The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse (8 page)

BOOK: The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
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After months of failed negotiations,
it took Kasten and Henry just fifteen minutes to agree to the most expensive trade in baseball history. When the deal was done, Kasten returned to the lobby and flashed a thumbs-up to Walter, who was in the middle of his interview and snuck a glance at his lieutenant over the reporters’ shoulders. The two journalists had no idea what had just gone down.

Ned Colletti wasn’t even in the state of Colorado.

Eleven days after the Denver summit, after medical records were reviewed and the Red Sox finalized the list of young prospects they wanted from the Dodgers, the two sides announced the trade. In the nine-player deal, the Dodgers got Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto
in exchange for James Loney and a package of minor leaguers that included pitcher Allen Webster, outfielder Jerry Sands, infielder Ivan DeJesus, and, the gem of the deal, the Dodgers’ top right-handed pitching prospect, Rubby De La Rosa. To complete the trade, Los Angeles also took on a staggering $250 million in player salary. In Gonzalez, the Dodgers got the slugging first baseman they craved to anchor their lineup. In Beckett, they landed a veteran starting pitcher whose brilliant early career included being named the World Series MVP at age twenty-three after leading the Marlins to an improbable championship over the mighty Yankees. They also got an
injury-prone player on the wrong side of thirty who had posted a 5.23 ERA in Boston that season. Beckett was owed a cool thirty-five million bucks over the next two years, and it was doubtful he’d be worth half that.

Crawford, a speedy left fielder, had also been miserable in Boston. After he had spent his entire career in Tampa Bay, the Red Sox had signed him to a massive contract following an intense round of free agent bidding before the 2011 season. And like Gonzalez, he never fit. A tremendous high school athlete in Houston in the late nineties, Crawford received a scholarship offer from the University of California, Los Angeles, to play point guard for its basketball team, and an offer from Nebraska to run the read option at quarterback. After mulling his options, Crawford chose to skip college when the Devil Rays took him in the second round of the 1999 draft and offered him a $1.2 million signing bonus to play baseball instead.

For the most part, life in Tampa was good for Crawford. The Rays had called him up at age twenty and made him their full-time left fielder and leadoff hitter when he was just twenty-one. By twenty-two he’d made his first All-Star team, and led the American League in stolen bases (55) and triples (19). He stole six bases in a game against the Red Sox in 2009, tying the modern major-league record. For someone so fast his bat had a noble amount of pop in it, too. During his last year in Tampa, Crawford hit a career-high nineteen home runs. That off-season he was considered to be one of the best players on the free agent market, and the Angels were among the teams that had courted him. Still, when the Red Sox signed him that December to a seven-year deal worth $142 million—the second-richest contract ever for an outfielder—it was a bit of a surprise. Boston’s lineup was already full of expensive talent, and the club had traded for Gonzalez just two days earlier.

The Red Sox didn’t part with that money freely. In an interview with a local radio affiliate during Crawford’s first spring training with the team, Epstein divulged that the club had conducted a thorough
background check on the left fielder before backing up the Brinks truck to his door. “We covered him as if we were privately investigating him,” Epstein told listeners. “We had a scout on him literally the last three, four months of the season at the ballpark, away from the ballpark.”

That revelation unnerved Crawford.
“I’m from an area where if somebody’s doing that to you they’re not doing anything good,” Crawford told Boston reporters. “I definitely look over my shoulder now a lot more than what I did before. The idea of him following me everywhere I go, was kind of—I wasn’t comfortable with that at all.”

Being watched by anyone was something Crawford wasn’t used to in Tampa. In his first six seasons with the Rays, the club finished last in the American League in attendance. Those Tampa squads were terrible, but it’s not as if the city embraced baseball as soon as the team started winning. In 2008 the Rays rode an incredible season all the way to the World Series. Their stellar play was rewarded with a third-to-last-place finish in attendance in the AL. For almost a decade, Carl Crawford was the human embodiment of a tree falling in the woods and making no sound: he was the best baseball player that no one saw.

Crawford liked to tell a story about an experience that summed up the anonymity afforded to a player who stars for the Tampa Bay Rays. One day he was hanging out with teammates in the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field when members of the Tampa police department turned up looking for him.

“Carl Crawford?” one asked.

“Yeah,” Crawford said.

“We need to talk to you about the Navigator,” said the officer.

“What Navigator?” asked Crawford.

“Well, earlier today a man walked into a dealership in town and said his name was Carl Crawford and asked to test-drive a Navigator and never came back,” said the officer.

Crawford was confused. He told the cops he’d never driven a Navigator in his life. As it turned out, a crafty car burglar wearing Crawford’s
jersey had taken a gamble on a Tampa Lincoln dealer having no clue what the best player on the city’s baseball team looked like. It worked.

That sort of caper would never fly in Boston. Even the thickest thief in the state of Massachusetts wouldn’t be dumb enough to pose as a member of the vaunted Red Sox. When he signed with Boston, Crawford knew he was going to go from playing in an empty stadium to suiting up in front of a packed house of die-hard fans every night. Realizing how uneasy the revelations about Crawford’s private life had made his new star player, Epstein backtracked and insisted he misspoke; that the team acquired information in the same way it did on every free agent in its sights. But the damage was done. Crawford’s tenure in Boston began on a sour note, and in the season and a half he spent with the Sox he never grew comfortable.

In some ways, however, Crawford might have gotten too comfortable.
He later told a teammate that he felt like the Rays strung him along for years toward a big payday that never came. His desire to earn the huge money that many of his peers enjoyed drove him to play hard every day. But as soon as he signed his fat contract with Boston he confided in friends that he found it difficult to keep his edge. Crawford still wanted to be great but his motivation was buried somewhere, deep under his millions. He didn’t like that about himself, but it was the truth.
“That guy used to terrorize us with his bat and his speed when he was in Tampa,” said one player who faced Crawford when he was with the Rays and later became his teammate. “But after he went to Boston it was like, how is this the same player?”

A career .300 hitter, Crawford hit just .255 while he battled a wrist injury during his first year with the Red Sox. His on-base percentage plummeted from .356 in 2010 to an awful .289 the following season, and his slugging percentage also fell ninety points. While the number of times he struck out (104) remained identical to the season before, the number of walks he took halved from 46 to 23. More troubling: his stolen base total nosedived from 47 to 18. Every ballplayer’s speed declines as he ages, but this drop-off was staggering. Crawford was just
twenty-nine years old when he signed with the Red Sox. His legs were his livelihood.

The 2012 season brought even more injury trouble. And after appearing in only thirty-one games, Crawford was shut down for the rest of the year with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. Of this time in Boston, Crawford said:
“For two years I was afraid to smile. Everyone was so uptight.”

“I started growing grey hairs on my face from the stress,” he told
USA Today
. “Deep down, it’s like I know I can still play baseball but after being told how much you suck for two years straight, it kind of messes with your mind.”

But for as much as he wanted out of Boston, Crawford knew the odds of that happening were slim. Not only was his body battered, but he was also still owed $109 million on his current contract. Even if he were healthy and back to torturing other teams with his power and speed, there were only a few clubs in baseball that could afford to take on such a salary commitment, and everyone knew he was no longer worth the money he was due. The severity of his injury meant that in order to be liberated from Boston, Crawford would have to find a team that was both rich enough to pay his fee and crazy enough to want to. Had the Dodgers not been so hell-bent on getting Gonzalez, Crawford might not have gotten out.
“I was completely shocked,” Crawford said, of when he was told he was traded. “I thought I was gonna be stuck in Boston for seven years.”

Forty-eight hours before the trade was announced, Crawford had Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow. The estimated recovery time was six to nine months.

•  •  •

After the Boston deal was finalized, a giddy Walter was so excited to bring the players he just bought to Los Angeles that he sent a private jet to Boston to retrieve them. The trade with the Red Sox had added a quarter of a billion dollars in salary to the team’s payroll through the 2018 season. Walter didn’t look at it that way.
“I broke it down into
years and just saw it as thirty-five million over seven years,” he said. “Which really isn’t that bad.” Still, if he was going to pay that much to get Gonzalez, then by God his bat was going to be in the starting lineup that night.

Walter, Kasten, and Colletti were just as surprised as the players that the trade went through. Crawford and Beckett posed no real threat to wrecking the deal because their contracts were too enormous for teams to want to take on. But for the Dodgers to be able to successfully claim Gonzalez, every single American League team had to pass on the chance to pluck him off the waiver wire, and then so did all the NL clubs with a worse record than Los Angeles’s. Though Kasten knew that only a handful of teams would be able to afford the money left on Gonzalez’s deal, if one of those clubs did claim the first baseman then the entire trade would be blown. He told Walter he thought the Dodgers had a 50 percent chance. When Colletti sent an email to Walter with the final word on whether their waiver claim of Gonzalez had been successful,
Walter was so nervous that he let it sit unread in his inbox for half an hour. The news was good.

Shortly after word of the trade broke, Gonzalez, Beckett, and Punto were already making their way west. In a nod to his new Southern California address, Gonzalez wore a soft blue T-shirt with a beaming Mickey Mouse emblazoned across his chest. The city’s sports fans were ecstatic. Some Dodger fanatics even tracked the plane’s flight path online. While Crawford remained in Florida to recover from his surgery, the three able-bodied players were ushered into Dodger Stadium ninety minutes before the game, after the team had already taken batting practice. Their late arrival caused some harried moments for the Dodgers’s clubhouse attendants, but because the team had been working on the deal for weeks, the rush to prepare uniforms for the new players wasn’t as frantic as when Los Angeles had traded with the Red Sox for Manny Ramirez four years earlier. On that day, the Dodgers’ clubhouse manager, Mitch Poole, ran out of time and was
forced to spray-paint Ramirez’s navy blue glove a royal Dodger blue
before he took the field. Poole had run the Dodgers’ clubhouse for almost thirty years, and even tossed Kirk Gibson his warm-up pitches in the team’s underground batting cage before Gibson hit his famous pinch-hit home run off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. That these three Boston players were being shuttled across the country by private jet and chauffeured to the stadium in a fancy SUV made Poole chuckle. When the Dodgers traded Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, and Bobby Bonilla in 1998, Poole was handed the keys to a beat-up van and told to retrieve the ex-Marlins from the airport.
The van’s tire treads were worn so thin he worried it wouldn’t make the twenty-five-minute ride.

Gonzalez found his locker, said hello to his new teammates and coaches, threw on his uniform, located his equipment bag, which housed his gloves and cleats, snuck in a few quick swings in the team’s underground batting cage, then ran out onto the field and introduced himself to the patch of dirt to the right of first base that would be his home for at least the next six seasons.

When he dug in to the batter’s box for his first at-bat at Dodger Stadium the crowd roared. The score was knotted at one, and the home team had runners on first and third with no out. Marlins veteran right-hander Josh Johnson stepped off the rubber, turned his back to the plate, and sighed. Miami’s pitching coach, Randy St. Claire, trotted from the dugout to the mound to try to settle Johnson down. Gonzalez wandered out of the box, snapping his bubble gum and tugging a handful of his crisp white jersey out from his belt. With nobody out, the runner on third was a lost cause. Johnson’s best bet was to forget about him and focus on getting Gonzalez to ground into a double play. The Marlins’ shortstop and second baseman moved back toward the cut of the grass to set up for the 6-4-3, or the 4-6-3, or any other type of twin killing.

Johnson guessed that Gonzalez, revved up by the crowd noise, was looking fastball. He was right. Johnson threw a first-pitch curveball and
Gonzalez swung way out in front of it and spun around on his heels, fouling it into the stands off first. Strike one. After greeting him with a hook, Johnson thought he could sneak the next pitch by him. Gonzalez was ready. With the count 0-1, Johnson reared back and fired a fastball down the center of the plate. Gonzalez crushed it through the shadows. It landed in sunlight, thirty feet behind the right-field fence, a million miles from Boston. Dodger fans, so demoralized by the depressing McCourt years, saw the promise of better days ahead in one sweet swing. Of course, Gonzalez wouldn’t do that in every at-bat. Still, that home run may have meant more to the organization than any since Gibson’s. The 2012 Dodgers squad wouldn’t make the postseason. But Gonzalez’s homer did something just as important: it closed the book on the McCourts forever.

BOOK: The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
8.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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