Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Gil Meche shocks the world!

During Superbowl week its easy for other sports stories to be overshadowed. I couldn't ignore this one. Gil Meche, 32-year-old pitcher for the Kansas City Royals has retired. He has walked away from a guaranteed $12.4 million dollars that was due to him for the last year of his contract. To put that into perspective, that's enough to buy 2.5 million five-dollar foot longs from subway or 885,714 Hanalei rolls, my favorite sushi dish. It's amazing in today's sports world to see a pro-athlete leave money on the table, especially money that the organization wasn't asking for back.

Earlier this week, I flipped on ESPN and watched contract negotiations get tense between St.Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols and his club. Anyone who has ever covered or dealt with Pujols always says he is a different kind of cat. People around him state how he is a spiritual man who doesn't put money as his priority. Well, we had Pujols give an ultimatum to his Cardinals this week. He either wants a 10-year/275 million-dollar-deal or wants to be a free agent. It was only a few months ago that contract discussions with Derek Jeter and the Yankees got heated and public. The guy who we all thought was the ultimate teammate, turned out to be all about the Benjamin's. There's a big difference between the Yankees and the Cardinals however. The Yankees can afford to overpay for a  36 year old short-stop. The Yankees are baseball's largest market and sports biggest brand. The Cardinals are a mid-market team with limited resources and revenue. The Yankees can spend frivolously on one player and still be competitive.

 If the Cardinals give into Pujols demands, the overall team will suffer. (This is why the Texas Rangers are going to be thankful they didn't lock up Cliff Lee). For the first five years of the deal, Pujols will be worth it. But, think about the back five. Pujols will be 36 years old entering the 2015 season. The past three seasons, we have already seen a slight decline in his production. I emphasize the word slight because he has been the best player in the game for a decade. But, his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in 2010 were all the lowest of his career.

Gil Meche is just a different breed. Meche grew up in the town of Lafayette, Louisiana and money was something that his family didn't empathize as the most important thing in life. Meche got drafted in 1996 and debuted with the Seattle Mariners on July 6, 1999, finishing the season with a 8-4 record. It's not like Meche got drafted, signed a mega-deal, and never produced. He had five winning seasons for the Mariners and the Royals, consistently bad offensive teams.

After missing the 2001 and 2002 season with a frayed rotator cuff, Meche came back to win the 2003 AL comeback player of the year award finishing the season with fifteen wins. In 2006, Meche and the Royals agreed on a 5-year contract worth $55 million, which matched Mike Sweeney's contract as the largest in club history. In 2007, Meche's arm held up and he rewarded his club for their faith in him. He was selected to his first all-star game and posted career highs in ERA (3.67) and innings pitched (216). The following season Meche continued to be the rock of the Royals pitching staff going 14-11 with a 3.98 ERA. The story of 2009 and 2010 was that of more injuries as he spent most of his time on the disabled list. We see this a lot in sports. The player has the will, the drive, and the work ethic but his body says enough. Their bodies fail them for no explicable reason but if for cruddy bad luck. Gil Meche was one of those players. He rehabbed and did all the right things, but his body let him down time and time again.

Anyone who thinks that this is a common tale, that athletes selflessly only take money they earned from their organizations would be sorely mistaken. Injury plagued pitchers like Mark Pryor and Kerry Wood got monumental contracts, never lived up to them, and never looked back. They believed all of the money was deserved, simply because they were major league pitchers. Meche actually wanted to only be paid for the services he provided, paid for what he believed he was worth.

On retiring Meche said," "When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it. Once I realized I wasn't earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn't feel like I deserved it. I didn't want to have those feelings again."

In an interview with ESPN.com's Buster Olney, Meche added, "I didn't want to go try it again for another season and be the guy making $12 million doing absolutely nothing to help their team. Yeah, a lot of people might think I'm crazy for not trying to play and making this amount of money. I don't think I'm ever going to regret it."

Meche will be remembered in the baseball realm as a unselfish hero, a representation of the word team, and an example of how professional athletes should leave the game; with grace and dignity.

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