M's most crucial call is A-Rod's
Seattle Times staff reporter
ALEX RODRIGUEZ becomes a free agent the day after the World Series. The Mariners have won his respect, but can they keep his heart? Seattle must wait and see.
Seattle fans hope the Mariners take them where they have never been before, beyond the upcoming American League Championship Series.
A less obvious rationale is to delay what comes after the World Series - the free-agent filing period. The latter may be only slightly less crucial to Seattle fans and the franchise than playing for the world championship.
At some point in that 15-day window that begins the day after the Series ends, and possibly forever, Alex Rodriguez will not be a Seattle Mariner. There is nothing the Mariners can do to forestall this.
The talented shortstop, who carries the mantle of franchise player with Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson gone and Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner on the back side of their careers, is going to free agency.
"He is going to be a free agent," Scott Boras, Rodriguez's agent, said last week when the club was in Anaheim. "The reason is simply that he is intrigued by the idea of seeing the mystery of free agency from the inside. It is something he has wanted to resolve in his mind."
On the surface, this appears to be a most genteel way of saying Alex wants to test the market. Hearing Boras' description of the situation, Seattle CEO Howard Lincoln said wryly: "I am intrigued by the idea of seeing inside Scott Boras' mind."
Lincoln, known to be a hardball player in business, has abided by the mutual agreement during spring training that the matter would be set aside for the season the Mariners are prolonging. If Lincoln has fretted about this, he has done so privately.
Boras said he appreciates this, saying, "Give high marks to the Mariners for the way they handled this this year, absolutely perfectly."
Said Lincoln, "Having made the decision, we stuck with it. We trust that makes us credible bargaining partners."
Rodriguez also has done well at defusing the focus that will get white-hot in about a month. If he has been approached to talk about his future during the season, he has politely but firmly refused to do so.
"I have been totally focused on my team and my teammates," he said. "If they press me on it, I've said I truly do not know. I enjoy Seattle. There would be great emotion in my decision, joy to stay, sad to go, because I would be leaving my brothers on the team."
In this peace, Boras noted, "Alex went out and had an MVP-type season, like (Barry) Larkin with Cincinnati in 1990, in terms of both leadership and performance at the key defensive position on the field. I am biased, of course, but who does what Alex does? All the MVP guys in place are one-dimensional players. Alex is multi-dimensional."
Part of Boras' view of the club's perfect play was last winter's addition of four key free agents - Aaron Sele, Arthur Rhodes, John Olerud and Kazu Sasaki.
"Seattle had four outstanding needs they had a chance to address," the agent said, "and Pat, a creative and energetic builder, went out and did something about them."
He put Lincoln into this, too. "Howard is used to dealing with talented people and putting them in the right place," Boras said.
Thus, in Boras' mind, the Mariners might move on keeping Lou Piniella as manager. They might also do something about the glare and shadow problems at Safeco Field (will be done) and move the fence in some in center field (will be considered).
Something has to cause Seattle to hit only .248 at home, last in the league, and score only 5.2 runs per game, yet hit .289 on the road, best in the league, with 6.03 runs per game. Rodriguez hit .272 here with 13 homers, compared with .356 with 28 homers on the road.
Rodriguez is one of many hitters who are troubled by Safeco Field as a place to perform. The distances there seem great, exacerbated by the chill on spring and fall nights and the glare in late afternoons.
"It's not my place to say what any team should do," Boras said. "But Lou Piniella is one of the top managers in the game. If I'm representing him, I view him as one of two or three managers who rate $2 million to $3 million a year."
Boras added that the Mariners have helped their chances by building a winner instead of pushing contract talks this year. "From my point of view, (Alex's) confidence level in the Seattle organization is there," he said.
But that makes no guarantees for the uncertainty that is certain to begin later this month, with the free-agent market.
"When the World Series is over, Alex will take a bit of time off, then we will sit down and go over his goals. Not mine, his. My input will involve our dot-com interests and endorsements and a whole raft of other contractual aspects that have never been seen before in any contract.
"Remember we are not talking about a 30-year-old free agent who is regarded a quality player, but a 25-year-old who is one of the top performers in the game and at one of the most demanded positions. There will be clauses totally different from any seen before."
But there will be no short-term contract, no three- or four-year deal to give Alex an out if he is not happy with his decision.
"We don't want a short-term deal," Boras said. "It will be long term.
"According to what I hear, a number of teams will be very interested. They will have to make accommodations, there will be no discount. And because of the length of the contract, we are not only talking current market value, but future market. My job will be to get it right for the long term."
Asked if the contract could be structured like some NFL deals, a series of one-year contracts, which could be opted out of, Boras said he has a plan.
"I'm not going into where we'll go with this," he said. "I've got a plan, a formula that allows clubs to be treated fairly. After all, we're talking about a long-term relationship, so everyone has to be happy for a long time. For one thing, we have to make sure the club stays competitive."
In other words, Boras expects teams with a sincere interest in Rodriguez will regard him as a franchise asset, "as they might their stadium or their marketing." His view is that there should be "special franchise allocation funds applied here."
He means, don't give too high a percentage of your payroll to Alex.
"We don't want clubs to spend a lot of money on us," the agent said, "and not have it to spend on other needs."
Boras said Rodriguez's deliberations should center on knowing that the club he signs with is where he wants to be because he will be there for a long time.
"He wants to be where he's in the thick of it, peeking over his shoulder at the scoreboard," he said. "Where every one of 162 games is important."
The final determination likely will fall into three areas: 1) finances; 2) competitiveness; 3) what Rodriguez wants.
Boras points often to signing Greg Maddux in Atlanta despite a higher offer from the Yankees, and to keeping Bernie Williams in New York despite higher offers from Arizona and Boston.
He explained: "My philosophy is to keep a player where he is comfortable. There are no concerns about economics. But one thing I know of free agency is that there are a lot of blind curves. My job is to help him steer through them to a correct decision, a decision he will live with for a long time, to age 35 and maybe beyond."
Earlier this year, Boras prepared a list of questions for Rodriguez to ask players, former free agents who have gone through the process and have moved or stayed.
"Some answers were surprising, some were disappointing," he said. "Some were what you'd expect from people who want Alex to play with them, especially those guys on the hill. They bent the grass."
Rodriguez was not always told the home organization was best, the message Ken Griffey Sr. gave Junior before he signed his last contract with Seattle.
"We wanted to hear different things and we did, guys who've gone and liked it, guys who've gone and disliked it," Boras said. "You have to remember we're going to be talking for one or two days in each city to groups of executives who are going to say all the right things and paint all the bright pictures of their organizations, their situations, their plans."
At some point in the free-agent process, possibly mid-November, Lincoln, Gillick and team President Chuck Armstrong will go to Florida, where they will meet with Piniella, because they want to sign him or because they have done so and want to meet with Rodriguez.
"It will be," Lincoln said, "an interesting offseason."
When that process is done, perhaps taking two or three weeks, Boras said, "we'll try to take the emotion out of it, get the hard facts, study the positive and negative of each place, each team.
"When all that is done, Alex will make his own assessment in the end. He must come up with a decision he can live with for a long time, to age 35 and maybe beyond that. It is a huge decision, one of the biggest Alex may ever have to make. I want him to make the right one."
Almost in afterthought, Boras addressed an undercurrent that seems to permeate Seattle's chances of signing Rodriguez, possibly because Johnson and Griffey went, one for money, the other for family.
"Why does there seem to be this premonition that Alex is . . ." Boras threw his right thumb up and over his shoulder. "There is no way of knowing at this time. I can only tell you at this point that Mariners have made him comfortable enough to go out and play and have an MVP season.
"He has been happy in Seattle. My basic interest in this is to see that he continues to be happy."
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