Baseball’s cranky old man

We have a neighbor we call the Cranky Old Man. He’s a thin, little man who shuffles around his driveway and front yard and is always giving advice to children playing too close to the street, or to Casey and me about parking our cars in our shared driveway or mixing recyclables with the regular trash. He’s a stickler for the town laws, reminding us not to shovel snow into the road when the plow has already come by, yet he’ll put his trash out before 6 p.m. the night before pickup and — while this technically follows the law, it’s still annoying — fires up his lawn mower at the stroke of 8 a.m. on Saturdays.

In baseball, it’s clear who’s become the Cranky Old Man. Randy Johnson has been complaining about the losing in Arizona the way retirees in the surrounding Paradise Valley complain about the snow in Chicago before buying that second home in the desert. To his credit, he hasn’t been tanking his starts to force a trade — and don’t believe he doesn’t have it in him. Look at his stats in Seattle in 1998 before the trade to Houston, then look at his numbers as an Astro. It’s not like he’s holding the Diamondbacks hostage, but he’s sure not making things pleasant around the clubhouse. This week’s story in Sports Illustrated compares the team’s locker room to a dentist’s office, only more quiet. Johnson’s agent reportedly told Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. that if he didn’t trade the Big Unit, he’d have one unhappy pitcher on his team. Garagiola responded along the lines of, “How is that different than what we have now?”

From a fan’s perspective, it’s frustrating to have a player like Johnson dictate which team he will or won’t play for. He’s certainly not the only one doing it this season — Steve Finley apparently will only accept a trade to one of the teams near his Southern California home: San Diego, Anaheim or L.A. Carlos Delgado has told Toronto that he won’t waive his no-trade clause, which likely would have landed him in L.A. Last year, Rafael Palmeiro didn’t want to leave the heat and the losing in Texas to go to a contender (I forget which one now) and Juan Gonzalez — perhaps the biggest (literally and figuratively) softie in the game today — wouldn’t let the Rangers trade him to Kansas City or the NL. So in the offseason he signed with the Royals. And he’s currently hurt again.

The economics of the game and the owners’ willingness to hand out no-trade clauses like bobblehead dolls before a game against the Expos has taken the fun and excitement out of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The speculation still provides some enjoyment, but with trade talks more limited, the sources used by the likes of Gammons, Stark, Verducci, et. al. have less to share, and even the speculation is diluted.

But when you have someone like Randy Johnson — the sexiest of possible trade pieces — wanting out, yet limiting it to a team guaranteed to “win,” you’re getting awfully close to the inmates running the asylum. (Granted, it seems whoever’s calling the shots in the sport fits that description.) Randy doesn’t want to be the piece that hopefully gets a team into the postseason, he wants to join a postseason-ready rotation. He wants to be a part of the gluttony. As much as it pains me to admit it, the Yankees have a need for Johnson. Were the team to acquire Bret Boone or Jeff Kent to play second, that would be gluttony — all-stars at every position, a lineup better than many fantasy teams, a top-of-the-line replacement for a second baseman (Miguel Cairo) who has played — and hit at — the position more than adequately. But while Johnson would only make the rotation older, the Yankees have no healthy reliable starters. Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown, both of whom can be counted on for quality starts every time out, are on the DL. Jon Lieber and Jose Contreras are far from reliable and Orlando Hernandez is coming off of injury and inactivity and tweaked his hamstring in his last start. Throw out what’s happened in the regular season, and in a playoff series, the Red Sox have the edge in starting pitching in a matchup against the Yankees. And considering New York’s bullpen overuse, Boston could have the edge there with a healthy Scott Williamson.

But Randy will only accept a trade to the Yankees. He won’t go to Boston, he won’t go to Anaheim (the team with the best prospects to offer Arizona), he won’t go to Chicago. He apparently wouldn’t even go to St. Louis, which now has a bigger lead in its division than the Yankees. But the Cardinals were dropped from the discussion early, probably because the team is getting along just fine with its current starters and didn’t want to take on the $22 million Randy will make the rest of this season and next. I even heard Peter Gammons talking this morning about a potential three-way deal that would’ve landed Randy in Oakland, but the A’s backed out of those discussions. But Johnson no doubt would’ve vetoed that change of address, even though the A’s are the best second-half club in the game and just took over the division lead from Texas with yesterday’s win.

True, it’s tough to sit here and criticize a guy for not wanting to leave his home and his family. Arizona is Johnson’s home, and the Diamondbacks’ spring training site in Tucson keeps him close to home through March too. A trade to the east would put him in Florida in mid-February next year. There aren’t many careers that allow employees to be bought and sold and traded like professional sports.

Yet, that’s part of the job description. Athletes know that’s part of the game — the business — when they sign their first multimillion dollar contract. But by their second, they seem to have forgotten it. Randy Johnson is set for life. He’s set to make almost more between now and the end of next season than Ricky Williams earned in his weird, five-year career (cited at $27 million). He gets three and a half full months off every year — just like teachers, even more than most, who make in a year what Johnson does in a start — and when he retires, after next season or whenever, he’ll have every waking moment of every day to spend with his wife and four kids.

Randy says it’s all about “wanting to win.” I see it as wanting to win on his terms.

It looks like he’ll at least get to sleep in his own bed every night.

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