The story of Gil Meche, erstwhile right-handed pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, is certainly one for the books. Early in 2007, Meche signed a five-year, $55 million dollar guaranteed contract as a free agent with the Royals after a particularly noteworthy 2006 campaign with Seattle. Many folks thought the Royals had overpaid for Meche, but his 2007 and 2008 performances suggested to the contrary. Meche started 34 games each year, the most in the American League both seasons. Then Meche's lingering physical problems began to accumulate.
Gil Meche is not the first free agent to sign a big contract and then under-produce in later years as a result of injuries. I remember back in the early days of free agency when the Cleveland Indians signed free agent Wayne Garland to a ten-year contract after going 20-7 with the Orioles. After a productive 1977 campaign, Garland was a bust. The Indians were able to release him after five years of occasional pitching. In fact, I remember Garland working at a gas station in Shaker Heights just to keep busy between cashing pay checks. Meche could have done the same thing as dozens of free agents: cashed the checks.
Instead -- and remarkably -- Meche has informed the Royals that he is retiring with a guaranteed year left on his contract. He explained that he needed surgery and said it is "not fair to me, my family or the Kansas City Royals that I attempt to pitch anymore." He is entitled to an additional $12.4 million. He will accept not one penny. Watch out: the pigs are flying.
Too many professional athletes discover after they have signed a long-term contract that they "out-perform" those contracts. Terrell Owens is the most famous example. Indeed, after he signed a seven-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and then led them to the Super Bowl, he was, in fact, underpaid. (Owens later blamed his previous agent for the way the deal was structured, and there was something to that.) Owens was not one for graceful under-appreciation. He proceeded to threaten the Eagles with a personal campaign of disruption unless they tore up his contract and paid him what he was worth. Of course, the Eagles would do no such thing. T.O. carried out his threat, ending up suspended for four weeks without pay and benched for the remainder of his brief stay with the Philadelphians.
Free agency is always a risky venture for both parties. The player wants to cash in on his present value and the club wants to capture that value at the right price. Both sides make predictions, and they rarely are both correct because no one has information about the future. That is especially the case with a professional athlete. One wrong turn on the field and a glorious career is at an end. That was why football teams rarely sign anything other than a series of one-year contracts. Player agents for footballers, while unable to achieve the guarantees that are normal for baseball free agents, have sweetened the pot with signing bonuses -- guaranteed money.
As Manager Jimmy Duggan told Evelyn Gardner of the Rockford Peaches in A League of Their Own, "there is no crying in baseball!" If you sign a pitcher to a long-term contract for an astronomical figure, make sure the money is in the bank. A Gil Meche comes around only once in a lifetime, if that often.