(Photo by Associated Press)
The above picture is a rarity, perhaps even a collectors item: It shows Pokey Reese in an acutal game with the Seattle Mariners. Granted, the game was played on March 8, 2005, in Tempe, Arizona, during spring training, but still. (The fact that the description in our files note that Reese, in this picture, is fielding a grounder from the Angels’ Chone Figgins is a punchline that doesn’t even need a joke).
Reese had been signed that winter by the Mariners, to considerable fanfare. He was the guy that nearly thwarted the Ken Griffey deal with Cincinnati, because Seattle GM Pat Gillick badly wanted him, and Reds GM Jim Bowden wouldn’t give him up. Reese was fresh off playing a significant role on the Red Sox team that had ended the Curse of the Bambino just a few months earlier. Reese, a defensive wizard, seemed like the perfect guy to round out a promising Mariners infield that also included Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre — signed earlier that offseason to far more fanfare, and far more money — on the corners, and Bret Boone at second base. Reese was to replace the departed, but not lamented, Rich Aurilia at shortstop, serving as a bridge to highly regarded prospects Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt.
“We basically have a Gold Glover at every position in the infield,” GM Bill Bavasi said in the linked article, apparently forgetting momentarily that his first baseman was Richie Sexson.
In our 2005 Baseball Preview section, we had a long, glowing article about the potential of the Mariners’ infield, entitled “Best of Show.” The picture above appeared on the cover. The Mariners, remember, had just come off a 99-loss season that still felt like an aberration, not a trend. After all, the previous three years they had won 116, 93 and 93 games. Our story said: “Ninety-nine loss seasons are bult one missed play at a time, and if there is a focal point to Seattle’s hopes of turning things around, it is the new infield.”
Pokey Reese never played one game that counted for the Mariners. Not one. He got hurt in spring, tried several times to come back, played five rehab games in the minors, but wound up having two shoulder operations and never appearing in the major Ieagues for Seattle. I bring this up now because of the news yesterday that Reds reliever Ryan Madson had declined a mutual optiion for 2013 (and if he hadn’t, the Reds would have) and became a free agent. The Reds signed Madson last year to be their closer. He never threw a pitch for them, getting sidelined in spring training with an elbow injury that resulted in season-ending Tommy John surgery. The Reds actually did fine without him, making Aroldis Chapman their closer, with wonderful results. The Reds won the NL Central before getting knocked out in the division series by the Giants, blowing a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-five series. There is some talk about the Reds signing Madson back for less money, but the upshot is that they have paid him $8.5 million — a $6 million salary and $2.5 million buyout — for essentially nothing. I’m not sure what the most money paid to a free agent who never played for his team, but this has to be up there (Nick Esasky played just 14 games for the Braves, who signed him to what at the time was a huge, three-year, $5.6 million deal in 1990; he came down with a mysterious case of vertigo that ended his career).
Pokey Reese wasn’t nearly so costly for the Mariners. They paid him a total of $1.2 million — an $800,000 salary, $100,000 signing bonus and $300,000 buyout. Those numbers seem almost quaint in today’s world. But his case is still held up by Mariners fans as a symbol of their downfall in those years — the guy they signed who never played a game. In fact, Reese never played again for anyone, even though he was just 32 when the 2005 season ended. This column from the following spring details the shoulder injury that wiped out Reese’s Mariners season. He tried a comeback in 2006 with the Marlins, who penciled him in as their second baseman but then terminated his contract when he abruptly left camp without explanation during spring training. Reese tried a comeback in 2008 with the Nationals — where Bowden was in charge — but played only a few games in the minors before injuries shut him down.
The lesson here, I guess, is that you just never know. Revolutionary, I know. The Mariners tried that year to rebuild with free agents both big and small. They paid $114 million to bring in boppers Sexson and Beltre, the sort of bold, aggressive moves that their fans currently crave. They made what they thought was a shrewd acquisition in landing Reese. And it blew up. They didn’t anticipate that Boone was done — he was dumped to the Twins in July, but his career was essentially over, too. About the best thing that could be said about their pitching in 2005 was that 19-year-old Felix Hernandez arrived in August. Beltre had a sub-par year at the plate. Sexson actually was outstanding, but the Mariners lost 93 games.
They’re still searching for the right combination to lead them out of the wilderness. As Pokey Reese and Ryan Madson show, there are no guarantees in the free-agent market. But that doesn’t mean you should stop looking. Or buying, for that matter.