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The Curious Case of Matt Harrington
November 3, 2009 11:24 AM   Subscribe

When people think of the pitfalls of the baseball draft, it is hard not to remember the story of Matt Harrington. Harrington was drafted in the first round of the MLB draft by the Rockies and the Padres in successive years, only to go back into the draft after failing to reach an agreement each time. As the years went by, his stock kept falling.

Harrington's flirtation with the majors ended in 2004 when he was drafted with the 1,089th pick by the Yankees.

Joe Posnanski wrote about Harrington's saga in 2006, saying that this was a parable about athlete greed.

ESPN wrote a piece about it earlier this year, showing Harrington's rapid decline in draft position and struggles as a result of the negative publicity he received.

Harrington currently works at Costco for $11.50 an hour.
posted by reenum (50 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
how fast can he change a tire, anyway... I need a set and don't have much time..

And... why does this story make me smile? :)
posted by HuronBob at 11:36 AM on November 3, 2009


I've gotta say, reenum, I think you totally misread that Posnanski piece. It's much, much more nuanced than "a parable about athlete greed." In fact, if anything, it's sympathetic to Harrington, portraying him as a inexperienced kid in the grips of forces larger than himself.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:39 AM on November 3, 2009


What's nice is there seems to be a lot of players (specifically non-boras clients) who are jumping at low-ball long term contracts to wrap up security. Like Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester on the red sox signing for low money but long term instead of taking the risk. When Dustin was asked about why he signed an extension for such a low amount compared to what he could have gotten in a post-MVP world he responded: "um... I don't know about some other guys, but, uh, I live in the real world."
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 11:39 AM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Perhaps you smile because you're a jerk that enjoys the failure of others?
posted by oddman at 11:40 AM on November 3, 2009 [9 favorites]


I mean, looking at the Posnanski again, it's a really subtle, careful article. There's even sympathy for the agent in there, believe it or not.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:41 AM on November 3, 2009


Hmmm. It's been a while since I read that Posnanski piece. I'll have to re-read it.
posted by reenum at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2009


It looks like he doesn't play for them anymore, but I just want to say if you're in the area, the Fort Worth Cats are a really fun baseball team to watch. Cheap tickets, good seats, good ballplayers.
posted by kmz at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2009


I dunno. It was bad advice. And it's not like he was all that greedy - he was only a little greedy. In the end it seems like people lost sight of the fact that Harrington needed a deal more than the Rockies did and he should have, well, he should have played ball.
posted by GuyZero at 11:45 AM on November 3, 2009


"Perhaps you smile because you're a jerk that enjoys the failure of others?"...

or, perhaps a bit of justice is a good thing...

I don't see so much that he "failed", he had a bright future, he had skills, he had opportunity... where's the "failure" in that..?

He made a choice to be greedy....

But, hey, thanks for calling me a jerk, that means a lot coming from someone who knows me as well as you do....

wait...
posted by HuronBob at 11:48 AM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


HuronBob: "And it's not like he was all that greedy - he was only a little greedy."

Let's not sugar-coat it... I don't doubt that Harrington is a good person who got bad advice and made a mistake, but turning down $4 million because you asked for $5 million, as a signing bonus for playing baseball, is a lot greedy.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:53 AM on November 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Harrington currently works at Costco for $11.50 an hour.

That makes it sound like he never got any money out of it, though. From the ESPN article:

Despite everything that went wrong, Matt Harrington still became a millionaire. A few months after Matt was drafted in 2000, the Harringtons took out an insurance policy for loss of skill with Lloyd's of London. Matt collected on it a few years later, after he had shoulder surgery and it became clear he would never regain top velocity. The details of the settlement are sealed under court order, and Matt says he can't discuss it.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:53 AM on November 3, 2009


D'oh... clicked the wrong "quote" widget. That was meant to be addressed to GuyZero.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:53 AM on November 3, 2009


He made a choice to be greedy....

Mmm, sounds more like he was talked into his choices by his agent -- and who knows what nature his agent may have appealed to when trying to talk him into something? It may not have been about greed at all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2009


"Perhaps you smile because you're a jerk that enjoys the failure of others?"...

or, perhaps a bit of justice is a good thing...

I don't see so much that he "failed", he had a bright future, he had skills, he had opportunity... where's the "failure" in that..?

He made a choice to be greedy....

But, hey, thanks for calling me a jerk, that means a lot coming from someone who knows me as well as you do....

wait...


We have no evidence he was greedy. Since we do not know him, we simply cannot know what he was thinking at the time. He hired two professionals and took their advice. The advice turned out to be wrong. The speed of his fastball appears to not have been what it was projected to be. This appears to be a story of someone who had a chance that did not work out. Nothing more, nothing less.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2009


I have no interest at all in baseball but I enjoyed that post. Good job.
posted by davebushe at 11:57 AM on November 3, 2009


This is all you need to know:

Meanwhile the inactivity caused him to lose speed and effectiveness in his once-prized fastball.

He sat out, stopped throwing and fell out of shape. End of story.

I was a former sportswriter, and one of things I was absolutely amazed at was that during the flirtation with replacement players in the 1994 strike, was how baseball discovered an extraordinarily tiny few "diamonds in the rough" they didn't already know about.

I thought, come on, if there's not any Kurt Warner's bagging groceries, there's going to be a few He Hate Me's out there, right? Ones that can earn a little more than the proverbial cup of coffee?

Nope, not really. Turns out baseball scouts are actually pretty damn good at finding demonstrable talent. If you're good, you're getting offers, period.

So, if Matt Harrington's stock went down, it wasn't because the system screwed him over. It's because he stopped throwing strikes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:59 AM on November 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


Ironmouth: "This appears to be a story of someone who had a chance that did not work out."

A chance at turning lots and lots of money into lots and lots and lots of money. What is "greed" if it's not that?

Again, I understand he was following advice from his agent. But unless he wasn't even presented with the decision, he's still responsible for his own decision. And that decision was to be greedy.
posted by Riki tiki at 12:01 PM on November 3, 2009


Ironmouth.... if he had turned down the first contract and said, "oh crap, that was a mistake", it would have been one thing....but four years later... he didn't really want to play baseball, he wanted a big paycheck....
posted by HuronBob at 12:01 PM on November 3, 2009


why does this story make me smile? :)

He was eighteen. That's why it doesn't make me smile.

(Also, I don't have any particular problem with talent, as opposed to management, getting well rewarded for what it does. But that's a rant for another time.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2009


Cool Papa Bell: "He sat out, stopped throwing and fell out of shape. End of story."

High School pitching phenoms are well-known for being unpredictable. Without more details about his training/workout/etc regimen, we can't really say if "inactivity" means he caught up with Seinfeld or if it means he just wasn't on a team. He might have become as ineffective even if he had started Opening Day for the Rockies.
posted by Plutor at 12:18 PM on November 3, 2009


HuronBob: "but four years later... he didn't really want to play baseball, he wanted a big paycheck...."

Four years later, he didn't want to play baseball full time for poverty-level pay (sub-$20k). I don't blame him.
posted by Plutor at 12:19 PM on November 3, 2009


I don't have any particular problem with talent, as opposed to management, getting well rewarded for what it does.

So managers never do anything worth rewarding well? Management isn't something that can be done "wrong" or "right"? This story seems to belie that.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:20 PM on November 3, 2009


The NFL very nearly had the same sort of event this year with Michael Crabtree, who was so incensed at not being the first wide receiver taken in the draft, that he reportedly was refusing to accept a smaller contract even though he was draft several slots later in the draft. Crabtree was, again reportedly, prepared to sit out the year and reenter the draft next year.

This has increased the call for a rookie wage scale, where the player selected would receive a pre-determined contract depending solely on their position in the draft. Most fans that I speak to are completely in favour of such a system.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:20 PM on November 3, 2009


turning down $4 million because you asked for $5 million, as a signing bonus for playing baseball, is a lot greedy.

Well it was more like turning down $4.19 by asking for $4.95 which is only three-quarters of a million difference and if other players were routinely singing for that much it might have seemed to make sense. Asking for 18% more isn't crazy on its face though.
posted by GuyZero at 12:21 PM on November 3, 2009


He might have become as ineffective even if he had started Opening Day for the Rockies.

Oh, that's very true indeed. But the declining offers likely coincided with private demonstration workouts for scouts that were less-than-impressive each time.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:21 PM on November 3, 2009


Lacking Subtlety: When Dustin was asked about why he signed an extension for such a low amount compared to what he could have gotten in a post-MVP world he responded: "um... I don't know about some other guys, but, uh, I live in the real world."
Heh. That's our Dustin; he knew everyone thought he was a long shot to make the majors except him, but he's smart enough like Youkilis to take the sure thing money, knowing a) hey, it's a LOT of money, and b) you'll make more, lots more.

I would hope Harrington would at least be a lesson to every other draftee with dreams of 8 figure signing bonuses to take the "few" million now- because if you're any good- if you're good enough to hold out- the difference between what you're offered and what you hold out for as a draftee will be a rounding error on your next contract. Has anyone ever held out and gotten more the following year?

Yet... no. Even now, you have (often Boras-advised) teenagers turning down $4 million in this year's draft, such as Matt Purke. There was someone else, also a Boras client I believe, who was a first round pick in both 2008 and 2009, yet went unsigned- or at least, if he signed this year he did it at the deadline.

I'm kind of with HuronBob; I don't delight in the failure of others, but I do have to laugh at being so, so, so dumb you'd turn down $4.85M... then when you don't get the offers you did before in the next draft you still turn down $1M. Hey, he's not destitute, he's just living the life of millions of Americans. The scorn is because unlike most people, he had a guaranteed lottery ticket he failed to cash not once, but twice.
posted by hincandenza at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I hate Scott Boras with a fiery passion usually reserved for folks like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter.

On the flipside, I have a deep love for the writing of Joe Posnanski, and half the time he posts on his blog or writes a piece for SI I feel like posting it here. If you like sports at all, or even if not, do yourself a favor and read his blog. He's one of the most compassionate, funny, intelligent sports writers of all time, writing at a time when sports are really and truly fascinating.
posted by ORthey at 12:48 PM on November 3, 2009


I have a hard time sympathy for someone who turns down enough money to live on for the rest of their life just because they want more, especially when they're getting paid to do something they presumably enjoy.

Even if he was only 18, at first, ultimate responsibility for his actions rests with him. Unfortunately, it's not clear that he understood that.
posted by elder18 at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2009



So managers never do anything worth rewarding well? Management isn't something that can be done "wrong" or "right"? This story seems to belie that
.

I didn't say that. I did say it was a rant for another time, but in a nutshell – I see more value in the talent and favor them over management. Management is a bunch of hirelings who think a little too highly of their decision making. Baseball seems to ride a huge tidal wave of popularity and money and these guys mistake riding the wave with their own shrewdness. (I blame people willing to pay stupid ticket prices, but that, too is another rant.) Put it this way – I would smile at a story of a ball team failing to pay the asking price only to see the player go elsewhere and generate multiples of that price in years to come.

And always remember – that five million is never five million, not after taxes, manager’s fees, agent’s fees, needy relatives, unexpected early retirement due to injury, divorce, lack of other marketable skills. You have to reckon with a lot of risk when you start talking sports rewards. So, yeah – I’m still sympathetic.

Again, 18 and with bad advice from so-called experts. It's a pretty raw age to expect responsible judgment. From what I read, we shouldn't expect so called adult thinking in people much before mid twenties.

Probably not compassion, either.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:18 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saying this is all the result of the athlete's (or even agent's) greed is a bit simplistic. An additional factor to consider is that, during negotiations, agents have something of a conflict of interest.

On one hand, they represent the athlete, and try to get the best (which may or may not mean richest) contract possible. In many cases, this includes getting the athlete a contract to play while their skills and value are at their peak.

On the other hand, they are also looking out for their own careers, which means developing a reputation as a tough negotiator who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get their way. By this logic, Harrington's holding out was good for his agents (Tanzer and Boras) in the long run. Even though it may have screwed up his career, it enhanced the agents' reputations as tough guys. Future teams may now think twice, knowing that these agents are perfectly willing to tell their clients to sit out a year.

Of course, the logic backfired on Tanzer, who was sued by Harrington and is no longer a big-league agent.
posted by googly at 1:21 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't follow much baseball. Interesting story, thanks for posting it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:28 PM on November 3, 2009


GuyZero: "Asking for 18% more isn't crazy on its face though."

Asking for it, no. Turning down the offer entirely when you don't get it, yes.
posted by Riki tiki at 1:36 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


High School pitching phenoms are well-known for being unpredictable

Sometimes they seem to be great pitchers because they peaked between the ages of 14-16 and sometimes being lights out in high school means you are going to become one of the best in the world.

That said, everytime I've seen velocity fall off as much as it did for Harrington its usually because of an injury or (lack of) performance enhancing drugs.

Seems to me too, that he threw an awful lot of pitches while he was trying to get conditioned - the articles reference missing out on weekends with friends so he could get in throwing sesssions. Young, lively arms are only young and lively for so many pitches... then those guys either learn control and how to keep hitters off balance or they are history.

Only makes the story more tragic in my opinion. Pro-sports is a meat market, especially when the players didn't go to college... I have no problem believing that the Rockies low-balled Harrington because his family was poor either, I'm sure I've seen this happen in the business world.
posted by Deep Dish at 1:36 PM on November 3, 2009


Uh, if Harrington was throwing 95-98mph fastballs in his mid teens is it any surprise that he blew out his arm? You can't put that sort of stress on the musculature of a teenager without a really good chance of permanent injury.

Is pushing high school kids to throw that hard typical?
posted by Justinian at 1:38 PM on November 3, 2009


Is pushing high school kids to throw that hard typical?

This is a controversial topic, but generally even 20 year old major league starters are on a pitch count for a few years and yes the conventional wisdom is that you go easy on young arms. Quite a few people who discuss this kind of thing though seem to think that throwing a lot of breaking balls is worse for ones' arm.
posted by Deep Dish at 1:43 PM on November 3, 2009


because if you're any good- if you're good enough to hold out-

You're forgetting about injury. You could be the next Babe Ruth...if you take bad turn around first and permanently blow out a knee, there isn't going to be a next contract. Especially in football. Seems to me a good motivator for some of what's being called 'greed'.
posted by spicynuts at 1:49 PM on November 3, 2009


This is a controversial topic, but generally even 20 year old major league starters are on a pitch count for a few years and yes the conventional wisdom is that you go easy on young arms. Quite a few people who discuss this kind of thing though seem to think that throwing a lot of breaking balls is worse for ones' arm.

Seems like we really have no idea what effects this sort of stress on the arms and shoulders of teenagers really has, then. I wonder if someone who took it much easier until 21 or 22 wouldn't have better long term prospects. Of course then you run into the issue that they probably won't be getting the top-tier training they need to excel, plus who wants to be one of the people trying such a thing instead of making the big bucks?
posted by Justinian at 1:58 PM on November 3, 2009


But spicynuts, that hypothetical is all the more reason not to hold out for more than an already retirement-worthy sum. You could be the next Babe Ruth... until you hurt you arm while working out for the year you sat instead of taking the pro deal and pitching in the minors with professional trainers watching your every move. Always, always, always get some of the mad money first. It's a lot easier to hold out on your next contract when you already have a complete retirement portfolio; it's a lot easier to stomach the career-ending knee injury when you already are set for life.
IndigoJones: And always remember – that five million is never five million, not after taxes, manager’s fees, agent’s fees, needy relatives, unexpected early retirement due to injury, divorce, lack of other marketable skills. You have to reckon with a lot of risk when you start talking sports rewards. So, yeah – I’m still sympathetic.
I'm not, and your case is total bunk. Is it the full $5M? No, but it's still a shit-ton of cash in any case. Don't be ridiculous.

In the Antoine Walker thread (over at Sportsfilter, I think) there was the thumbnail rule in the article that whatever your contract is worth, take 50% for taxes, manager/agent fees, etc. Fine: Harrington would still have had $2M in the bank, cold hard cash; at a minimum with conservative financial planning that means he draws a "salary" of ~$100K a year for the rest of his life, even if he never pitches. Yes, he could blow it all on cars and hookers, but at least he'd have those years of car/hookerdom to look back on while working at Costco. If he signs for $4M and has a $2M nest egg earning him the equivalent of a $50/hr job for the rest of his life, he can still make more, much more. If he stays with the team, works out and trains, he has a much better chance of making the major leagues, where the league minimum is I think $390,000 a year. This is CEO-level money before you're old enough to legally drink!

So yes- you take the $2M after-taxes-and-fees cash, and you'll never have to work a day in your life. If you make the big leagues, as a top-round draft pick, you'll likely bank a few million more in salary even as a moderate bust; it's unlikely that if he worked out properly he loses so much velocity. Even for a few years of bullpen work, that'll make him high six- to low-seven figures each year he can stick around.

Take the case of Mark Prior: highly touted draft pick the year after Harrington in 2001, and his signing bonus was a whopping $10.5M- but he was an injury prone bust, who the Cubs mismanaged in pitch counts and as a result only pitched from 2002-2006. Yet in those 5 injury-riddled years of service, Mark Prior earned an additional $12.8M in salary. So he basically made $23.3M (minus taxes, fees, etc) in his 6 years of work. Had he taken the Harrington type of signing bonus, he still would have earned $16.8M. Had he taken the deal Harrington was offered the next year, of "only" $1M, he still would have earned $13.8M.

So Harrington's stupidity wasn't just turning down the $4.85M, it was turning down tens of millions of dollars over the next decade for the sake of 650,000 right now. It was turning down the $1M the next year, when he had to know his arm- and thus his career- was going off the rails.
posted by hincandenza at 2:17 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I would smile at a story of a ball team failing to pay the asking price only to see the player go elsewhere and generate multiples of that price in years to come.

Barry Bonds comes to mind. The Pirates decided to let him go to the Giants and gosh that worked out well for them didn't it?
posted by asterix at 2:22 PM on November 3, 2009


So Harrington's stupidity wasn't just turning down the $4.85M, it was turning down tens of millions of dollars over the next decade for the sake of 650,000 right now. It was turning down the $1M the next year, when he had to know his arm- and thus his career- was going off the rails.

This guy is doing manual labour for a living, and I didn't know how to do present value/future equations until I took an Introduction to Finance course... Ideally Harrington's agents would have his best interests at heart, but clearly they were looking out for their own futures.

MLB only exists and makes its huge profits by being a tremendously unethical government-protected monopoly and I derive no joy from the fact that that dirty mob managed to keep Harrington from having his day in the sun. Virtually everyone in Harrington's young life failed him, and I think the people in this thread who enjoy it are a bunch of sick fucks.
posted by Deep Dish at 2:46 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Virtually everyone in Harrington's young life failed him"

At what point did this young man (he could have gone to Iraq and fought at the age of 18) have to take some responsibility for his own choices? 19, 20, 21, 22, or never???
posted by HuronBob at 3:03 PM on November 3, 2009


I guess I'm coming from the position that Nurses, Teachers, EMS workers, Airborn, Firefighters, and folks who work in a thousand other occupations that actually make a difference in this world would have a hard time earning that 1 million he turned down after three years... sorry, maybe I am a "sick fuck", I value those folks more than some would-be, overpaid ballplayer.

yeah, I still don't feel sorry for him....
posted by HuronBob at 3:06 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


At what point did this young man (he could have gone to Iraq and fought at the age of 18) have to take some responsibility for his own choices? 19, 20, 21, 22, or never???

I mean, clearly, he suffered the financial hit, so in very real terms, he has "taken responsibility." He's responsibility does not render him immune to human empathy, I think. Neither does the difficult case of any other individual human. I think it's good to be able to empathize with all sorts of people.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:18 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


If it is immoral to earn more money than a nurse, a teacher, an EMS worker, a firefighter, and etc., then there are probably a lot of immoral, greedy bastards commenting in this thread.

I know that when I negotiate my salary with my employer, the plight of the poor nurses is always foremost in my mind.
posted by chrchr at 3:37 PM on November 3, 2009


"I know that when I negotiate my salary with my employer, the plight of the poor nurses is always foremost in my mind."

Just trying to put it in perspective..

I'm off... salmon with pecan/honey glaze is about to go on the stove.... ya'll come over and have dinner with me!
posted by HuronBob at 3:51 PM on November 3, 2009


$11.50/hr at Costco? He's getting royally screwed. I'm gonna call him tomorrow and suggest he tell them he wants at a minimum $11.75/hr or they can go fuck themselves.
posted by digsrus at 4:47 PM on November 3, 2009


Holy Eastbound + Down.
posted by philip-random at 11:04 PM on November 3, 2009


At what point did this young man (he could have gone to Iraq and fought at the age of 18) have to take some responsibility for his own choices? 19, 20, 21, 22, or never???

Based on my experience and a fair amount of discussion with my contemporaries, many of whom now have children hitting their 20s, young men in particular are not very good at making wise (ie: comprehensively informed) decisions until about age 25. They're just lacking wisdom.
posted by philip-random at 11:24 PM on November 3, 2009


Heh. That's our Dustin; he knew everyone thought he was a long shot to make the majors except him, but he's smart enough like Youkilis to take the sure thing money, knowing a) hey, it's a LOT of money, and b) you'll make more, lots more.
-hincandenza


everyone thought he was a long shot -- except the team that drafted him in the SECOND ROUND and gave him a 575k signing bonus. maybe no one thought he would make the majors after he hit .324 at AA, .308 at AAA. or baseball america who named him the #77 prospect in all of baseball in 2007...they all still probably thought he would flame out after his .317 BA rookie year, right?

...who exactly thought he wouldnt make the majors? yea some of the teams who didnt take him because he was so short and didnt know if he could hold up (health wise) but the guy hit ~.390 at a division 1 school, he obviously had the talent -- its not like he was a moneyball-esque jeremy brown kind of pick...

/rant

now all of that said, it was a *great* deal for the red sox (considering per fangraphs he was worth $23.5 million this last year and a hair under $30 million last year) as was the lester and other deals.

(sorry for the rant, i hate it when ppl play the "underdog" role with players that are, quite obviously farfarfar from underdogs. if you want a guy who no one thought would make the majors, use someone like 12 time all star, one of the top 3 catchers of all time, and future Hall of Fame catcher mike piazza, who was drafted in the SIXTY SECOND ROUND, pick number 1,390 in the draft. THATS a long shot
posted by knockoutking at 6:19 PM on November 4, 2009


also nthing joe pos -- great writer

and it is a very sad story about matt harrington. will never happen again probably.
posted by knockoutking at 6:32 PM on November 4, 2009


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