Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dwight Howard and Baseball Labor Etiquette

(It’s a slow time for baseball. It’s almost Christmas and the Rays are only making minor moves. This post might only be 40% Rays-related, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.)

Imagine you are a seven year-old boy or girl. Imagine the Orlando Magic are the first professional sports team you ever liked. Imagine your mother or father have taken you to several Magic games and you had the time of your life.

Imagine Dwight Howard is your favorite player. Imagine you have a Dwight Howard jersey or t-shirt and Dwight Howard poster on your wall. You haven’t known an Orlando Magic team without Dwight Howard. He has been there your entire life. He is what got you into the Magic.

Then imagine you woke up one morning and the Magic traded Dwight Howard, perhaps to Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps to the New Jersey Nets, perhaps to the Harlem Globetrotters. It doesn’t matter. Your favorite player is no longer on your favorite team.

Players get traded, get released, and their contracts run out and the sign on other teams. That’s part of sports and every kid has to learn that one day. But what happens to the heart of a child when this conversation occurs:

“Mommy, why is Dwight Howard not on the Magic anymore?”

“He didn’t want to play in Orlando anymore, dear.”

“So, he left?”

“Yes dear, he plays in New Jersey now.”

“So he didn’t like Orlando?”

“I guess not, dear.”

“Why didn’t Dwight like it here, Mommy? I like it here. You and Daddy like it here, right, Mommy?”

“Yes, we do, dear.”

“I want to go to New Jersey with Dwight Howard, Mommy. I don’t like it in Orlando anymore.”

Scenarios like this make me glad baseball hasn’t lost its collective mind like basketball has. Rays fans will never be in the same situation as the Magic fans are in currently with Dwight Howard. Baseball players don’t have the leverage or the power of basketball players. And although I am very much against The Man holding people down, it is incredibly bad to have the inmates running the asylum as they do in NBA.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge basketball fan. I think the players are incredibly talented and are exciting and fun to watch. But I hate the power basketball players have and I hate how they can hold teams and fanbases hostage with specific trade demands.

Rays fans have had their hearts broken by players leaving town. Anyone who didn’t hope Carl Crawford could have stayed in a Rays uniform forever is lying. He was the face of our franchise. But most Rays fans were honest with themselves when it came to the team’s economics. Crawford didn’t necessarily want to leave, he had no choice. The Rays couldn’t afford him. Of course, his signing with the Red Sox was not expected, nor appreciated, but Rays fans by and large knew Carl wasn’t going to play in the Trop after October 2010.

This year we face the chance that another of our veteran players, James Shields, could be traded. A Shields trade would be a big deal, but if it happens it would be team-driven. Shields, as far as I know, doesn’t want to be traded. He has never once said he wanted to play with Crawford, another pitcher, or even his cousin, Marlins outfielder Aaron Rowand.

The only Rays player comparable to Dwight Howard in wins and from a public relations standpoint would be Evan Longoria. (Yes, Zobrist was statistically more valuable. But if he was traded, although most analytical Rays fans would bang their heads against a wall, most fans would shrug.) But besides the fact that Longoria is locked into an amazing team-friendly contract, the only way the Rays would trade him is if in the last year of his contract the contract was so team-unfriendly compared to his production that the Rays saw it best to move him. The Rays have a better chance of Longoria wanting to renegotiate his contract than him requesting a trade. And even if he requested a trade to a specific team, the Rays front office would go for the best deal. I would guarantee that.

That said, what would happen if Longoria wanted to renegotiate? Would he hold out? Would he have a leg to stand on considering he signed the contract three years ago? I’m far from a sports law expert, but I don’t think the Players Association would stand alongside Longo as he pickets his contract. And Evan Longoria sitting out until he earns more money would not win him any fans in the Bay area.

Maybe a comparison of Howard with the superstars of the Rays isn’t exactly fair. Although Shields was an all-star and one of the best pitchers in the American League last year, he is only a starting pitcher. Using the most cumulative metric, Shields was worth 6.1 wins above replacement according to The Rays won 91 games. Simple math says that replacing Shields with a replacement-level pitcher, i.e. someone who was good enough to be promoted to the Majors, but not good enough to contribute, would have meant the Rays would have won only 85 games.

Howard, on the other hand, had a 14.4 win share in 2010 according to Again using simple math, Howard was doubly more important to the Magic than Shields was to the Rays in 2011. And 14 wins in the NBA is 17% of the season during a normal 81-game season. Shields would have had to be worth nearly 30 wins for him to match Howard’s importance to the Magic. That’s almost statistically impossible in baseball, since Babe Ruth was only person to break 14 wins over replacement since 1920. So dare I say Howard is worth two Babe Ruths to the Orlando Magic?

Maybe Howard has a point that he is carrying more than his share of the load for the Magic. Maybe he needs help. Maybe Magic general manager Otis Smith has done a poor job of roster management. Maybe Howard would be closer to a championship if he played somewhere else. Maybe he really would like to play with his friends or with some desired teammate. That’s his opinion and he is entitled to it.

But I don’t feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for Magic fans. Especially the kids.