Free At Last

The New York Times

November 21, 2009

By Doug Glanville

The baseball season is over, and now another game begins the game of free agency. And this is where ...

You can reach the state of free agency in some unhappy ways, like getting released or being demoted to the minors. There are a select few players who end up after they´ve played six years in the majors as free agents with true leverage. But whether you´re a superstar, a dependable starter or a bench player, this may be the only time you can put your toe in the pool and see what you are worth to suitors outside your organization. For the first time in your career, you can choose where you play, or at least choose the best place from among the teams that want you.

When I signed my first professional (minor-league) contract in 1991, little did I know that for the next 10 years I would have to negotiate with only one team, the one I´d played for the year before; the free agent clock only starts when you reach the big leagues. It turned out well enough, but it would have been shocking, as a 20-year-old, to have heard that up front.
So, once free agency is an option, how do you decide whether to leave or stay? Is it really just about the money?

It´s hard to answer that until you´ve been faced with the choice. In my case, I sat down first with the man who had some say in my future.

In fairness to Ed Wade, then the G.M. of the Phillies, he couldn´t have imagined what I was about to say when I walked into his office in late 2002. I had a plan for what I wanted to communicate albeit one that I most likely could not have stuck to, given that my father had been buried less than a month earlier and my mind was not even close to right.

I had a lot to get off my chest. Going into the 2002 season, I was a lifetime .290 hitter with a couple of 100-run seasons, and I was the first Phillie since Pete Rose 20 years earlier to have had a 200-plus-hit season. I was also known for my slow April starts, although that´s water under the bridge when you have the protection of knowing you are in the lineup regardless.

But 2002 was mostly disastrous. I was given up on as a starter prematurely (I thought), losing my job before the heat of the summer to a rotation of outfielders. In 1998, the Phillies had signed me to a three-year deal and after my breakthrough 1999 campaign, when I had a top-10 batting average they watched their investment drop in production each year. It was all downhill, and it didn´t happen gradually.

I was convinced I would have found a way out of my slump I had done it many times. But I understood that one received more latitude as a relatively inexpensive player with "e;potential."e; Now I was supposed to produce, and hitting well below .250 deep into the season with the team rapidly falling behind the first-place Braves prompted desperate measures from our manager, Larry Bowa, and from our front office.

I mentioned to Ed Wade that I wasn´t the only one struggling, that most of our lineup was underperforming. But Travis Lee and I had become examples of shaking things up, and we began to appear in the lineup irregularly. Just like that, I was a role player. I did get a chance to play consistently late in the second half of the season. I don´t know what precipitated the move I was hitting around .200 but, one day, I was back in the lineup. And after a near-.400 tear to close out the year, my average went up to .250. (Amazingly, I passed my teammate Jimmy Rollins in the last week, not to mention getting my 1,000th career hit the last game of the season. The same day my father passed away.)

Before I went in to talk to Ed I had compiled a long list of pitchers I´d been benched against (including Andy Benes and Javier Vazquez) even though I´d always hit them well. This wasn´t typically my style, but I was in a difficult space. I was particularly upset by the notion that we were playing to win all I could think was, "How are we playing to win when you´re benching someone who can hit this pitcher?" Ed was gracious, and listened to everything with patience and understanding, even though I rambled for a couple of hours. I left the meeting knowing that the door was open for me to return to the organization for the upcoming campaign.

The free agent market was ridiculously slow that year. I got what seemed to be the same offer from three teams Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Texas. Those deals would have meant a roughly 75 percent paycut (still great money, but a big cut, nevertheless), and were commensurate with a role-playing outfielder, not the starter I had been during most of my tenure in Philadelphia.

On the other hand, what would staying in Philadelphia mean? My subpar season and the emergence of the next-gen center fielder Marlon Byrd, who´d had a solid year in Triple-A, further muddied the picture. Could I compete for the center field job? Or was it Marlon´s to lose? As I lined up my options, I recognized one unalienable truth: if I couldn´t be assured of playing every day, I at least wanted the opportunity to earn my old job back as a starter.

Then something unexpected and profound happened. I was flying back from a trip and ran into practically the entire Phillies organization front office executives and others at the airport gate in Philadelphia. They were headed to Florida for winter meetings. Because I was still non-committal, it was awkward. Larry Bowa and I were stumped on how to start a conversation. I took that as a sign that maybe I needed to move on.

Of those three teams I spoke to during the trial period (which can last right up to spring training and beyond), only the Rangers emphatically saw me as a starter. So I listened very closely. I noted that their line-up was a run-producing machine, and leading off for a team like that could be just what I needed. Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Carl Everett, Hank Blalock, Michael Young . . . a young Mark Teixeira was even there.

A couple weeks before Christmas, Larry called me. He made his best pitch to get me to stay. I appreciated that call, but I realized right after I hung up that I was leaving.
Or almost realized it. First I had to consult my mentor, the former Phillies center fielder (and one of my childhood favorites) Garry Maddox. He invited me out to a dinner party in Philadelphia.

There he told me to look around at all the party guests, movers and shakers from throughout the city and to look at all the love for me in the room. But I wasn´t feeling it. So he urged me to consider the bigger picture: You might play in Texas, he was basically saying, but here you are home. You live here, you went to college here, you have been a community pillar here for years. As you get older, this is exactly where you want to be. For now and the next phase of your life.

I heard him, and everything he said was true I had built a nice life in a city I had embraced and that had embraced me but Texas was on my mind. Maybe it represented escape from a place where I´d felt such loss my father, my job, maybe my career. So Garry turned to a neutral third party at the dinner. He told her my story, using blanks as characters and paralleling it to her job as an editor at Philadelphia Magazine, and closed by asking her, "Would you leave?"

She said, "No".

But then I took the reins. I set up the same story except I mentioned that you struggled, so your boss buried you in the classified pages last year after you wrote front-page material the years prior. The prospects for this upcoming season look like another year in the classifieds. Then you get a call from another magazine with open arms offering you a chance to get back to the front page.

She said, "Then I would go".

New York Times 11/21/2009


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