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Not long before he died about five years ago, Ralph Kiner, the premier power hitter of his time who led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons (1946-52), told an audience at a luncheon that I attended about his negotiation with the legendary Branch Rickey prior to the 1953 season.
Rickey was a few seasons removed from his days in Brooklyn and Jackie Robinson, having moved on to the dismal environs of Pittsburgh where the Pirates were perennial cellar-dwellers. Kiner was hitting baseballs with great regularity over the fences at Forbes Field in front of sparse crowds before the days of television.
Kiner's opinion of Rickey had nothing to do with breaking baseball's color line. He pointed out that Rickey was exceedingly frugal, a genuine penny-pincher for the small town franchise that finished no higher than seventh place in the eight-team league from 1950-57.
Kiner's salary was $90,000 in 1952, a season in which the right-handed slugger hit 37 home runs despite batting .244. Agents were non-existent in those times, so Kiner sat across the desk from Rickey, who informed him that he would receive a $15,000 pay cut for '53. The two went round and round for about an hour before Rickey finally asked, "Ralph, where did we finish last season?"
"Well, Mr. Rickey," Kiner said, "we finished last."
"And we can finish last again without you," responded Rickey, sliding Kiner's contract across the desk for his signature. In midseason, Kiner was shipped off to the Cubs as the Bucs lost another 104 games.
Imagine that Branch Rickey was running the White Sox today. Would he say, "We lost 100 games last season without Manny Machado, and we can lose another 100 without him this season?"
He might, but there's a difference: The White Sox aren't going to lose another 100 this campaign. The pundits can criticize Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn all they want, and fans can bemoan the "loss" of Machado, but consider what happened in Pittsburgh so many years ago when concepts like "rebuilding" and "tanking" were buried in the dictionary. Possibly those Pittsburgh denizens raised as big a stink when Rickey traded Kiner to the Cubs as some Sox fans did last week, but the Old Man knew what he was doing. He went about the business of claiming a fellow named Clemente as a Rule 5 draft in 1954, the same year he signed second baseman Bill Mazeroski. Rickey was gone after the 1955 season, but those two future Hall of Famers led the Pirates to a World Series championship in 1960. They won another one in 1971 and a third in 1979.
Maybe not Yankeesque, but not too shabby either, and clearly the kind of results Sox fans would cheer if their team of choice turns out to be as successful as those Pirates of yesteryear.
Would the addition of Machado have accelerated the process of the White Sox development? Probably, but at what cost?
Manager Ricky Renteria constantly hypes the culture the Sox are building where people don't quit. They run hard on routine ground balls and pop-ups. They hit the cutoff man. When they're stuck five runs after an inning, they keep playing hard. You can even buy a t-shirt with the team's motto. This is serious stuff.
In the past few weeks, Machado's jogging to first base on a grounder to short last October in Game 2 of the NLCS has become ancient history.
In case you forgot or repressed the memory, here's Manny's explanation: "I'm not the type of player that's going to be 'Johnny Hustle' and run down the line and slide to first base . . . That's not my personality, that's not my cup of tea, that's not who I am."
Machado wound up making a weak apology before going 4-for-22 in the World Series.
Okay, maybe that's a cheap shot. The guy clubbed 37 homers last season, drove in 107 runs and slashed .297/.367/.905. Had he chosen the White Sox, after a few home runs, late-inning RBIs, and stellar play at third base, all would be forgiven. He could crawl to first base and who would care? Culture? That's only for the last few guys on the roster who are trying to hang on.
A $300 million ballplayer vs. a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed manager? Geez, I wonder who would win that one.
The Sun-Times' Rick Morrissey wrote on Sunday, "You went to San Diego for the money - the money the Sox didn't offer."
Following that reasoning, wouldn't the situation be rather simple? Tell Machado - or Bryce Harper for that matter - that whatever offer he gets, add another year and x millions and we have a deal. Apparently that hasn't been the Sox strategy.
Or maybe Machado was gun shy about playing for Renteria. A guy named Andy Green has managed the Padres the past three seasons in which the Padres have lost 281 games compared to the Sox 279 setbacks. Perhaps Green's t-shirts say something like, "Andy's boys love the beach," or "Andy's boys play Torrey Pines." Hailing from Miami, Machado might find San Diego far more soothing than playing in 40-degree weather the first six weeks of the season.
Whatever the rationale, at least the daily drama of where Manny will land now is behind us. The Sox can hold onto their millions and save them for the likes of Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and the other youngsters who have yet to appear at 35th & Shields.
We can wait and hope that a few of these athletes will become legitimate stars on a contending team. Then, if any of them get away because management won't pay market value, we'll truly have reason to wonder what these guys are thinking.
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