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Archive for July, 2010

The Value of Staying Home?

Joe Mauer stayed home. Not only did he re-sign with the Minnesota Twins, he LITERALLY stayed home. Born and raised in St. Pau,l Minnesota Mauer can’t even get himself to go across the bridge into Minneapolis. Arguably the best catcher in major league baseball, with “told” riches laid out before him for the taking, he turned it all down in order to walk the same streets, shop the same shops, and see the same sights he has seen his entire life. Yup, old Joe doesn’t even have to find himself a new barber–the same guy  who cut his hair in high school still has the job!

Now, I live in Cleveland, and you might have heard about our own native son, kid named Lebron, who has a very similar opportunity before him. (I wrote a little about this in “It’s Not About the Money. No, Really!”). Lebron James appears to be the biggest, most important free agent in the history of the NBA. 25 years old and no worse than entering his peak years, Lebron is an unrestricted free agent.  Indeed, unlike Mauer, Lebron is actually unencumbered by any of the economic realities of his game or his league–his off the court income dwarfs what he has or might make in salary. As such he has the liberty to make his decision based on the non-contractual issues like the aforementioned off court income, or the adventure of exploring a new city, or mining the value of staying home.

It’s really hard to determine which of these two young men is more important to the economic success of this team, and the related economic success of his city. Knowing that Mauer would re-sign allowed Minneapolis to give the go-ahead to a new baseball stadium. Knowing they had Mauer in the fold, ownership has begun to sign other pieces to a championship puzzle. On the other hand the most conservative estimate of Lebron’s economic impact is that he has single-handedly increased the value of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise by $100 million. This is probably ridiculously low; Dan Gilbert the mortgage king will have surely made the largest “underwater” major purchase in the history of sports should Lebron James leave now.

Lebron just completed his seventh year as a Cleveland Cavalier and despite yeoman efforts by general manager Danny Ferry and owner Dan Gilbert, Lebron and company have not been able to bring a championship to Cleveland. This has been his mantra, oft stated, that winning is his only priority. Only slightly behind that, though, is the goal of winning “at-home.” Lebron actually has more in common with Joe Mauer then it seems at first blush, for Lebron is not really a Cleveland kid at all, but kid from Akron. Indeed, Lebron built his castle in Richfield, equidistant as the crow flies from both Akron and Cleveland, but spiritually more a suburb of the former.

So what is Lebron to do? What does Lebron want to do? What SHOULD Lebron do? Our local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has been awash in stories, commentary, conjecture, and innuendo. A friendly acquaintance who writes for the Plain Dealer has been tasked with the onerous job of recording and reporting “Lebron rumors”, with absolutely no requirement to confirm anything she writes. It’s the Lebron-A-thon, all Lebron all the time! The hometown is actually getting smaller and smaller every single day.

What do I think? I think Lebron is a really smart kid, much, much smarter than the majority of sports fans give him credit for. He’s actually quite different from the majority of the kids who went straight to the NBA from high school, and pretty much all of the “one and done” kids who spent a year in college before beginning their careers. My bet is that Lebron would have been much more than the keeper of a “gentleman’s C” average in college. No, Lebron would have been a solid B student taking a real college curriculum.

He’s also aware that he will eventually screw up somewhere, somehow, sometime. He’s a pretty shrewd character to be sure, but he is also a 25-year-old who has openly admitted that he is still in the process of growing up. Cleveland is a pretty small place, more small-town than major city actually, and it’s pretty hard to hide 6’8″, 265 pounds of handsome wealthy young man. I’d love to be wrong on this, really I would, but my guess is that he senses the inherent safety of a truly big city.

Knowing this I still think Lebron is too smart to not see that he has placed himself in a no-win situation should he decide to leave Cleveland now. There’s been too much talk over the last several years about winning at home, and too little talk too late about what home actually is. I think Lebron realizes this, and I think he is using his unique position to maximize his chances of winning one for the “hometown.” I’m predicting some fancy footwork, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and a couple of major surprise announcements at the end of this week, all of which give Lebron a chance to make good.

Then what’s the true value of staying home? Here’s my bid. The value of staying home is exactly one championship. My prediction is that Lebron signs a two-year contract with a player option for a third. If he wins a championship in either year one or year two he’s outta here. He made good, kept his promise, it’s time to move on. If he fails to win a championship in year one or year two he invokes his player’s option to great fanfare, with all kinds of emphasis on the sacrifices that he is making to stay in Cleveland. If the Cavs shouuld win championships in BOTH years one and two he certainly stays for year three, unable to resist being linked with Phil Jackson as the only architects of “three-peats” in the history of the NBA.

After that, come hell or high water, it’s Cleveland in the rearview mirror. Three years, over and out. At age 28 Lebron will be off to other pastures, new challenges, fresh horizons. World as oyster, and all that sorta thing.

Why? At the end of the day it pretty much comes down to the difference between Joe Mauer and Lebron James much more than it comes down their similarities or to the differences in their hometowns. Mauer has never sought the limelight. Indeed, he has actively sought the cocoon of small-town, hometown. James, on the other hand, has ALWAYS sought more. Even in high school he had one eye on the game at hand and one eye on the tomorrow to come. Nothing wrong with that, really. They are what they are, and it is what it is.

S0 what’s the value of staying home? One championship and three years to get it. You heard it here first.

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