That awkward time, when more than enough days have passed, when it hasn’t quite worked out as you originally planned, when it’s time to cut bait, draw anchor, find shore and go shopping for new hooks. Maybe the relationship wasn’t bad, wasn’t contentious, wasn’t malformed, didn’t leave anyone particularly heartbroken and kept all parties happy and smiling as the tie was severed. Maybe the tie wasn’t even particularly long or strong or intended to be anything other than a temporary situation, even calling it a business, it still doesn’t seem to assuage the awkwardness of the situation. Especially when you find someone new and you know the time is right to move on from the old, hoping that the latest prospect will “complete you.”
No, I’m not talking about your high school sweetheart, your old girlfriend or even your new one. I’m talking free agency and the open trade window in Major League Baseball.
But like some of those relationships so near their end, there is a tendency to hold on for far longer than advisable. And with the excitement of the new, the impressive smile of a potential replacement, its allure can sometimes cause an overvalue of their worth. Sure, when your drunken weekends of partying and sleeping in late are the only thing on the line, a bad choice is only a phone call away from being remedied. When you’re a small market baseball team, the game is played at much higher stakes. Can’t afford to wake up with a bad case of coyote ugly or let that perfect someone walk away.
We’re not talking about the little moves that fans see as completely pointless and ownership sees as what’s possible because of budget restraints, the Renterias, the Lewis’s, the Hermidas, the Isringhausens, etc… But on the bigger moves, the ones that truly send the franchise on one path or the other, we fans are a fickle bunch and prone to overreactions (we aren’t short for fanatical just for the fun of it), leaving us to clamor for moves that are both unwise and unhelpful. And on the opposite end of the spectrum is ownership. Change as it may from decade to decade, they operate fairly consistently as a pseudo-business with little regard to fanatical fanfare, as frustrating as that sometimes is.
Like when two of the best hitters to don the red and white attire are shipped off to AL teams with little in return to show for it. To put a name on those perfect little someones that ownership let so easily walk away: Frank Robinson and Josh Hamilton.
Robinson held a lot of ill will toward the Reds for trading him away as part of almost a personal vendetta and he felt jaded when he was described by his team’s owner as past his prime, even though he’d given so much. I wasn’t alive when that boneheaded move was made, but I would like to think that had I been a cognizant being, I would have chirped in with the gaggle of people who instantly recognized it as folly, Milt Pappas perhaps being the lone detractor who thought it was a good move. This farewell lacked any bit of magnanimous behavior on the part of the Reds ownership of the time and gave off an aura of bitter ex-lover who didn’t know quite what they had until it was off earning triple crowns, MVPs and beating them in the 1970 World Series.
A little more understandable, at least from the theory aspect, was Josh Hamilton to the Rangers for a guy with great stuff and a cool hair cut. The Reds thought they had outfielders aplenty, sluggers Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, but they needed pitching and Texas had a guy for them. Looking back, the fact that Hamilton turned into a superstar, stayed mostly healthy and trouble free, won an MVP and lead his team to back to back World Series appearances while Volquez managed one all star season, a Tommy Johns surgery and an inconsistent return, hindsight would land this one in the “one that got away” category. It wasn’t a bad trade at the time, but it has worked hard against that tag ever since. And imagining an outfield that featured the defense of Hamilton, Stubbs and Bruce with a batting order that had Hamilton situated somewhere around Votto, why, it’s enough to make you swoon in delight.
But what of your classic coyote ugly scenarios, finding yourself involved with someone who seemed so pleasant and such a great fit during the night of drinking, but now reveals themselves in the morning light to be ugly enough that gnawing your own arm off instead of waking them seems a good trade off? To put a name to those that looked so appealing under the haze of a few too many: Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.
Both of these players are terrific members of the baseball fraternity and their addition to nearly (repeat: nearly) any team at nearly (repeat: nearly) any time of their careers would have been welcomed. The problems were they were kept on or added to the one team where they didn’t fit or didn’t belong at such a high price.
Junior was that kid who grew up in Cincinnati, made a splash in Cincinnati high school ball, and then became a nationwide superstar comparable perhaps only to Nick Lachey. Okay, he was bigger to baseball than boy bands were to music, but the biggest problem with either was the lack of substance surrounding them. Take away the verses, the almost digestible voices and the violation of humanity during their annoying dance breaks, the boy band explosion was left with catchy hooks and a few syncopated head bobbing beats. Similarly, and through no fault of his own, when Junior was healthy, the ownership did nothing to surround that hook and beat with anything that could sell a million records or get the team to the promised land. Sure, they weren’t going to add the likes of Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens and turn the first notes of a hit into a nationwide radiobuster, but what they surrounded Griffey with would have left even the “best” boy band song on the outside of the pop charts. And when he was injured, the bad relationship turned worse.
And then there was the hometown hero along the likes of Pete Rose, the born and bred Cincinnatian who brought the city a championship, was one of the best at his position, and always seemed to be near the top of the league in accolades between All Star nods, silver sluggers, golden gloves and even an MVP. And maybe it was all the awards that weighed Larkin down because he also had quite a collection of stints on the disabled list. And while the relationship wasn’t quite coyote ugly in terms of needing to break it off, what most Reds fans clamored for and what ownership eventually capitulated to, 3 years, $27 million, made it an expensive situation for a guy who was no longer just that perfect someone. The Reds had a great number of needs and committing that much to an injury proned player did not do their franchise any favor, especially under the administration that wasn’t funneling most of the profits back into the team. Larkin did have decent statistics in those final years, nice batting average even if his OPS was lower than you’d like, but he finished his career playing in 45 games, then 145, then 70, then 111. For that type of performance, you’d expect a cheaper date.
As the Reds take the plunge into this year’s free agent and trading crop, it’s important to both remember these past follies and not be defined by them. There’s no doubt the current team needs to be upgraded and at multiple positions. There is also little doubt that the Reds can’t afford to make a big splash in free agency outside of the Edgar Renterias and Fred Lewis’s of the world. But whether they’re looking to add (or subtract), they need to make sure they’re not looking at things through beer goggles or with a grudge. If Brandon Phillips is not going to sign for a Larkin-esque deal ($9-10m per is manageable in this day and age), then it may be time to sever the ties that bind after this year’s option is played out. If you can afford the cost, Joey Votto might be the perfect fit who may make it worth expanding your budget. But above all else, the Reds simply can’t afford to become enamored with relationships that look like the “wake up together every morning” types and then find out the arm is a little harder to chew through than you thought. Someone pull the liquor from the mini-bar. No beer goggles needed.