Week of March 10, 2017

Adrian knows it: Adult autograph seekers at Spring Training are an embarrassment. 

The story of MLB’s first true free agent has absolutely everything to do a with a farm loan.

S.I. ran an excerpt from Jason Turbow’s recent release about the Oakland A’s titled Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. If the following story is indicative of the broader work, then I’m going to love it. 

In 1970 A’s owner Charles Finley loaned a then 23 year-old Catfish Hunter 150K for a farm in North Carolina. Hunter would pay back the loan at a minimum of 20K a year + 6% interest.

No problem for a big league ball player, except that it was, because Hunter was making about 33K playing for the A’s in 1970.

Shortly after making the loan, Finley purchase an A.B.A. basketball team and was a little cash- strapped. The quickest way to get some money back was recouping his loan. He harassed Hunter and even Hunter’s father for the money, repeatedly calling the pitcher minutes before he took the mound on game days. But the loan was gone. Hunter had already purchased the farm.

Eventually, Hunter sold 80% of the farm to a family friend and returned the money Finley loaned him. But the experience set the stage with Finley the next time a contract came up.

“On Feb. 11, 1974, Hunter agreed with Finley on a two-year deal at $100,000 per—only the second multiyear contract the Owner ever awarded. Hunter was by that time among baseball’s best pitchers, with three straight 20-win seasons, three All-Star appearances in four years, and back-to-back top-five finishes in the Cy Young voting. Although his contemporaries were earning much more—Tom Seaver made $173,000 in 1974, and Steve Carlton $165,000—Catfish had no way of knowing that. He’d always wanted to earn six figures, and when Finley made the offer it seemed just fine.

“There was only one caveat, Hunter said. His attorney back home in North Carolina, J. Carlton Cherry, had advised him to defer some of it. Put it into a life insurance annuity, he said, which could be cashed in for additional income once Hunter’s baseball career ended. The benefit to this arrangement was that instead of being in a high tax bracket in 1974, Hunter would be taxed later on, when he was effectively unemployed and on the hook for a smaller amount.

“That is exactly how Cherry wrote the addendum: $50,000 per year, to be paid at regular intervals through the season, and $50,000 disbursed to an entity of Hunter’s choosing. Finley agreed. The benefit to Finley was that he got to hold on to the money in the interim, earning interest on it all the while.

“The difference with Hunter’s stipulation was that the Owner wouldn’t have the money at all—the annuity would. Even less palatable for Finley was the discovery that about $25,000 in taxes was due immediately, and he would be the one paying them.”

Immediately, Finley failed to pay the annuity. Hunter and his representatives demanded payment throughout the season, but Finley refused. Hunter and his representatives began to make noise that Finely was in breach of his contract and would try to get out of the contract and be a free agent after the season. The story started to make its way to he public during the 1974 World Series between the A’s and the the Dodgers. The A’s won, completing a World Series 3-pete, with Hunter tossing a gem in Game 3.

After the World Series, a 3-arbitrator panel ruled Finley had breached his contract, ordered him to pay Catfish the $50,000 annuity, and declared Hunter a free agent. MLB, and the A’s, were furious, but couldn’t do much. The best pitcher in baseball was suddenly a free agent. In the years before free agency, this was a big story. A bidding war took place in a small town in Hunter’s home state of North Carolina. Remember, a true free agent was uncharted territory for baseball, and some of the offers to Hunter were pretty fascinating:

  • Pirates offered limited partnership in 5 Walmarts
  • Royals: College tuition, money for the farm, and 50K for life (Hunter almost went with this one, and maybe would have, if not for a poorly timed joke by Royals’ brass)
  • Padres (owned by Ray Kroc) : McDonald’s stock, and a McDonald’s franchise.
  • The Yankees were involved, too (obviously), but Steinbrenner’s out of the picture due to a suspension making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and was temporarily banned from contact.

Hunter’s free agency has a hint of Forrest Gump to it. Baseball innocence – a player named Catfish – becomes a free agent due to a farm loan gone bad. In the process he’s a brushes up against giants of American industry (Walmart, McDonald’s) and politics (Nixon by way of Steinbrenner).

This is my favorite story of the year so far. – PAL

Source: How a contract breach led Catfish Hunter to baseball’s first real free agent”, Jason Turbow, via Sports Illustrated (3/6/17)

TOB: This book sounds great. Deadspin also had an excerpt, about the time A’s first baseman and former Cal football and baseball player Mike Epstein whooped the hell out of Reggie Jackson:

The team’s pass lists sat atop a picnic table at the far side of the room: a blue sheet for players to leave tickets for family members (the better seats), and a white sheet for friends. Reggie Jackson hovered above them, eyes squinting in scrutiny, until one name in particular caught his eye. “Berman?” he asked, perusing the blue list. “Who put down for these?” Per Rangers policy, players were allowed four seats from the blue list and only two from the white, so first baseman Mike Epstein had used his family passes for friends of his father—the delightfully named Sherman Berman and family—to ensure that they sat together. This was not unusual practice.

“I did,” said the slugger, “and it’s none of your business.”

“I’m appointing it my business,” replied Jackson.

“Don’t buy more than you can handle,” Epstein warned.

Years’ worth of proximity enabled the players who came up with Jackson—Duncan, Rudi, Bando—to differentiate his confrontational, bark-not-bite nature from something actually nefarious. For guys like Epstein who were new to the team, however, such distinctions were not always so easy.

Most of the players had only just arrived at the ballpark and were still dressing when the exchange took place. Watching the brewing confrontation warily, Joe Rudi was the first to pipe up. “Back off,” he sternly warned Reggie. “Don’t mess with him.”

 Reggie did not back off. “Those are family tickets, and there ain’t no Jews in Texas,” he said, invoking Epstein’s Semitic heritage. With that, he grabbed a pen and crossed out the names, one by one. Epstein, a former fullback on the Cal football team, flew off his seat as if at a tackling dummy. Reggie had no chance. “This was not a typical baseball fight,” recalled Ken Holtzman, who watched it go down from his nearby locker. “This was a fight fight.”

Epstein threw Jackson to the floor, straddling him and peppering him with punches. When he grabbed Reggie by the throat and began choking him, traveling secretary Tom Corwin raced to get Dick Williams, and players jumped up to intercede. First to the fray was Gene Tenace, hardly a diminutive figure, who found himself entirely unable to budge the irate behemoth. “Reggie’s eyes are spinning around in his head and I think, this ain’t working,” said Tenace, looking back. “I’ve got to get his hands off of Reggie. How am I going to do that?” Eventually the catcher wrapped his forearm around Epstein’s windpipe and, with full force, pulled. Epstein fell backward onto Tenace, sending both men tumbling to the floor.

Reggie Jackson, what a piece of work.

Blue Chip Recruit Has Yet to Play a Down

We’ve heard stories of – for lack of a better term – size marvel athletes at the in the youth ranks, usually in basketball and football. The rail-thin 7-footer from some random place. The 200-pound 5th grader who the league has barred for the safety of the other kids. Daniel Faalele isn’t exactly that story.

First of all, it’s not just that he’s a massive human being, it’s that he’s proportional and seemingly normal in terms of coordination and flexibility. He played rugby and basketball as a younger kid.

Writer Andy Stark puts in this way:

“Seeing Faalele in the flesh can yield one of two radically different impressions: When he’s by himself, he looks smaller than advertised because he’s so well-proportioned; when he’s alongside a normal-sized human being, he looks even more massive than his dimensions would suggest. It’s as if someone fed the size of the ideal NFL offensive tackle into a 3D printer and set the output to 120%.”

Second, he hasn’t yet played a down. He was living in Melbourne and football wasn’t on his radar. Faalele was working out in a gym when a Hawaii coach noticed him. The coach offered Faalele a scholarship on the spot. Next was a Michigan satellite camp held in Australia. It wasn’t long before Faalele and his mom grasped the potential for a college education and potential for a professional career, and they realized he would need to move to the U.S. to play high school football. He ended up at IMG. This is not a regular high school.

IMG is a sport academy. Actually, it’s the sports academy, with an alumni that includes José Fernández, Michael Beasley, Elton Brand, Kyle Turley, the Williams sisters, and André Agassi.

Third, he’s “playing” against some of the best high school players in the country. When he’s practicing, he’s practicing against a boatload of big time college football commits. He’s not a sideshow, and he already has offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida State, Hawaii, Miami, Michigan and Oregon State while he learns the game.

When he came to IMG, he knew zero about football and its rules. The coaches on the team decided to keep him on as a practice squad to start with the basics (what a yard is, why and when teams punt the ball – stuff like that).  But Faalele is getting it, and has demonstrated a sincere interest in learning the game. When it comes together, the results are radical.

“In one of Faalele’s early practices (Derrick) Elder (offensive line coach) taught him to punch the pass rusher with both hands, then grab his chest. During a one-on-one drill that day, Faalele fired his hands to disrupt the lineman’s charge. Then one hand disappeared inside the rusher’s shoulder pads and the kid went limp. Sensing something wrong, Faalele let go and backed away. ‘He had grabbed [the defender’s] collarbone,’ Elder says, shaking his head at the memory. Elder clarified: Seize the chest plate of the shoulder pads. ‘His hands are steel,’ Elder says. ‘If he gets them on you, it’s over. Doesn’t matter if he has good technique or bad technique, it’s over.’”

Fourth, the coaches understand their responsibility here. They are likely never going to have someone so big with so much raw talent come into their lives. Faalele’s literally off the charts, and so they try to adjust accordingly. The head of sports science at IMG (like I said, this is not a regular high school) put it this way: “The pressure is on us. The support structure around him here and at his college needs to do right by him.”

All this is fun to think about, but as Staples writes, “[I]t won’t matter how huge Faalele is or how much power he can generate if he can’t perform as a player. By the time he makes his debut, he’ll be one of the nation’s most sought-after offensive line prospects.”

This is a well-written piece, and a fun read to boot. – PAL

Source: Think big: 6’9″, 396-pound Daniel Faalele has coaches drooling—and he’s never played a down, Andy Staples, Sports Illustrated (3/6/17)

TOB: I know juuuuuuust enough about both offensive line play and coaches trying to sell a product to be skeptical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for Faalele. He seems like a good kid, and it would be fun to see someone that big dominate football. But to be an offensive lineman requires at a high level requires much more than power, which Faalele has in spades. It requires foot speed, balance, agility, and a keen understanding of the game of football. He’s going to soon be facing some of the best athletes in the world whose goal is to run by him and crush the quarterback. Faalele’s coaches talk a lot about his power – the power he generates in the gym, the power he generates on the field, knocking players over in practice. And they mention he played rugby and basketball. But you don’t hear them actually say anything about how well he pass blocks, and that speaks volumes. The coaches say the pressure is on them to do right by Faalele – I think they would serve him best by moving him to nose tackle/defensive tackle, where he can use his weight and strength to anchor the defense, and blow up the offensive line. But, what do I know? I just write a sports blog.

PAL: Mark Schlereth, is that you?

Treacherous Baseball Dream

Great Cuban baseball players with MLB dreams have a scary proposition to face. They need to get out of Cuba and prove they no longer reside in Cuba before an MLB team can sign them to lucrative contracts (this is connected to the economic embargo). Defection from the island country is dangerous for all who attempt, but especially so for big time prospects. Getting players out of Cuba is a cottage industry, and it’s run by some scary dudes. Two such dudes – Bartolo Hernandez and Julio Estrada –  are currently on trial for their part in a human smuggling ring.

What makes this story more interesting to me is the elephant in the room that’s being called out through the testimony of the defense’s witnesses (3 employees of MLB teams): Major League Baseball – more specifically personnel from teams – know this is going on, and they have real incentive to know the moment a defector player is free to sign.

To assume personnel from teams are not aware of where and when players have defected – and who is helping them – is quite a leap for me. They know something illegal is happening, they know when it’s happening, and they know who’s facilitating the illegal activity. I believe this. And if I believe this, then I have to believe personnel from MLB teams also are aware that the people who help players defect also demand a cut of a player’s contract. In other words, there’s a bunch of illegal activity going on, MLB knows about it, and likely is smart enough to not ask any questions.

The players want to get out of Cuba to earn a life-changing amount of money for themselves and their families. Guys like Hernandez and Estrada help them, and are compensated for doing so. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. The players are put in a position of zero leverage, even after they successfully defect, and they can be held hostage until they agree to have a specific agent represent them (an agent like Hernandez, who is accused of more or less running the smuggling ring). People have been murdered over this cottage industry. Players face the threat of constant kidnapping while waiting to enter the United States. Yasiel Puig’s defection story, for instance, which we featured way back on May 11, 2014, is nothing short of a nightmarish thriller.

Of course the three team employees that have testified say they had no knowledge of the smuggling ring, and it’s mere coincidence that they happen to send over terms of the contract via email or have phone calls with Hernandez the very day players just happened to have entered the U.S.. Make of that what you will. At least they are being asked the questions under oath. – PAL

Source: MLB Execs Testify They Had No Idea Cuban Players Were Entering Country Illegally”, Francisco Alvarado, Deadspin (3/8/17)



Beer and Loathing in Scottsdale, a Guest Article

Scottsdale, Arizona–what a town eh? All the charm of a Kirkland-brand downtown Disney, combined with Cabo at a Nascar event. Sorry Portland and Austin, tattoos, beards and craft beer don’t really move the needle these days; Scottsdale is weird.

Copy/Pasted between the McDowell Mountains, sprawling across dramatic desert terrain, Scottsdale is a city that shouldn’t exist. But it does. For one reason. Spring Training Baseball.

Every year at the end of February, 15 Major League teams send a hodgepodge of superstars, journeyman, and future P.E. teachers down to the desert to get in playing shape for the upcoming season. I get why the players like it: hanging with your bros, a chance to impress and make the team, a break from the missus, I don’t know, get paid to play a child’s game. Sign me up.

But fans; why do we give a shit? Well, the #MAGA and/or bleeding-heart answer is James Earl Jones’ speech in Field of Dreams (“Because baseball Ray!”). And that may be true for a good handful of folks. However, the real reason is much much simpler–grab-ass. Even the “have a catch, dad?” people give in to a little grab-ass when it comes to Spring Training.

I know, I know, grab-ass is fun to say, and even as I write this, thinking about the term “grab-ass” makes me understand dad’s so much more (I know TOB is lickin’ his chops at the first time he gets to tell the kids to ‘quit playin grab-ass’). “But what are you actually talking about?” Right? I’m talking about those old black and white videos of players in baggie pants at their knees playing pepper, Babe Ruth taking BP in his long johns, goofy team exercises–that’s what we think about when we think of Spring Training. It’s a wonderful Norman Rockwell of what used to be, but that Spring Training no longer exists. Being an athlete is a year-round job, and for most of these guys, it has been since childhood, and even more influential is the business of professional sports. There’s no time for grab-ass when you’re an $18 million/year investment.

I don’t know how this evolved, what the turning point was, I remember a Sports Illustrated cover with Ryne Sandberg with some shocking headline about him making $6 million a year. Less than two decades later ARod would be making 4x that much. Maybe that was it. Fuck ARod. Anyway, point is, the fans have picked up the slack in the grab-ass department and that is why you go to Scottsdale, Arizona every spring; to escape the cold, lay by a pool, get drunk around some grass, then wander the streets high-fiving and arguing about anything you can possibly have an opinion about. – Rowe

TOB: Bravo, sir! Thank you for the contribution. You raise a good point about Spring training. It’s unnecessary for probably 90% of players these days. Maybe pitchers need it to get their arms ready after months of rest, but for everyone else – there’s too much money and they need to be in shape year round. But at this point Spring Training is Too Big to Fail. Fans come in drove and spend a buttload of money. There are dozens of stadiums across Arizona and Florida that exist solely for Spring Training. The hotels make a killing. The sports writers friggin loooooove it. Why the hell do sportswriters love Arizona so much? Phoenix is probably the worst city I’ve ever been to. I have zero desire to go back. And, I don’t really get the appeal – the tickets are not really any cheaper than  a regular season game. You see the best players generally play 2 innings before sitting down. It’s hot as balls, and you’re in a weird, flat land of endless strip malls. Meh. I’ll save my money and go to Giants game during the regular season.  As a counter point, is our video of the week below.

PAL: Do we have another Hunter S. on our hands here, folks? A little stream-of-conciousness thing going on here. Never seen that before. 1-2-3 Sports! gave Rowe a simple task: Go down to Spring Training and provide a report, and he comes back with this “grab-ass” aria.

Call me crazy, but I need to know if the Giants bullpen is improved, or if they will be historically bad again in the prime of a damn good lineup of Panik, Posey, Belt, Crawford, Pence, and kind-sorta Span.

Stop chasing Pulitzers on my watch, Mr. Rowe.

Had to haze him a little bit. Of course I like the flavor, Rowe. And ‘grab-ass’ is a great phrase. I think I’ll work it into a couple conversations at work today.

Video of the Week: 

PAL Song of the Week: Michael Kiwanuka (playing The Fillmore on May 19)- “Love & Hate”

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Email: 123sportslist@gmail.com

Twitter: @123sportsdigest


“Every Day, for eight years, I have brought pepper spray into this office. And every day, for eight years, people have laughed at me. Well, who’s laughing now?”

-D. Schrute

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