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Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Grizzled Veteran

It used to be that baseball rosters were parabolic in nature. While the Sports Economist and those far more advanced in numbers than I can elaborate better (and perhaps tell me if I've got something), rosters had some type of symmetry to them. There were a few rookies, a predominance of players in their prime, and then a few aging veterans hanging in until the end. The latter were around to rekindle some magic on occasion, to teach the rest of the team how to stay focused and get things done, and to do something critical every now and then.

Parabolic, you say? Well, in addition to that type of parabolic phenomenon taking place, the salary structure also was parabolic. The rookies didn't make much, the players in their prime made the most, and the aging veterans, some of whom were one-time stars but most of whom were not, made somewhere in between (of course, I'll concede that the aging future Hall of Famer might have been a drain on the budget, because he still might have commanded top dollar even if his results didn't justify the absolute amount of his deal). Still, the players who did most of the heavy lifting, as it were, got the money.

It was fun to see guys at the end of the line hanging in there, happy to be there, and sticking around because they loved the game, they needed the game, they might have needed the money, and for the life of them they didn't know what they'd do once their ability declined so much that they no longer could make a team. Okay, so perhaps visions of an age-challenged Willie Mays in the '73 Series playing for the Mets cause the purist fan to shudder, but you know what I mean. A veteran bench populated with guys who produced big-time at one time in their careers gave fans more hope that their team could fare well over a tough stretch than a bench of twenty-fifth men who came cheap and weren't likely to be remembered.

That was then.

Nowadays, with the salary structures being what they are, most of the grizzled veterans, in fact, don't stay around, for one of a variety of reasons. First, some make enough money to walk away from the game at a reasonably young age, so that they can spend more time with their families than hang around as marginal players. Second, these folks might typically command more money than your Joe McEwings, Jeff Mantos and David Newhans, to name a few, so if you're faced with a directive from the top to economize and you're a GM, you'll take a McEwing over, say, a Benito Santiago or Robbie Alomar because the latter aren't going to play that much and there's some guy at AAA who'd love the job and make a lot less. You'd rather put your money on the core of your team than spreading it out so that you're twenty-third man is perhaps the highest paid in the league. True, he could help you win a few games, the reasoning goes, but he won't win a pennant for you. He's the twenty-third man for a reason.

Mark McLemore, Mariano Duncan and Tony Phillips, where are you when we need you?

So, instead of watching the grizzled veteran at the end of a nice career (and, in Alomar's case, a Hall of Fame career in all likelihood), you get the Newhans and McEwings of the world, and you love it when they excel because they represent the little guy out there, the kid who wasn't the first-round pick or who didn't go to the University of Miami to play college ball, and when they do well you get that warm feeling. And that's a pretty good feeling, of course. But it doesn't add the same drama of seeing Pete Alexander pitching out of jams for the Cardinals against the Yankees in the World Series, or Joe Morgan and Tony Perez helping the Phillies win a National League pennant in '83 (for example). The large salaries of today probably have ended that phenomenon.

Except in the Bronx. Where a kid who came up with the Yankees just came aboard again, perhaps ending his career where it began. That's right, the Yankees just got Al Leiter from the Marlins, and they're hoping that he can summon up his pitching mojo one more time and help the Bombers overtake the BoSox and make the playoffs again. He's not the pitcher he once was, but he's a veteran, crafty lefty who might have a few key wins left in him.

Part of the move is desperation. The Yankees have used 11 starters this year and have put many pitchers on the disabled list. Part of it is romantic. My guess is that there were other candidates, but not that many. In Leiter, they get a player who won't be intimidated by the legend of the Yankees, and they'll get a guy who will care what the hometown fans think because he's a North Jersey guy (and former Met to boot). He'll want to go out a winner more than anything. He's made his money, he's pitched for a world champion (the Marlins in '97), and he has nothing more to prove.

Potentially great stuff later in the season, the 39 year-old Leiter pitching against a 37 byear-old Curt Schilling on a Sunday against the Red Sox.

What a match-up of veterans.

That's the way baseball should be in the heat of a pennant race.


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