Spurning the Evil Empire

It’s almost too familiar, isn’t it? The Yankees desire the best pitcher on the market. They offer him the most money and the most years. And he spurns them anyway, signing a smaller deal with a National League team, where talks quickly begin to focus on the NL team having one of “the most formidable rotations in recent history.”

OK so maybe it isn’t all that familiar. But anyone paying attention to baseball in the winter of 1992 – or any Braves fan from that era, I suppose – might tell you differently.

That was the winter that reigning Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, at all of 26 years old, was testing free agency for the first time. It was also the winter that such top-flight free agents as Barry Bonds and David Cone were looking around. And, much like this December, the Yankees were in hot pursuit of those other prizes before being shot down in favor of other teams.

Maddux, though, was nearly snared. From the newspaper account on Dec. 10, 1992:

The Yankees had offered a five-year, $34 million deal this week. After it was rejected, the Yankees asked Maddux to give them a number that, if offered, he would immediately accept.

Maddux told Boras at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to counter with a $37 million proposal.

“Make the commitment. I’m going to be a New York Yankee,” Boras quoted Maddux as saying.

At noon, Boras relayed the proposal to [Gene] Michael, who was going to check with the Yankees’ partnership before making a formal offer. Boras told Michael that he expected approval.

Braves GM John Scheurholz called at the right time. Once Maddux landed back home in Las Vegas, he called Boras and, after talking with him, told him to call off the Yankees. He went forward with the Braves and history was made.

When we think back on the great Braves staffs of the 1990s, we tend to focus on a few years later, after Maddux had won a few more Cy Youngs and after both Smoltz and Glavine had a chance to win their own. But even before that, this new Atlanta pitching staff was being celebrated. From the same Austin American Statesman article:

Maddux, 26, will help form one of baseball’s most formidable rotations in recent history. He will join Tom Glavine, a 20-game winner the last two years, Steve Avery and John Smoltz. Glavine won the 1991 Cy Young and finished second to Maddux this year.

The Braves also have Pete Smith, who went 7-0 after being promoted from the minors late in the year. Overall, Atlanta went 98-64.

Maddux is 95-75 lifetime with a 3.35 ERA. He is the NL’s top winner in the last five years.

It was said that Maddux signed with the Braves over the Yankees that year because the Braves were the team more likely to win a World Series. Considering the Yankees had just finished their sixth straight year of fourth place or worse finishes, it was a sensible choice.

As everything unfolds in the next few days, we’ll probably hear similar reasons from Cliff Lee. The Yankees may not be in as bad of shape today as they were 18 years ago, but joining Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels as part of the best rotation in baseball, and doing it in the weaker league, should give Lee plenty of reasons to believe that. Phillies fans, of course, can only dream that the return of Lee to Philadelphia will bring about the success that Maddux spurning the Yankees did for the Braves in the mid-’90s. And while that is highly unlikely considering the ages of the 2011 Phillies pitching staff compared to the ages of the 1993 Braves staff, they aren’t crazy for thinking it may happen. Whatever happens, I know one thing’s for sure: Citizen’s Bank Park is going to be a fun place to be in 2011.

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