I’ve always been told loyalty is an honorable trait to have. It speaks of a person’s character and can be a window into how a person will react when times get rough. In fact, the definition says it all:
noun, plural loyalties.
1. the state or quality of being loyal; faithfulness to commitments or obligations.
2. faithful adherence to a sovereign, government, leader, cause, etc.
3. an example or instance of faithfulness, adherence, or the like: a man with fierce loyalties.
Loyalty in sports can be a tricky thing. The definition of the word can fluctuate, whether you are a fan or a player. For years players have been labeled as “sell outs” or “greedy” whenever they decide to look for greener pastures ($$$$) and head to the highest bidder. But loyalty in baseball should probably be defined differently.
I bring this up because a few Royals fans were not pleased with Eric Hosmer’s decision to sign with the San Diego Padres. Yes, these fans are the minority, but they are a vocal bunch. Obviously there is an emotional attachment to this group of players; I knew this was going to be rough when a part of me felt bad that Jeremy Guthrie was gone. It’s inevitable that winning a championship would make it harder when the business of baseball gets in the way of putting together the big league roster. But that word--business--seems to be the hurdle some have a hard time getting over.
Let’s break this down. When a player is allowed to venture out on the free agent market, they can talk with other teams and see if there is a mutual interest there in working together. It only makes sense that a player would want to gauge how much he is worth. It’s really not any different from if another job talks to you about leaving your current employment and offers you perks that your current job has not.
But baseball has a slight difference: you can’t be a major league player forever. In fact the average length of a major league career is just 5.6 years:
After studying the 5,989 position players who began their careers between 1902 and 1993 and who played 33,272 years of major league baseball, three demographers have come up with an answer: On average, a rookie can expect to play major league baseball for 5.6 years.
Their study, which is being published in the August issue of Population Research and Policy Review, also found that one in five position players would play only a single season.
Fewer than half of all rookies remain long enough to play a fifth year. And only about 1 percent of players last 20 seasons or more.
Cognizant that pitchers are more prone to injuries and have volatile careers, the authors, William Witnauer of the State University of New York at Buffalo and Richard Rogers and Jarron Saint Onge of the University of Colorado, excluded them from the study. They also excluded 618 players who made their debut after Sept. 1 and played only that season.
The authors found advantages in starting a major league career early. The probability of ending a career after one year is 10 percent for players starting at age 20, but rises to 13 percent for players who start at 21, and 36 percent for players who start at 28.
With the averages not boding well for a long, lengthy career for a large chunk of players reaching the majors, that would mean the wise decision is to make as much money as humanly possible while you can. You never know when an injury or illness could swing around and not only hurt your value but also hurt your chances of continuing your career.
So it’s easy to see why most players want to make as much money as possible when they head out on the free agent market. Take Lorenzo Cain for example. Cain has dealt with numerous leg issues over the years and will be entering his age 32 season this year. While he might have been able to take a shorter deal for more money per year, Cain went with a 5-year deal in Milwaukee this winter. It made more sense for Cain to go with a long-term deal rather than a shorter one where he would end up back on the market at an older age. At that point, who knows where Cain’s value would be and if injuries would hurt his chances of procuring a deal similar to what he received this past offseason.
What that means is I will never fault a player for getting as much money as they can out on the market. I also wouldn’t question their loyalty to the organization, since that is a two-way street. Sure, Hosmer and Cain could have possibly returned to Kansas City on lesser deals, but why? A sense of loyalty from what they have done these past seven years? While it might be looked at by some as a noble gesture if they had stayed, logically it would make no sense. The Royals this winter weren’t financially in a position to offer the contracts that the Brewers or Padres offered, let alone whether those deals would make sense for the Royals long-term.
The honest truth is that while it is great when players like George Brett or Alex Gordon stay with one team for the duration of their career, you can’t fault a player for wanting to milk as much as they can from the market. This doesn’t mean they are disloyal to the team they left nor does it mean they disliked the team, organization or even the fans; it just means they did what was best for them and their family.
I expect Royals’ fans will give a healthy standing ovation the next time Eric Hosmer or Lorenzo Cain return to Kauffman Stadium and they should. Both players were a big part of the rejuvenation of baseball in Kansas City over these last couple of seasons. But if you boo these players you might want to think about what you would do in that situation. It’s easy to say you would take less money to stay in a comfortable place like Kansas City, but would you still feel that way if your career was winding down or if you had the opportunity at a mega-contract?
At the end of the day baseball is a business and as we have seen this offseason, it can sometimes be a cold, heartless, ruthless business to those looking for a job. While on the surface the idea of a player staying in one spot and being loyal sounds great, the reality is a lot murkier than that. Temper expectations, try to look at the situation from someone else’s point of view and enjoy the time you have with your favorite players. Hopefully if you are loyal to your team, they will be loyal to you.