I love Bernie Williams. I want to get that out there right up front.
In his 16 seasons in pinstripes, Williams has represented his team with class and distinction. He put together five consecutive MVP-caliber years between 1996 and 2000, during which his on-base percentage didn't dip below .391 or his slugging percentage below .535. He roamed center field like a gazelle (granted, a gazelle who triple-skipped throws to home plate).
By most any objective or subjective criteria, he had a more successful Yankee career than Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Paul O'Neill and Don Mattingly -– and I say this as a guy who will give serious consideration to "Mattingly" as a name for his first son.
|Allowing Pedro Martinez to leave was probably smart for the BoSox. (Getty Images)|
I realize all this puts me at odds with a sizable percentage of Yankees fans, many of whom spend their idle hours wondering why Alex Rodriguez can't be more like grittyguttyscrappy Scott Brosius, he of the .745 career OPS. But it speaks to a larger point, one that has become all the more striking as teams wonder why older teams tend to run out of gas come August: In Major League Baseball, sentimentality will kill you.
This holds true in several of the other major sports as well –- witness Brett Favre, throwing off his back foot into quadruple coverage, as the blissfully nostalgic fans of Wisconsin chant, "One more year!" In baseball, however, with its guaranteed contracts, the damage tends to be more pronounced. Ask the Rockies how well their big-dollar, until-death commitment to Todd Helton is working out for them.
The most successful franchises of this decade have been the ones least afraid to piss off fans by making decidedly unsentimental decisions that are in the club's best interest. Atop this list sit the Red Sox and their crack team of number-crunchers, budgeteers and fair-cheeked wonderboys. After claiming its first title since the advent of water, the team didn't rest on its hard-won laurels. Rather, it tried to -– get this -– improve.
Everyone in Red Sox Land wanted to bask in the glow of the 2004 title team, but the front office saw things a little differently. They failed to cede to Pedro Martinez's demand for a long-term deal and looked positively provident when he broke down 15 months into his Mets tenure. They let Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera walk, and eventually parted company with hirsute hero Johnny Damon, valiant base-stealer Dave Roberts, Bronson "Brandon" Arroyo and idjit extraordinaire Kevin Millar.
None of these decisions were particularly popular among the riff-raff, although even the most stubborn sentimentalist had to realize that Millar no longer wielded the bat with much authority. Nonetheless, the Sox brain trust made those decisions and the franchise's future looks more promising, if less huggable, for it. J.D. Drew, who replaces Trot Nixon ("Trottah! Trottah!") in right field, might well be received in Massachusetts as warmly as a Republican presidential candidate, but you can't argue with the baseball logic behind the move. One guy offers more, in every measurable way that matters, than the other. It's pretty simple.
Of the other teams willing to take the short-term PR hit that accompanies a high-profile player/team divorce, the White Sox earned their stripes after their 2005 title by dealing Aaron Rowand (coming off a career season) and ditching Frank Thomas and his lofty sense of self. The A's live to sell high. The Mets let Mike Piazza walk right when the team found itself on the cusp of both contention and relevancy. The Marlins have twice run a title-winning roster through the shredder, though you could argue that they've been motivated less by hard-hearted evaluation than by a desire not to have their office furniture repossessed.
On the other end of the scale sit the Baltimore Orioles (excessive sentimentality, overspending on relief pitching, reclamation projects aplenty ... is there any franchise-behaving-badly list upon which they don't appear?). Over the offseason, they reportedly passed on a deal that would've made the team appreciably better -– Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche for Brian Roberts and Hayden Penn -– because owner Peter Angelos considers Roberts one of his "favorite" players. You get the feeling they'd clear a roster spot for B.J. Surhoff if he felt like lacing up the cleats again.
How about the Astros, forcing their ground-ball pitchers to throw in front of the laterally-challenged Craig Biggio? I realize that Biggio getting his 3,000th hit wearing Astro red-and-gold is a nice story, but the team will sacrifice many a win at the altar of its narrative. And don't forget the Hendry-era Cubs, still hoping against hope that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior will once again shine like the stars they were before Dusty Baker ran them into the ground.
My advice to any team facing a decision on a team icon? Cut bait. Part ways with a player one year too early rather than two years too late. Let your apology to the fans come in the form of a seven-win swing in the right direction, rather than a few empty words.
Besides, clubs needn't worry about incurring long-term damage. We have short memories. In the end, no matter where he plays this season, we'll remember Bernie Williams as a Yankee; so too will we remember Scottie Pippen as a Bull and Emmitt Smith as a Cowboy (actually, much of the U.S. population will remember Emmitt as a ballerina).
There's a lot to be said for loyalty and rooting for the same players year in and year out and all that good stuff, but the reality is that championship banners fly forever. By prompting teams to base tomorrow's decisions on yesterday's glories, sentimentality can prove a serious drag on future success. We'll see if the Yankees have learned that lesson when they're forced to make a decision on Jorge Posada –- 36 at the end of the 2007 season, which makes him roughly 64.5 in catcher years –- nine months from now.