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Monday, May 14, 2007
Valuing Loyalty & Situation: Tim Wakefield and The Reserve Clause
Red Sox starting pitcher Tim Wakefield is off to a fantastic start this season, his 13th with the Sox. The 40-year-old knuckleballer leads the American League with 1.73 Earned Run Average. Operating on a one-year contract, he would seem well poised to have a great free agent season.
But Tim Wakefield won't become a free agent after the 2007 season--unless the Red Sox let him, that is. See, in April 2005, Wakefield agreed to a one-year, $4 million contract extension that included a perpetual team option for one-year, $4 million. In other words, the Sox can keep Wakefield for as long as they want (assuming he wants to keep playing baseball), and the team can revisit that decision every year, provided they are willing to pay him $4 million for the next year. If the Sox decline to extend his contract, they don't even owe him a buyout. It should be noted that Wakefield's annual salary does contain several incentive clauses: he receives an additional $50,000 for each start between 11 and 20, and $75,000 for each start between 21 and 30; he can conceivably make up to $5.25 million--still a far cry from the annual base salaries for pitchers like Roger Clemens ($28 million), Barry Zito ($18 million), and Andy Pettitte ($16 million).
Wakefield's contract is essentially a throw-back to an era before Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball in the historic antitrust case Flood v. Kuhn, 401 U.S. 258 (1972). The case arose after then MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn rejected Flood's written request that the reserve clause, which was standard in baseball contracts and allowed teams to retain the rights of players after their contracts expired, should not apply to his employment. Here was Flood's famous letter to Kuhn, in which he likened himself to being treated like a piece of property:
This past March, Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus argued that Wakefield's contract was the worst contract in baseball. By implication, his analysis suggests that Wakefield's contract may be considered a disservice to other players and perhaps even a repudiation of the legacies of Flood and Miller et al.:
[Wakefield's contract] was signed less than two years ago, on April 19th, 2005, by a veteran pitcher who had already made his millions, and who was a free agent at the time. This pitcher, who was about to complete a three-year deal that paid him a little north of $13 million, agreed to a one-year extension worth 4 million dollars--a one-year deal, and a pay-cut, even though said pitcher had just gone 12-10 with a league-average ERA the year before. At the time he signed the extension, he had started the new season 2-0 with a 1.37 ERA; he would finish 16-12 with a 4.15 ERA ...But let's look at the contract from Wakefield's perspective. First consider loyalty (a topic that I examined from a scholarly perspective in my Brooklyn Law Review article "It's Not About the Money"). It can be argued that without the Red Sox, Tim Wakefield's baseball career would have ended in 1995. At that time, he was 28-years-old and coming off a disastrous season for Triple A Buffalo in which he had a 5-15 record, a 5.84 ERA, more walks (98) than strikeouts (83), and 27 home runs given up--worst in Triple A. Sure, he was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1992 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but that was three years earlier; in the interim, he had devolved into one of the worst pitchers in Triple A, and was seemingly destined for another profession--especially after the Pirates unceremoniously released him on April 20, 1995.
But former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette had a different idea. Six days after the Pirates released Wakefield, Duquette signed Wakefield to a minor-league contract and hired Hall of Fame kunckleballer Phil Niekro to work with him.
Wakefield proceeded to pitch extremely well for the Sox' Triple A team in Pawtucket, and was then promoted to Boston--and hasn't look back since. In that 1995 season, Wakefield finished with a 16-8 record, along with a 2.95 ERA, and he was essential to the Sox winning a division title. He also won the AL's comeback player of the year award and finished third in the A.L. Cy Young Award balloting. Since that extraordinary comeback season, Wakefield has been a mainstay in the Sox rotation, and has even pitched out the bullpen when asked. For a guy who was probably close to leaving baseball at age 28, Wakefield almost certainly feels a deep gratitude to the organization that may have saved his baseball career and extended it at least 12 additional years. That has to count for something.
Wakefield also seems to appreciate the situation of playing for the Sox. The team's longest-serving active member, Wakefield is perhaps also its most popular member and seems to thrive living in Boston. He married a woman from Boston and is very close friends with a number of his teammates, including Mike Timlin, with whom he regularly hunts (see photo of Wakefield with his bow and arrow, with Timlin in the background). Put more bluntly, he's got a great gig playing for the Sox and living in Boston. Perhaps that is why he engaged in the following conversation with his agent, Barry Meister, in 2005:
Wakefield's agent, Barry Meister, told the knuckleballer during this past offseason that, given age and productivity, he might command $6 million from some club at the end of the season.But did Wakefield owe a duty to other players to not take a contract with a perpetual team option? We considered players' implied contractual duties to the MLBPA when we examined how the MLBPA pressured Washington Nationals' closer Chad Cordero to turn down a two-year contract offer, and Rick has written extensively about the related topic of using unions to negotiate contracts for players. And we know that three decades ago, many players and union lawyers fought hard against the very type of contract Wakefield signed. Has Wakefield been disloyal to the players' association as a price for being loyal to his employer, and how should we regard that?
Or should we applaud Tim Wakefield for not putting money first and instead putting his loyalty and situation ahead? Who are we--and who is the MLBPA and its members--to question what a player considers "valuable"?