You may have read recently that Joe Mauer is looking for a contract extension before opening day, or he will enter free agency guns-blazing come the end of the year. As a Yankee fan, this news makes me ecstatic. Mauer is the first catcher to ever lead the AL in batting average -- a feat he's now thrice accomplished -- and the only catcher to ever lead the AL in slugging. In 2009 he led the league in all 3 slash stats and picked up his second gold glove en route to a near-unanimous MVP vote. He's a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and I can't help but dream of him one day wearing pinstripes.
Still, there is a part of me that hopes he stays with the Twins. He is, after all, a local kid; a down-home Minnesota boy who could become a legend. Mauer is a unique talent, and Minnesota is his true home. It sounds like, well, it sounds a lot like Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren, actually. Tiger is golf's greatest talent; the man with the perfect life, highlighted by the perfect wife. At least that's what it seemed to many, until Tiger crashed his car and his world came crashing down. But Tiger's actions, I think, can help to explain a lot about what goes on during baseball's off season.
When people talk about Tiger Woods, they often ask "why?" He was the greatest golfer in the world, with nearly a billion dollars and a super-model wife. Why would he risk it all? But the question is misguided, because we shouldn't be asking why he risked it all, but how he achieved it all in the first place. Tiger is notoriously competitive. Just like Jordan, he has to be the best at all times. And this is not an instinct you can just turn off. It permeates every aspect of his life, including, yes, his marriage. The same feeling that drives him to win tournament after tournament drove his marriage off the road (literally, in his case.)
Elite athletes, more than other professions, are constantly being valued. Their careers are measured -- in wins, in salaries, in records, in endorsements. Eventually, that becomes how you define yourself. And because of this I think every athlete asks the same question: What am I worth? Tiger took that idea to the extreme. His value on the golf course was unquestioned, in endorsement deals it was historic. The only avenue left for him to flex his competitive muscle was, apparently, the bedroom. And the question he was trying to settle was one we all grapple with: What, exactly, is the value in being Tiger Woods?
I want to stop here to say I think what Tiger Woods did was awful. He broke a commitment to his wife and his children, and that is inexcusable. I am not trying to defend Tiger Woods, I am merely trying to make sense of his actions.
A professional athlete's value is central to free agency. Do you want to know what the world really thinks of you? Hit the market and find out. Over the past few years, no team has understood this better than the Yankees. Last year the Yankees offered CC Sabathia a contract that blew away other teams' offers. And when the big lefty still wasn't convinced, they blew away that offer. CC signed. The Yankees left him no choice. Come to us, baby, we're the ones who really love you. This year, the team is taking the opposite approach with Johnny Damon. They are letting him test the market. Go ahead, Johnny, look around. You won't like what you see. Oh, by the way, have you met Curtis Granderson? He's just like you, only younger.
The Yankees, of course, occupy a unique niche in sports in that regard. No other team has the history and resources to play both sides. Most teams have to make tough choices. And because of this, people end up getting hurt. We hear all the time about players who abandoned the teams and fans who loved them. CC should have stayed in Milwaukee, or at least he should have gone home to the west coast. Johnny Damon shouldn't have left Boston. Alex Rodriguez is greedy (ok, sometimes the fans are right.) The Dodgers belong in Brooklyn, and so on. And we always hear the same thing: it's about the money. Well, I'm not so sure.
Let's say you've been working for your company for 10 years. You are a loyal, productive employee. But when it comes time for a raise, another company -- a rival company -- offers you 10, 15, 20 percent more money. Well, part of you loves the idea of more money. But another part of you is probably upset with your current company: "hey, I've been a hard-working, loyal employee for 10 years. Why don't they think as much of me? Don't they realize how valuable I am?" And you take the higher offer. And you may say something like "it's just business, it's nothing personal," but that's really only half true. To paraphrase Billy Crystal in Analyze This: Don't kid yourself, it doesn't get more personal.
So it should never come as a surprise when an athlete, whose entire life revolves around numbers, signs on the dotted line with the most zeroes attached to it. It's part of what drives them to succeed. It's how they got to the top in the first place. So I will be following Joe Mauer very closely. Part of me is hoping he comes to terms with the Twins. Mostly, I think he will head to free agency, where every team in baseball will meet him with open arms and record-setting dollars. He already won an MVP, and he may, quite literally, be the most valuable player in the game. Just like Tiger Woods, Joe Mauer might be wondering what that really means.