Lifer: a person who has made a lifelong commitment.
Now that Lance Berkman has been traded from the Houston Astros to the New York Yankees, there are only 11 such players in all of Major League Baseball. Only nine teams have one. These players are, without a doubt, a rarity, and will likely become even more so in the future.
What qualifies a player as a lifer? He has to have played for only one team for at least 10 years. Not surprisingly, the players on this list all have a few things in common. For starters, they’re All Stars. This makes sense — why would a team keep a player for that long if he wasn’t any good?
Additionally, the teams that employ these guys have shown loyalty not often seen in professional sports and, to a certain extent, the same can be said about the players, too. The financial market, team performance, injuries, and some luck have also been factors.
To learn more about these lifers, I e-mailed writers — beat writers and bloggers — who cover the teams represented. The following are excerpts from their responses.
Jimmy Rollins, Shortstop, Philadelphia Phillies
Seasons (including this one): 11
Career Numbers (through 8/12/10): .273 BA, 150 HR, 336 SB, 3 All Star games, 3 Gold Gloves, 1 MVP, 1 Silver Slugger, 1 World Series title
“The Phillies were so confident in Rollins that they didn’t draft a shortstop before the fourth round from the time he became a regular in 2001 until 2006 (when they drafted Adrian Cardenas and Jason Donald). Since then, they have also drafted Travis Mattair (converted to third base), and Anthony Hewitt (has not played shortstop in the Minors).
They included Cardenas, Donald, and Jonathan Villar (not drafted but signed out of the Dominican Republic), in deals for Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, and, most recently, Roy Oswalt. In short, Rollins has been a Phillie all this time due to a lack of competition. None of the aforementioned players ever did anything in the Minor Leagues to put Rollins’ job security in question.
Rollins signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension in June of 2005 that kept him in Philadelphia through 2010. The Phillies also had a club option for 2011 worth $8.5 million which they have exercised. If Rollins didn’t live up to the contract, the Phillies would have traded him, but the combination of Rollins’ below-market contract extension and his elite production both offensively and defensively have made him a mainstay in the City of Brotherly Love.
I don’t think Rollins will leave Philadelphia in the near future. We know he’s coming back in 2011, but I think the Phillies will find a way to sign him to a three- or four-year contract extension. We have learned that the Phillies front office values cost certainty very highly, which is why you saw so many players locked up in the past two off-seasons. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn’t want to think of life without Rollins, as the organization’s top shortstop prospect is Freddy Galvis, who currently sports a .574 OPS in Double-A Reading. I’m not saying Galvis can’t improve but the Phillies are desperately hoping they don’t have to make any Major League-level decisions about Galvis for another two years at the earliest.”
–Bill Baer, Crashburn Alley
Mark Buehrle, Starting Pitcher, Chicago White Sox
Numbers: 145 wins, 3.82 ERA, 4 AS, 1 GG, 1 World Series title
|Buehrle prepares to retire another batter during his 2009 perfect game. (Credit: RMelon)
“A number of unrelated factors need to converge for a player to remain with one team his entire career — team success at the right time, his contract status, industry economics, etc. Mark certainly does have a unique relationship with the White Sox, with Chicago and with the fans. Our franchise has enjoyed success throughout his career, from his rookie season (2000) to a World Series championship in 2005 to another division title in 2008. We’ve been consistently competitive, and Mark has played an incredibly important role in the organization’s success.
I think an important part in Mark’s relationship with the White Sox stems from the fact that he grew up in the Midwest. Mark is loyal, humble, and comfortable in Chicago and with the White Sox organization, and I think he shares many of the same life values as White Sox fans, Chicagoans and Midwesterners. This is his home, his friends and family are here, and he is comfortable in the Midwest.
Mark’s on-field accomplishments have certainly endeared him to White Sox fans, literally forever: a World Series title, no-hitter and perfect game. That’s a pretty impressive resume. Mark will always hold a special place in the hearts of White Sox fans.
You never say never in baseball, but I certainly have a hard time imagining him in another team’s uniform. None of us know for sure what the future will hold for Mark or the White Sox.”
–Scott Reifert, White Sox Vice President of Communications
Michael Young, Shortstop/Second Baseman/Third Baseman, Texas Rangers
Numbers: .301 BA (1 batting title), 154 HR, 80 SB, 6 AS (1 MVP), 1 GG
The Rangers blogosphere isn’t exactly abundant, and I couldn’t get any beat writers to respond to my questions. I can tell you that Michael Young was drafted and signed by Toronto before being traded to Texas in 2000. His contract is large for a middle infielder — he raked in $13 million these past two seasons and will get $16 million the next three. This means he won’t be a free agent until 2014 so it’s likely Young will remain a lifer for at least a few more years.
Vernon Wells, Center Fielder, Toronto Blue Jays
Numbers: .280 BA, 214 HR, 89 SB, 3 AS, 3 GG, 1 MVP, 1 SS
“I think Vernon Wells has been a lifer because he basically embodies what the Blue Jays franchise was all about. For approximately nine seasons, Carlos Delgado was the face of this franchise and I think Blue Jays management maybe saw a glimpse of that in Vernon Wells.
Delgado left the organization at the end of 2004 to test the free agent waters. Wells, on the other hand, continued to excel even without the protection in the lineup from Delgado.
Following the 2006 season, the Blue Jays rewarded Vernon with a huge contract worth $126 million over seven years. I think part of why the Blue Jays signed Vernon to such a lucrative deal was because they didn’t want their franchise player to get away (as had happened with Delgado).
It’s interesting because it’s been a very up and down relationship with Vernon Wells since that extension. His past few seasons have been injury-riddled, so expectations have been astronomically high for him to bounce back and put up similar numbers to his pre-contract years.
Vernon doesn’t seem very outspoken; however, I think he’s one of those silent leaders in the clubhouse. It’s funny because although Vernon is a veteran and is in his 12th season with the Blue Jays, I really don’t view him as your prototypical clubhouse leader that all the guys gather around. To me he seems like the type of player that would rather lead by example on the field.
Vernon is signed all the way through to 2014, which means he’ll be a free agent at the age of 36. With the way this team seems to be progressing more and more towards a youth movement, I can’t really see him fitting in with the plan of the Blue Jays after that. Maybe if he signs a 2-3 year extension and he takes a huge hometown discount, then he might stick around.”
–Ian Hunter, The Blue Jay Hunter
Eric Chavez, Third Baseman, Oakland Athletics
Numbers: .267 BA, 230 HR, 6 GG, 1 SS
“The A’s have been known for letting several of their “marquee” players get away via free agency after they’ve developed into superstars with Oakland. In March 2004, the A’s bucked the trend and signed Chavez to a six-year, $66 million contract extension. Shortly after that, injuries began derailing Chavez’s career, so much so that he hasn’t played more than 90 games in a season since 2006.
Those injuries certainly are a huge reason Chavez has been with the A’s his whole career. No team would be willing to trade for a player with such an expensive contract who simply hasn’t been on the field very much. Each of the past three seasons, the A’s have crossed their fingers entering the season that they might get a healthy year from him. What choice have they had? They’re paying him a huge salary whether he plays or not, so they’ve been hopeful about getting some sort of return on their investment. It just hasn’t worked out to this point.
This is the final year of his contract, and it’s very likely that the A’s and Chavez part ways. The question is whether Eric tries to continue his career with another team. The A’s loved his defense at third base and his consistent power production early in his career, that’s why they chose him as the player they made a long-term commitment in. It just hasn’t gone as planned, for either the team or Chavez.”
–Joe Stiglich, Bay Area News Group
Note: Earlier this week, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Chavez wrote an e-mail saying, “I’ve pondered retirement. I’d lie if I said I didn’t. The truth of the matter is that I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Chavez has two bulging disks in his neck which have limited him to 33 games this year.
Jason Varitek, Catcher, Boston Red Sox
Numbers: .259 BA, 182 HR, 3 AS, 1 GG, 1 SS, 2 WS
|Even during a Spring Training game, Varitek thinks about how to help his pitching staff. (Credit: Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.net)
“Jason Varitek built a career in Boston because he has been a very good catcher both defensively and offensively when there were few others available on the market. His staying in Boston for the majority of his career is not solely based on his commitment to the team — he was willing to move elsewhere if the money was right.
Varitek has Scott Boras as an agent and could have chased the money in 2004 if owner John Henry did not agree to a big money deal. When his contract expired at the end of last season he again tested the market but after a poor year at the plate his options outside of Boston were limited.
Tek wanted to be sure his family stayed in one place. He demanded and received a no-trade clause as part of the 2004 deal which is why he was never a trade chip in any of GM Theo Epstein’s big trades.
The Red Sox also have been a big part of keeping Varitek happy. They named him captain in 2004 and also added a second year player option on his latest contract.
Varitek’s familiarity with the pitching staff has made him very valuable to the team even when he is not playing. He has helped players like Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester develop into front-of-the-rotation pitchers. These skills have made him more valuable to Boston than he might be to a new team with a different rotation.
This season Varitek filled in very well as a backup catcher before he was hurt, and regained the fan support he was starting to lose in the previous two seasons. He is a rare “lifer” in the post-free agency years but strangely enough, he has been on the team for less time than Tim Wakefield, who played with the Pirates for two years before coming to Boston in 1995. Tek will finish his playing career in Boston after next season and will likely become a minor league manager in the franchise.”
–Matt O’Donnell, Fenway West
Todd Helton, First Baseman, Colorado Rockies
Numbers: .325 BA (1 batting title), 328 HR, 5 AS, 3 GG, 4 SS
“Helton is part of this exclusive club because, for starters, he’s a great player. Only Hall of Fame calibers have the opportunity to stay with with one team.
He is from the Cal Ripken mold. He leads by example — not just on the field, but off it. He works hard, treats teammates with respect, and consistently sets a good example of how to deal with success and failure.
My hunch is that Helton would retire before he leaves Colorado. But that’s only an educated guess. It all depends on his back injury.”
–Troy E. Renck, The Denver Post
Mariano Rivera, Relief Pitcher, New York Yankees
Numbers: 550 saves, 2.21 ERA, 11 AS, 5 WS (1 WS MVP)
Jorge Posada, Catcher
Numbers: .276 BA, 255 HR, 5 AS, 5 SS, 5 WS
Derek Jeter, Shortstop
Numbers: .315 BA, 233 HR, 317 SB, 11 AS (1 MVP), 1 ROY, 4 GG, 4 SS, 5 WS
|Two of the three current Yankee lifers: Posada, left, and Rivera. (Credit: Keith Allison)
“I’ve been a fan of the Yanks since the day I was born; it came with the territory, so to speak, as my parents are both die-hard Yankee fans. I started writing about the team on a daily basis in mid-2004. So I’ve seen my fair share of Yankees come and go over the years, and yet, since I was 12 in 1995, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera have been constants.
I think what kept them around was a combination of good luck and money. All three were either draft picks or international free agent signings, and although the Yankees knew these kids had promise when they signed them all nearly 20 years ago, the club didn’t know just how good they would be.
Through the years, the Yanks nearly traded Posada and/or Rivera on more than one occasion. In fact, the two were almost packaged together for David Wells prior to the 1996 season. But by the time the three were approaching free agency, the Yanks knew they had a trio of special players and used their dollars to keep them around. It’s pretty much a matter of their being on the right team at the right time and winning the whole time.
Now, they’re getting older, but I can’t see them anywhere else. Posada may retire when his deal is up after 2011, and Rivera and Jeter are sure to stick around in the Bronx after this year. After all, the Yankees have already said they’ll take care of their lifers. You’ll never see them in another uniform.”
–Ben Kabak, River Avenue Blues
Chipper Jones, Third Basemen/Left Fielder, Atlanta Braves
Numbers: .306 BA (1 batting title), 436 HR, 6 AS, 1 MVP, 2 SS, 1 WS
“Chipper has been able to stay a Brave for so long due to a number of converging factors. Number one, he’s a very good player, but the team has also been very good for most of his MLB career, which means it makes more sense to pony up the cash to keep him around.
The Braves have always liked having Chipper around, but the only reason he’s stayed this long is because he also wanted to. He loves the city and the organization. He’s from the South and grew up watching the Braves. Everything aligned perfectly for him to stay in Atlanta for his entire career.
It takes a unique and special set of circumstances for something like this to happen, and Braves fans are very fortunate that they happened surrounding Chipper.”
–Peter Hjort, Capitol Avenue Club
Note: There was speculation that this season might be Jones’ last. When he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Tuesday, it intensified those rumors. However, Jones has said he plans to report to Spring Training next year with the hopes of playing at least one more season for Atlanta.
Well, there you have it — only 11 players; ever fewer teams. Back in early June, well before Berkman was traded, I e-mailed Brian McTaggart, the Houston Astros beat writer for MLB.com. Here is what he had to say: “Berkman could be a free agent after this year if the Astros don’t pick up his option, and he would be willing to go elsewhere, but only to a team in contention. Berkman is a native Texan who is proud to be so. He would love to finish his career here and that is his preference, but if he could go somewhere at the end and win then he would be open to that to.”
Berkman’s willingness to leave Houston shows that some players still value winning, though not necessarily above money, location, etc. This list of players — and the overwhelming majority of players who don’t stick with one team — show that lifers are many things, but perhaps above all else, they’re lucky.