Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pitcher Spurns $12 Million, to Keep Self-Respect

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
“Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money,
I felt bad,” Royals pitcher Gil Meche said.
January 26, 2011

New York Times

The guaranteed contract is a fundamental principle of Major League Baseball, as much a part of the game as balls, strikes and outs. No matter how a player performs, or how his body holds up, he must be paid in full. Only in rare cases — an injury sustained off the field, gross personal misconduct — does a player forfeit his paycheck.

But the case of Gil Meche is rare for an entirely different reason. Meche, a 32-year-old right-handed pitcher, had a contract that called for a $12 million salary in 2011. Yet he will not report to Surprise, Ariz., with the rest of the Kansas City Royals for spring training next month. He will not have surgery to repair his chronically aching right shoulder. He will not pitch in relief, which involves a lighter workload.

Meche retired last week, which means he will not be paid at all.

“When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it,” Meche said this week by phone from Lafayette, La. “Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again.”

Meche’s decision plays against type — the modern athlete out for every last dollar. There have been, over the years, athletes who took less money to play for one team over another, Cliff Lee being the latest when he agreed to pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies. And yes, Ryne Sandberg retired from the Chicago Cubs in 1994, forgoing nearly $16 million.

But there are very few parallels to what Meche did.

Instead, it is much more common for an injured player to report to spring training, go through the motions of rehabilitation and collect his paycheck. Lenny Dykstra played his last game in 1996 but did not announce his retirement until after the 1998 season, when the Philadelphia Phillies paid him $5.5 million. Mo Vaughn of the Mets made $15 million in 2004, even though an arthritic knee had ended his career the year before.

“In no way is it assumed that at the end of a deal a guy is expected to walk away if he can’t play,” said Jim Duquette, the former Mets general manager. “It’s just so odd and so rare. There was no way that we would have ever had a conversation like, ‘Hey, Mo, listen, you’re not able to play, so you should retire.’ ”

Sandberg, it turned out, returned in 1996 and essentially earned back some of the money he had left behind. And the novelty of Mark McGwire’s decision to retire from the St. Louis Cardinals with two years left on a contract worth $30 million was tarnished by his subsequent admission of steroid use.

“This isn’t about being a hero — that’s not even close to what it’s about,” Meche said this week. “It’s just me getting back to a point in my life where I’m comfortable. Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million for my life and for my kids, it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

The Royals signed Meche to a five-year, $55 million free-agent contract before the 2007 season, when he made the American League All-Star team. He pitched well again the next season, but by mid-2009, his body started to crumble. He made nine starts last season without a victory.

Still, the Royals fully expected Meche to pitch in relief, and to pay him the $12 million — three times more than any other player on the team. If nothing else, they believed, Meche could be a positive influence for a young roster.

But Meche knew the Royals really signed him to start games and log innings. His deteriorating shoulder, surgically repaired twice in 2001, would not allow him to do that. As a divorced father of three, he believed his children — ages 7, 5 and 3 — needed him more than his teammates did.

Meche told the Royals’ general manager, Dayton Moore, that he did not want any of the paycheck due him. No settlement, no buyout, no strings. The Royals had been roundly criticized for signing Meche in the first place — he was 55-44 with a 4.65 earned run average in six seasons for the Mariners — and Meche believed they had already paid him enough.

“He felt the organization had been very good to him, and he felt he needed to, not repay, but in his mind do the right thing,” Moore said. “I’m not saying that if a player decides to do his best and fulfill his contract that’s the wrong thing. But Gil did what he felt was right for him.”

Meche was raised in Lafayette, the hometown of the former Yankee Ron Guidry, his early pitching idol. His father, Fred, has owned a computer company for more than 35 years, and his mother, Linda, stayed home. Meche said he never had to worry about money, and his parents allowed him to focus on baseball.

Meche, who is 6 feet 3 inches, was taller than most classmates as a boy, and threw a lot harder — 92 miles an hour by his junior season. But when illness sapped his strength as a senior at Acadiana High School in Lafayette, Meche figured professional scouts would turn away. He planned to attend Louisiana State until the Mariners surprised him with an $820,000 bonus offer. Meche accepted it, bought a GMC Yukon and, he said, paid for a lot of his teammates’ meals.

“We were confident he would regain his stuff and be a sleeper in the draft,” said Bryan Price, then the minor league pitching coordinator for the Mariners. “Gil always had great stuff, and he was very athletic.”

Meche rewarded the Mariners by reaching the majors by age 20. His shoulder soon broke down, and two operations cost him two seasons.

But he showed enough promise through 2006 to entice the Royals, who paid him $43 million through 2010.

The decision to leave was not easy, Meche said, but his hometown tugged at him. Meche is buying a house in Lafayette, near his parents and sisters and friends. For now he lives in a 45-foot R.V. at a campground.

Much of his time, he said, will be spent on airplanes. Two of his children live in Phoenix with his ex-wife, and another lives in Texas. Meche spent time with all three children last week.

“I told them Daddy’s not going to play baseball anymore,” he said. “My little girl looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said: ‘Well, Daddy’s been playing a long time. Daddy’s shoulder hurts.’ She kind of looked at me and went back to playing with the other two kids.”

There is no throwing program to struggle through anymore, no excitement to try to summon for a game that hurts too much to play. Baseball is over for Meche, who spent Monday night with family friends in Lafayette, eating gumbo, drinking beer, relaxing. He has no specific plans, except to settle in his hometown and see his children whenever he wants.

“He gave his heart and soul to his profession,” Moore said. “You only have so many throws in you.”

Meche knew he had none left, and he would not pretend otherwise. He said his dream in baseball was always simple — to pitch as long as he could — and now that he has achieved it, he needs nothing more.

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