have David Ortiz – the human quote machine – mouthing off about an extension? One prominent Boston columnist decided to twist Ortiz’s words while demanding he play out his contract – which is curious, considering Papi never said he wasn’t going to honor his current deal. This type of manipulation happens all the time. And the gratuitous disdain – the condescending “HOW COULD HE!?” tone – sports talk radio hosts and columnists have expressed over Ortiz’s public plea for more years from the Red Sox is as self-serving as Papi’s comments. The whole discussion is manufactured catharsis.
That said, Ortiz is culpable here, too. He has made it clear that his war is not with his employers, the Red Sox, but instead with the fourth estate. Basically, Big Papi doesn’t like the “haters” in the media jumping down his throat every time he brings up his contract. This anger reveals that Papi fails to understand – or, more likely, he just conveniently ignores – three vital aspects of media relations.
They are as follows:
A. Ortiz looks to his peers and justifiably believes he is underpaid. He is correct in this assertion, but the media is here to serve its audience, most of whom have trouble showing empathy toward a dude that has banked roughly $107 million since 2007. The financial chasm has a profound effect on the perception of the negotiations, because we cannot comprehend the concept of “fair market value” when market value suggests a $15 million salary means you’re underpaid. How could we?
B. If someone in the media was underpaid, they wouldn’t be happy. Now, would they write a blog about their financial plight? Of course not. But they would do whatever it took to gain leverage, which is exactly what Papi is doing.
But the problem is his age. At some point Papi will break down – likely in the next year or two, when his salary cap hit comes off the books. So, the media is (correctly) pointing this out. If the media endorsed a longterm deal for Ortiz, he would probably feel differently about the coverage. And while everyone should try to get a salary equivalent to their value, Ortiz hasn’t – but that’s not the media’s fault.
C. Lastly, it’s telling that year-after-year Ortiz makes negative remarks about his contract. At some point, he has to say that his problem IS with his employer, right?
Key Takeaway: Success breeds trust. In other words, it’s really tough to believe the media’s favorite punching bag a year ago, the Red Sox ownership group, is now untouchable, at least in terms of how they value players. How’d we get here?
Well for starters, the franchise has put up as many championship banners – three World Series titles – in the last 13 years as the Patriots. Pretty special stuff that goes a long way in the eyes of fans and the media alike. But, to me, the fact that the front office learned to build a team by spending wisely and developing a strong farm system is really the difference here. And because of that, the media can’t possibly support Papi’s crusade toward getting more years, mainly because it’s antithetical toward the concepts we just touched upon (spend wisely, grow your team with young players, etc).
3. Does David Ortiz have a RIGHT to be upset?
The answer to this question requires a HUGE disclaimer: that without David Ortiz, the Red Sox may be talking about Year 96 without a World Series title, instead of three World Series championships in 10 years.
He was THE hero, among many heroes, in the incredible comeback against the Yanks in the 2004 ALCS. He was unreal: the walks off hits, the mystique, you remember the deal. And while he wasn’t exactly Reggie Jackson in the 2007 World Series run, Ortiz still managed to make history while terrifying Angels fans every time he stepped to the plate in the ALDS (in the three-game sweep, Papi tallied five hits, including two homers, and was walked six times. His .846 OBP is best all-time in Divisional round history).
And last season, when the Sox were in danger of dropping the first two games of the ALCS in Fenway Park, it was Papi who offered up a grand slam to kickstart Boston’s offense and demoralize the Tigers (Detroit wins that series if they don’t give up the game-tying bomb to Ortiz. The Sox proved to be the better team, but going into Detroit, down two games in the series, is a tall order). Then Ortiz went on to put together a historical, otherworldly World Series performance against the Cardinals (St. Louis simply couldn’t retire Ortiz. His .760 on-base percentage is second highest all-time in World Series history.)
Look, the notion that teams should pay for future returns rather than past performance is a prudent way of putting together a professional sports team. But David Ortiz has never been given the benefit of the doubt, and has essentially been told “prove to me that you still can do it” while stuck signing short term deals. That sucks, but it’s true.
Key Takeaway: Is Ortiz the exception to that rule?
Man, with all that history, I say yes. Look around baseball, and more often than not contracts are offered to players with the expectation that their performance will drop off in the late stages of the deal. Albert Pujols will make $23 million next season. And that number will increase by $1 million every year until 2021, when Pujols will earn $30 million at the age of 41. He is paid to hit, but he doesn’t. I could list off player-after-player, like, say, Carl Crawford - who will make between $20-$21 million until 2017. But that doesn’t change Ortiz’s predicament. He’s a designated hitter, one of the greatest of all-time, who miraculously kept hitting and hitting and hitting.
David Ortiz is what happens when a broken system corrects itself at the expense of a legend.