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Not Everyone Is Quick to Board Gravy Train

Baseball: Some players are ruled by free agency and avarice; others, like Angels' Finley and Brewers' Yount, are governed more by a sense of loyalty.

March 25, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — Chuck Finley looks like any other baseball millionaire, slumped in front of his locker after a morning workout, eating a sandwich off a paper plate.

The veteran pitcher knows it is tough to sell himself as an altruist when he's pulling down $5 million this season, but he tries anyway.

"Money doesn't motivate me to play this game," he says. "As corny as that might sound, I sit here before you and tell you I mean it when I say it."

Finley can count himself among a small fraternity of players whose careers have followed something other than a profit motive.

They are the antitheses of recent headlines:

* Pedro Martinez jumps from Montreal to Boston for a $75-million, six-year contract.

* For $49.5 million over six years, Matt Williams leaves the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians to play for the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.

* Wilson Alvarez of the Giants signs with the other expansion squad, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for $35 million over five years.

Meanwhile, guys like Finley, the Minnesota Twins' Terry Steinbach and the Texas Rangers' Ivan Rodriguez have accepted less money to stay with their teams or, in some cases, return to their native cities.

No one should pity them, considering the numbers on their paychecks. But in the thin air of baseball's stratosphere, where wealthy young men scramble for every last dime, they are as close as it comes to loyalists.

"It goes the other way from that negative image of players being mostly interested in money," said Sean Brenner, editor of the Team Marketing Report in Chicago. "Clearly, it's a rare phenomenon."

In this age of free agency and new economics, Robin Yount probably qualifies as the father of the loyalists.

Yount spent his entire career with Milwaukee, leading the Brewers to their first and only World Series in 1982. When the shortstop became a free agent in 1989, he was tempted to shop for a team that could take him back to the Series.

He also received 6,000 letters from Wisconsin school kids, pleading for him to stay. He did.

For Rodriguez, the selling point was camaraderie.

The all-star catcher broke a stalemate with the Rangers last August after talking with teammates. He walked into the front office, without his agent, and compromised on a five-year, $42-million deal.

"Everybody on the team told me they wanted me to stay," Rodriguez said at the time. "That makes me happy, that my teammates like me the way I am and the way I play. . . . I don't want to play anywhere else."

In Finley's case, staying with the Angels meant signing a three-year, $12-million deal in 1996, when he might have gotten $15 million elsewhere.

Though numerous managers, and even an owner, have passed through during his years with the team, Finley feels a sense of stability in Anaheim.

"A lot of the guys I started with are still here, the minor league coaches, the front-office people," he said. "There's a working relationship and a friendship that goes back 13, 14 years."

General Manager Bill Bavasi commended Finley for resisting mercenary impulses. But the veteran shrugs that off.

"I'm not one of those who believes the grass is always greener somewhere else," Finley said. "I've heard about players who wish they'd never left their teams when they had a good thing going."

A case in point: Texas Ranger pitcher Kenny Rogers took the deal that Finley might have gotten from the New York Yankees in 1996. Rogers never adjusted to playing in New York and was traded to Oakland last November.

Finley said, "Sure, I'd have a few more million dollars in the bank but, at the end of my career, I might look back and think 'Those last four years were miserable. I didn't enjoy them at all.' "

There are other reasons for making money a lower priority. A power hitter may feel uneasy about leaving a small ballpark, for instance. But the perception is that most players focus on the scramble for cold, hard cash.

"Once you're under contract for $7 million, is the extra $2 million all that meaningful as far as living?" asked Roy Adler, a marketing professor at Pepperdine. "Once you and your children and your grandchildren are set for life, how much more do you need?"

Like others who analyze the business of sport, Adler believes baseball is still fighting ill will left by the 1994-95 strike. Rising salaries haven't helped.

"They used to earn reasonable money," the professor said. "Now it's nuts and I think there is a little resentment there. Who wants to go watch a bunch of millionaires scratch themselves?"

In a small way, analysts said, it may help baseball when a player stays with his team for many years.

"Loyalty is definitely a word you will hear when you talk to sports marketers in general, not just in baseball," Brenner said. "The Dodgers want people to bleed Dodger blue. One way to do that is to retain star players as long as they possibly can."

But if players are looking to boost the game's image, few seem eager to publicize their efforts.

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