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OC Register: Hoornstra: MLB players discover true value in contract extensions

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There are red flags everywhere in Angel Stadium: the pennants sold in the gift shops and painted on the walls of the concourse. These are symbols of success, like the giant press conference Sunday heralding Mike Trout’s 12-year contract extension. It was a pageant, a pep rally, the kind usually reserved for introducing a free agent.

Trout has never been a free agent, and so his eagerness to re-sign demanded an explanation. He talked about winning a championship as an Angel, having endured an eight-year-long trench without winning a single playoff game. After the pageant, talking with a group of reporters off-stage, Trout spoke of a different red flag.

“I kind of saw what Manny (Machado) and Bryce (Harper) went through and it drew a red flag for me,” Trout said. “I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put perspective in my mind.”

It only takes a little imagination to understand that perspective on a basic level. Interest in the two star free agents was limited this winter. When each signed – Machado with the Padres, Harper with the Phillies – it wasn’t until spring training camps had commenced. History tells us Trout might have commanded a larger contract on the open market, with multiple bidders driving up his price, compared to the 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension he got from the Angels. Then again, history has proved to be a poor gauge of a free agent’s worth the past two years.

Through this lens, the “tough couple months” portrayed a dark moment in the history of free agency, the now-fundamental right the players’ union fought hard to establish decades ago. Trout is the best player in baseball. The idea that even he could be short-changed a chunk of his fair-market value as a free agent was disquieting. Several other stars (Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, George Springer) re-upped with their current teams in the days after Trout agreed to terms. It reeked of manipulation.

There are other lenses to consider, however. Talk to players who were free agents years ago and you hear echoes of the same idea – an idea that makes the appeal of long-term extensions easier to understand in any marketplace.

Free agency brings more stress than actually playing baseball.

“From my perspective, free agency can definitely be frustrating. Stressful. All of the above,” said Mark Teixeira, the retired first baseman who is now an analyst for ESPN. “Trout is in such a category of his own, he was going to get paid no matter what. Probably what he was saying was, ‘I love it here in Anaheim.’ How could you not? Three of the best months of my career were in Anaheim when I played for the Angels. I smile when I hear that quote. It’s not like he took a $100 million pay cut. The Angels are offering him a lifetime contract for a whole bunch of money, it’s just a win-win for Mike Trout.”

Teixeira was a free agent only once in his life. It hardly seemed like a sour experience from a distance. He used the 2008-09 off-season to land an 8-year, $180 million contract with the Yankees.

The promise of life-changing money makes the stress hard to decipher. Yet for someone who’s played baseball all his life, never stopping to study economics or contract negotiations, dallying with the business of baseball isn’t always pleasant.

“I got a pretty quick understanding of it,” Dodgers infielder David Freese said. “End of the (2009) season, if the Cardinals didn’t re-sign (Matt) Holliday, who was a free agent, they were probably going to go get (Miguel) Tejada. That would have pushed me either out of St. Louis or back into the minors again. That’s what I was hearing. I was watching that like a hawk. … That’s when I really started to understand how even other people’s agreements can affect your career and your life.”

Freese was a rookie then. A free agent for the first time after the 2015 season, he waited until March of the following year to get a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Freese called that an “incredibly stressful” experience. It’s no wonder he re-signed with the Dodgers on the first day of free agency last year. Now 35, Freese accepted a relatively modest raise coming off a 2-WAR season at a salary of $4.5 million.

Mark Langston, who pitched for five teams in a 16-year career (1984-99), can relate. He was a free agent for the first time after the 1989 season. His choice came down to two teams: the Dodgers and Angels. He chose the Angels’ five-year offer.

“Getting traded during the 1989 season (for Randy Johnson and two others) gave me a different outlook on everything,” said Langston, now an Angels radio analyst. “You think you’ll play your whole career in one uniform, all of a sudden I’m traded to Montreal. I go to a completely different league. That was really eye-opening for me.

“The Angels gave me a no-trade clause. The Dodgers wouldn’t do it. The financial sides were pretty similar. I didn’t want to get to a point where today I’m in one situation, tomorrow I’m somewhere else. That was really important to me.”

Maybe never having to worry about where your next paycheck will come from is a luxury that’s hard to quantify. Ryan Howard, who spent his entire major league career (2004-16) with the Phillies, gets it. He signed a long-term extension in April 2010 that took him through to the end of his career.

“Every guy wants to get to that point where, when it’s time to get paid, let me get paid, so I can go out and play baseball,” said Howard, now an analyst with ESPN. “Now that my family’s taken care of … let me go out and play baseball.”

Langston, who attended high school and college in the Bay Area, wanted to stay on the West Coast. His wife liked it here, too. Knowing each player’s family has its own set of priorities, Albert Pujols said he stayed out of Trout’s way during the process of negotiating his extension. He might have had some valuable advice to offer; Pujols’ 10-year, $240 million free agent contract with the Angels is still regarded as one of the most player-friendly in history.

Yet Pujols gets it, too.

“For (Trout) to get that done and knowing that he ain’t going nowhere, that’s always pretty special,” Pujols said. “He doesn’t have to think about free agent year, or anything. I had to think about that, going through what I went through in St. Louis.”

Of all the players I spoke to, past or present, the one who seemed to enjoy the free-agent process most was Orel Hershiser. Coming out of the 1994 strike, he was ready to move on from his 12 seasons with the Dodgers. Finding a team that could win a championship was his first priority, and he reached the World Series with the Indians in 1995 and 1997. Finding a city that suited his family was second. What he calls his “baseball education” was third.

“I definitely had three or four cities that I wanted to try and go to before I retired,” Hershiser said. “I got to three of the four. I missed Chicago.”

Hershiser pitched until he was 41. Even then, he said, he had no interest in mentoring young pitchers on an also-ran team: “I wanted to actually go where there was pressure and a chance to win.”

That, I think, points to the psychological aspect of competition that eludes most of us. At the highest level of pro sports, relishing the pressure isn’t an option – it’s part of the fun. Signing the dotted line on a multi-million dollar contract might be rewarding, but free agency brings a foreign kind of stress. Maybe that sounds like a contradiction. It also explains a lot.

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