Sports biz: Mullet fever

Two all-star shortstops inked long-term contract extensions this off-season with the only Major League Baseball teams they’ve ever played for. With apologies to the great Derek Jeter, the guy the Colorado Rockies signed is the prize of the pair.

At 26, coming off a stupendous season that earned him not just Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards but a place in baseball history – 14 home runs in a jaw-dropping span of 15 games, alongside Albert Belle and Barry Bonds – Tulowitzki is the best player at his position, and one of the best players at any position.

No revelation there. Tulo has drawn acclaim from a broad baseball brain trust of opposing players, managers, broadcasters and writers. MLB All-Star and TV commentator Harold Reynolds said Tulowitzki should have been the 2010 National League MVP. A New York Times headline last March labeled him “the Derek Jeter of the Rockies.” After Tulowitzki belted two homers in a critical stretch-run game against the Dodgers last September, Los Angeles Times writer Steve Dilbeck wrote that “at the moment, he only seems the greatest player in the history of the universe.”

The Rockies, though, came out with the most telling praise of all. By signing Tulowitzki to a $134 million, seven-year contract extension in late November, the team signaled faith that their young shortstop possesses not just extraordinary ability, but transcendent value – the kind that goes beyond on-the-field performance.

The surprise signing of Tulowitzki to a contract extension that will keep him in Rockies colors through 2020 was the zinger of baseball’s off-season, remarkable not just for the dollars but the duration. And it’s not as if the Rockies have an unblemished history with pricey, multiyear deals. A palm reader scanning the hand of majority owner Charlie
Monfort, I suspect, could make out the faint outlines of the words “Mike” and “Hampton” etched
permanently into the worry line.

Baseball commentators were perplexed at the Rockies’ sudden largesse, considering Tulo already was committed through 2012. “What was the logic of racing to give this contract?” asked a puzzled Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated. Others thought the arrangement represented poor planning on both sides. “If this deal is bad for Tulowitzki, it’s ill-conceived and unconscionable for a Rockies team that knows what long-term, big-money contracts do to franchises with middling budgets: cripple them,” wrote Yahoo sports scribe Jeff Passan.

To that concern, we offer two rejoinders. First, as the sage sports-radio commentator Joe Williams once was heard to opine about player-team negotiations: It’s not your money and it’s not mine, so who cares?

Second, it’s entirely possible the Rockies made a reasonably prudent dollar investment, given baseball’s prevailing economics. Weeks after the surprise Tulo extension, outfielder Jayson Werth, who is five years older than Tuluwitzki, plays a less critical defensive position and has never won a Gold Glove, signed a seven-year deal with the Washington Nationals for a reported $126 million.

The biggest takeaway, though, isn’t a dollars-and-cents evaluation. It’s a refreshing realization that somewhere in the world of big-time, big-dollar entertainment sports, it’s still possible for negotiators on both sides to make allowances for some old-fashioned loyalty.

Since the team’s inaugural season in 1993, no primary shortstop has lasted more than three seasons (Tulo, Walt Weiss and Neifi Perez share the record). Tulo, who endeared himself this past season by allowing his hair to be cut into a moronic mullet in a charity fundraising stunt, now stands to anchor the infield for 10 summers to come.

That’ll do far more to fill the ballpark than any clever marketing slogan the Rockies’ marketing department could ever conjure. Long live the mullet. 

OOPS! Last month’s column referenced former Denver Bronco Jim Turner’s 1977 fake-field goal touchdown, a grand moment in team history. But the play happened at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, not Mile High Stadium as I wrote. Thanks to reader Jim Van Someren for pointing that out.
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