Pedro Martinez. Nomar Garciaparra. Derek Lowe. Jason Varitek. David Ortiz. Scott Williamson.
All these Red Sox players will be free agents at the end of this upcoming season, and management has made it somewhat clear that it will not be able to re-sign all of them. While that cloud looms over the franchise as it enters the 2004 baseball season, each of these players (should they not re-up with the Sox before this fall) will be out to establish career years in order to snare a larger free-agent contract.
As this unsettling scenario plays itself out here in Boston in the coming months, you do not hear any of those players letting loose with tirades against management. Sure, a number of the players listed above are quietly sulking about the slow nature of the contract negotiations and likely turning down legitimate offers that don’t match up to their perceived market value — but they are doing it quietly. They are smart enough to realize that the season ahead is a turning point in the franchise’s history, and they apparently just want to go about their business and perhaps do what no Red Sox team has done in 86 seasons.
Then you have the team that has done what the Red Sox yearn to do. Twice, in fact, after a 42-year march in the wilderness. The New England Patriots, once a laughingstock because of their professional ineptitude on and off the field, are now the NFL’s standard-bearer for how it’s done — how one goes about building and rebuilding a championship squad. And while no team is immune to a hint of disharmony from time to time, the Patriots squad that so embodied the "team" concept since its improbable Super Bowl triumph in 2002 has remained remarkably controversy-free. Oh sure, there was that Lawyer Milloy nonsense back in September, but that shocker soon receded, Milloy showed Bills fans that he is eminently overpaid and not worth the money he insisted upon, and the Patriots went on their late-season run to another Lombardi Trophy.
All was well.
Until nose tackle Ted Washington wanted one more shot at a free-agent contract bonanza, and went to the NFL’s reigning Evil Empire, the Raiders. Washington was reportedly miffed that details of his contract-extension dealings with the Pats got leaked to the press, so the gargantuan free agent instead huffed and puffed his way to the Left Coast. Boo-hoo. Then free-agent center/guard Damien Woody took advantage of the rich economic climate surrounding available players, and signed a six-year, $31 million deal with the Detroit Lions — an unheard-of figure for an NFL interior lineman. On his way out the door, Woody — who is going from the league’s best team to arguably its worst — got in one last less-than-gracious dig at his former employer: "It feels good to be part of an organization [Detroit] that’s really committed, that proves it wants to get it done."
Still, the pursuit of free-agent big bucks is no sin, and every team has been victimized in similar fashion; just because the Patriots were champs didn’t mean they wouldn’t experience defections.
A couple of players gone; no big deal, though. But then the aura of relative peace at New England’s football HQ was shattered by revelations of All-Pro cornerback Ty Law’s unhappiness with his situation. As Law told the Boston Globe, "I no longer want to be a Patriot. I can’t even see myself putting on that uniform again, that’s how bad I feel about playing here."
Let’s get something straight: Law is not a free agent, as were Washington and Woody and recently re-signed RB running back Kevin Faulk. Law is five years into a seven-year, $51 million deal that at the time was the biggest contract for a defensive player in the history of the league. Back then he was probably overpaid as a player with just four years’ credentials, and the fact that he has had a couple of mediocre seasons thrown in since would lead one to believe that he got a pretty fair shake when he inked that deal in 1999. Of course, listening to Law, the Patriots got the better part of the bargain. He has over time "outplayed" that contract, and "it’s a new cornerback market right now, and I need to be at the top of that, too."
Because Law’s upcoming 2004-’05 contract was going to represent $10 million, or about an eighth of the league-stipulated $80.5 million per-team salary cap, the team wanted to lighten the blow of this year’s hit by re-signing the 30-year-old Pro Bowler to a four-year, $26 extension. That, of course, in the world of today’s athletes, was deemed "an insult" and "a slap in the face." (We should all be slapped in this manner.) The offer, which would have guaranteed Law $15.6 million over the next two seasons, was countered by Law’s agent with a seven-year, $63 million contract offer, which would have included a $20 million signing bonus and $28 million over the first three years of the deal. The Patriots wisely decided to halt negotiations, telling Law’s representative that they "didn’t want to insult Ty anymore, so [we’re] not going to submit any more offers" (according to the Globe). To team management, you can only tip your cap and say, "Touché."
That unwillingness to continue talks is what set Law off over the weekend, though he insists that, ho-hum, "it’s not about money" — and the cornerback refuses to accept anything that he perceives as less than what he deserves. As reported, Law said, "If I make $17 million over the next two years, if I’m a Patriot, I’m going to accept $15.6 million [under the terms of the team’s offer]? That’s a pay cut. I said it a thousand times, I’m not taking no pay cut."
There is nothing wrong with seeking the best deal possible, but Law’s hissy fit is ill-timed and goes against the very concept of collaboration that brought the franchise to where it is today. What did he hope to accomplish with this outburst? If he hoped to burn bridges, then he most certainly lit the match. However, he is signed for two more years under this contract. He cannot go anywhere until 2006 without the team’s permission. And despite the contract just signed by 25-year-old cornerback Champ Bailey upon his trade to Denver (seven years, $63 million), Law is very well compensated, has struggled with injuries this past season (although his performance was rarely hindered), and is still widely viewed as the NFL’s premier cornerback. Just because he’s not making as much as the next guy doesn’t mean that he’s not respected or valued, and the Patriots have certainly taken steps over the years to reaffirm his happiness and self-worth.
There is a simple notion at work here that Law apparently does not understand, despite the fact that he’s spent his career on a squad that personifies the team concept. And that is that one player does not a championship win, and no team can succeed in the NFL unless all its components work in harmony. With Law’s upcoming contract taking up one-eighth of the entire team’s salary structure, management may not be able to construct a team comparable to the roster that just won Super Bowl XXXVIII. Law seems unwilling even to consider the idea of restructuring his existing contract so that his comrades and perhaps future teammates can be equally compensated. Do you think that Law would have snagged all those career interceptions — including the stunning pick and TD return off Kurt Warner in the 2002 Super Bowl — if guys like Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, and Richard Seymour were not pressuring the quarterbacks into ill-advised tosses? Law presumably wants to keep playing for a winner, but can the Patriots franchise remain a winner if it shortchanges guys like Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Adam Vinatieri, Seymour, Vrabel, McGinest, and so on — all integral parts of a team that has won a pair of championships in recent years? Washington and Woody have already fled the premises, and who’s to say that they wouldn’t have stayed had Law’s cap number not been so dominant and inflexible?
The situation is undoubtedly more complicated, but certain aspects are inarguable: that one player is putting himself ahead of the good of the rest of the team; that one player has an ego that is running rampant, proving that he, like many other star athletes of today, just doesn’t get it; and that one player sees fit to stir up what should be the calm waters on which the Super Bowl champs are honeymooning in anticipation of the upcoming NFL draft.
Ty Law can chatter on all he wants, but his greed and selfishness are sabotaging the long-range objectives of this team, even while the team appears to be biting the bullet and handing out an outrageous percentage of this year’s salary-cap tab to just one player — albeit a pretty damn good one.
But that pretty damn good player has flourished within the scheme of a well-tuned and precisely constructed machine, and no single cog should be allowed to upset its delicate balance.
So if the team continues to inflict such rude "slaps in the face," perhaps shipping him off to the likes of San Diego, Chicago, or Buffalo would provide the whack that knocks some sense into him.
"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: March 15, 2004
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