Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

Performance Incentives and Contract Negotiating Inertia

February 22, 2018

Years ago before I started this blog in April 2009 I wondered why you didn’t see major league contracts that contained as much or more incentive money than guaranteed money.  It seemed fairly obvious to me that for players over 29 or 30 coming off a bad year following at least some very good years in the not too distant past, they would be ideal candidates for contracts that didn’t guarantee much up front but could pay the player generously if he was able to recapture a some portion of his old magic.

At the time, I more or less assumed that there were limitations set by the collective bargaining agreement regarding just how much of a major league contract would be in the form of incentives.  However, since starting this blog, I’ve looked through the collective bargaining agreements and never seen anything that limits the amount or percentage of the contract that can be payable as performance incentives that have to be earned.

Instead, I do believe there are written or unwritten limits on the nature of performance incentives.  You can’t get a performance incentive for winning 20 games or hitting 30 home runs, but you can get an incentive based on playing in a certain number of games, accumulating a certain number of plate appearances or pitching a certain number of innings.  You can also get performance incentives for winning or finishing in the top five of Cy Young or MVP voting or by making the All-Star team.

In the last few years, we’ve seen all kinds of contracts which are mostly performance incentives.  Today, Chris Tillman finalized a deal with the Orioles that guarantees him $3 million, but contains an additional $7 million in innings pitched incentives.  Two off-seasons ago, the Dodgers signed Japanese hurler Kenta Maeda to a deal that guaranteed Maeda $25 million over eight seasons but could be worth a potential $105 million if all of the many, many different performance incentives were achieved.

Assuming that there were in fact no collectively bargained limitations on contracts for which 70% to 80% of the value of the contract was in the form of performance incentives, why did it take so long for teams and players to reach the kinds of deals that we see routinely now?  It is particularly strange when you consider that for a very long time minor league contracts for veteran players have routinely provided the player 7 to 10 times as much money for major league roster time as for minor league roster time.

I think that a lot of it has to do with the inertia of past contract negotiating practice, as I suggested in one of yesterday’s posts.  In the past, a player worth a guaranteed major league contract (and his agent) expected that most of the money of the contract would in fact be guaranteed.  That was the whole purpose of collectively negotiating for guaranteed annual contracts.  Everyone in MLB was a little suspicious of the idea of major league contracts that provided more than t0% or 20% of the potential contract amount as unguaranteed performance incentives.  So long as both players and managers took for granted certain salary structures, there wasn’t much reason to adopt a different form of contract, even if it would have made a great deal of sense to do so.

Why have things changed in recent years?  I think Maeda’s contract really changed the way everyone in MLB viewed MLB contracts, and his contract was based on certain somewhat unique circumstances that at the time seemingly applied only to him.  As a Japanese star, Maeda was basically guaranteed a four-year $20 million contract in NPB when he became a free agent.  NPB limits free agent contracts to a maximum of four years and has a de facto salary scale that made Maeda’s future NPB earnings highly predictable.

The Dodgers eight year $25 million offer beat any guarantee Maeda was likely to get from an NPB team (plus, of course, Maeda was determined to test himself against the best in MLB).  Also, Maeda is a small right-hander who had thrown a lot of NPB innings.  MLB has had a long-standing prejudice against small right-handed pitchers, particularly when they’ve already thrown a lot of innings.

I think Maeda’s contract was something of a revelation for MLB teams.  Reliable MLB 4th and 5th starters now command $6M to $10M a season (see e.g., Jhoulys Chacin), and the Dodgers were getting someone potentially better than that for a guarantee of less than $4 million a season.

Meanwhile, the contract has worked out for Maeda, who has pitched well enough and often enough to make far more money pitching for the Dodgers than he could have made in Japan.  In fact, I suspect that the Dodgers in 2017 made it a point to get Maeda his 25th start, when another performance incentive kicked in, because Maeda was clearly worth the extra money and the contract hadn’t taken into account that Maeda might be highly valuable to the the team as a sometime relief pitcher.

The other big factor is how much starting pitchers are now worth.  Chris Tillman was really good from 2013 through 2016, but was pretty awful in 2017.  He isn’t worth more than a $3 million guarantee based on his age (30 in 2018) and his 2017 performance, but if he returns to his 2013-2016 form in 2018, a reasonable possibility, he could easily be worth $10 million.  He’s going to have to be pretty good to pitch 200 innings, when the last of the incentives kicks in, in a season in today’s game.

Once one team and player do something obvious but contrary to prior practice, then all the other teams quickly jump in.  You could say the same, for example, for the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson in 1946.  However, until that first team and player do it, everyone is worried about the possibility that a dramatic change will upset the apple cart.

Teams have always wanted to pay players based on their immediate past performance and anticipated immediate future performance.  It’s just taken awhile for the contract negotiators to catch up.

 

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Boston Red Sox Reportedly Reach Agreement with J.D. Martinez

February 20, 2018

The Boston Red Sox have reportedly reached an agreement with J.D. Martinez on a five year contract that guarantees Martinez $110 million and contains opt-outs after both years two and three of the deal.  The deal is front-loaded with Martinez earning $50 million through the first two seasons and $72 million through the first three seasons but only $38 million over the last two seasons.

Martinez is guaranteed a full $40 million less than mlbtraderumors.com predicted, but he gets the two opt-outs.  The effect of the deal is that it is much more future performance driven that the free agent contracts of old, as Martinez will almost certainly opt out if he has seasons in either 2019 or 2020 in which he plays in 150 game and has an OPS at the average of his last four seasons (2014-2017).

What I find interesting about this contract and to a lesser degree with Eric Hosmer‘s recently reported contract with the Padres is the degree to which the contract is front loaded.  In years past, teams always tried to push the highest paid seasons toward the end of the contract term in order to take advantage of the time value of money.  When added to the 100 year old tradition of paying superstars more as they got older, even as their performances began to decline, the time value of money was a powerful incentive for teams to back-load contracts.

What is clearly going on is that teams no longer want albatross contracts, where the teams are paying massive amounts of money for poor performance later in the contract period.  In particular, wealthy teams like the Red Sox expect to contend every year and certainly do not intend five year rebuilding periods that small market teams resign themselves to.

Teams are now obviously more concerned with paying top dollar for the years they reasonably anticipate getting top performance and paying less as the player gets older.  Teams are realizing that no matter how wealthy or poor they are, they have a certain budget for player salaries each season which increases over time at a fairly predictable rate in line with predicted future revenue increases.  If you push back free agent contract compensation to the later years, those are years in which the team is predictably resigning itself to mediocrity or worse.  Added to this are the incentives in recent collective bargaining agreements which punish teams for going over an imposed salary cap.

In the late 1980’s Bill James wrote an article about how the New York Yankees under George Steinbrenner were on what amounted to a second-place treadmill.  At that time the Yankees were building their teams largely around elite free agents, who were really good only for a year or two and then became expensive mediocrities that prevented even baseball’s richest team from building a truly great ball club.  It’s taken awhile for teams to learn the point that James was making all those years ago, but it now seems the teams have learned it.

As time passes, we will see more contracts which reject the old rules of free agent contracts.  I’m certain of this, because we’ve seen over the years the way in which free agent contracts have evolved, for example using team options, player options and opt-out clauses.

Also, I took a sports law class in law school in which the students negotiated various player contracts.  Coming into the practice negotiations with fewer preconceptions about what the contract should look like and negotiating only on the basis of the factual situations involving the player and the team, we came up with some pretty wild contracts.

In representing an imaginary football player in negotiations with an imaginary team that was hoping to win it all the next season and had the money to spend now, I negotiated a two year deal in which the player received 85 or 90% of the contract amount in the first season with most of the 85 or 90% in the form of a signing bonus, so that the money would already be paid out to the player even if he got hurt as soon as he started play for his new imaginary team, since NFL contracts are typically not guaranteed due to the frequency of serious injuries in football.  Also, I wasn’t taking into account taxation or the fact that young athletes tend to spend money as they make it and won’t necessarily be prepared to save enough in year one to handle the steep drop in compensation in year two.

In the real world, past practice tends to shape contracts in the short term, not to mention the fact that the parties involved in the negotiations are better aware of all the real world variables.  Over time, however, real world contracts will ultimately get to roughly the same place as law school experiments if the factual situations are roughly the same (and taking into account all the real world variables).

Owners would love to get back to the world before free agency, not only when players could not access a free market of teams competing for their services, but also when a player’s compensation was determined a year at a time and was thus largely linked to the immediately preceding year’s performance and thus anticipated next season performance, and could be quickly reduced if the player ultimately had a bad season the next year.

Both Martinez’ contract with the Red Sox and Yu Darvish‘s recent contract with the Cubs require the players to perform at an extremely high level in the early years of their respective deals to fully reap the potential benefits of the contract.  That is well to the advantage of their signing teams, and this year the teams have been able to impose these terms on these players.  We’ll see what happens next off-season, but I think we’ll be seeing more of the same.

 

Evidence of Collusion?

February 18, 2018

A lot has been made of the incredibly slow free agent market this off-season and the fact that teams seem less willing to spend on free agents than they were only a few years ago.  The MLBPA and player agents have expressed their concerns that teams are again colluding, and Scott Boras pointed to recent statements by Commissioner Rob Manfred that several free agents had received offers over nine figures, information he would not have unless teams were sharing information about their offers with each other or the Commissioner’s office.

However, Manfred’s statements don’t mean a whole lot, since he can claim media reports as his source of information that several free agents have received offers over $100 million.  Rumors have abounded that all of Yu Darvish (now proven), J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer have received offers above the golden $100 million mark.  In fact, at the start of the off-season, all three were predicted to do well better than a mere $100 million in guaranteed money.  The real dispute is that these players are only getting $100M to $126M guaranteed offers instead of the $140M to $160M guaranteed offers anticipated.

One fact that suggests teams collectively are fighting to keep player salaries down is the 22 salary arbitration cases this off-season that went to decision.  That’s the most salary arbitration cases to go to decision since the 1994 strike, and it beats the previous highs (14 in each of 2001, 2015 and 2017) by more than 50%.

The players went 12-10 in the 22 cases this off-season and went 7-7 last off-season.  Historically, the owners have won 57% of all salary arbitration decisions (319 out of 562) going back to 1974, including the results from the last two off-seasons.  There’s certainly something in both the number of salary arbitration cases going to decision and the outcomes to suggest that for the last two off-seasons at least (while there were 14 salary arbitration decisions in early 2015, the owners won eight of them, and there only four arbitration decisions in 2016) teams are taking a harder line on agreeing to raises for salary arbitration eligible players their teams intend to keep.

Obviously, one can’t make too much out of the salary arbitration results for only two off-seasons.  Each off-season features individual decisions by eligible players and teams in negotiating a salary increase or going to arbitration hearing, and the salary arbitration process is now advanced enough that both sides have fairly good ideas of what are reasonable salary proposals based on precedent and where the arbitrators can accept only one of the two numbers submitted.

At the same time, when taking this year’s exceptionally high number of salary arbitration decisions into account with the obvious drop in interest in and the bidding on free agents this off-season, it does appear that teams are as a group making greater efforts to limit the amount of revenues they have to pay out to players as compensation.  Whether that’s a result of active collusion between the owners, or merely the result of normal market capitalism as effected by better player value analytics and the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, remains to be determined.

For what it’s worth, even though owners have won roughly 57% of all salary arbitration decisions, the players love salary arbitration while the owners hate it.  The reason is that now even the poorest, stingiest, least interested in winning teams have to pay their good salary arbitration eligible players the same amount of money as the wealthiest teams have to pay.  Salary arbitration in conjunction with free agency has caused the enormous increase in player salaries since 1974.

Also, I strongly suspect that free agents have less value today than they did, say ten years ago, is because we have had the longest period without expansion since MLB’s expansion era began in 1961.  When you add in that MLB teams are bringing in more and more foreign talent from more countries, the level of play at the major league level is extremely high and it’s relatively easier to replace or acquire talent outside of free agency.

I contend that the current circumstances are akin to MLB in the 1950’s when there had been no successful MLB expansion since 1901 and black and dark-skinned Latino stars were allowed to play in the white leagues for the first time since the 1880’s.   The addition of only two additional expansion teams would have a big impact on the relative value of free agents, because there would be more demand for the elite players good enough to reach free agency based on six full seasons of major league service.  You would also see more players like Fernando Abad, who just received a non-guaranteed deal from the Phillies despite a 3.30 ERA with the Red Sox last year, get guaranteed major league deals.

What Was He Thinking?

February 12, 2018

Former MLB 20-game winner Esteban Loaiza was arrested for possessing more than 20 kilos of either cocaine or heroin.  He’s being held on $200,000 bail and faces three serious felony charges.  What was Loaiza thinking?

Loaiza made more than $43 million in his major league career, according to baseball reference.  Presumably, he’s pissed through most of that or he wouldn’t be dealing drugs.  However, at age 46, he was old enough to beginning collecting his major league pension at age 45.  He had at least 10 years of major league service time, so he would have been entitled to the maximum possible benefit for anyone retiring at age 45, meaning monthly amounts that are almost certainly comfortable to live on.

I also assume that Loaiza probably had his own drug problem, which is a great way to piss away millions of dollars over a period of years, whether the drug is heroin or cocaine.  Loaiza was married for two years to celebrity Jenni Rivera.  They were going through a divorce when Rivera died in a private plane crash.  Fast living and personal problems … maybe.

It’s never a good time to be caught with more than 20 kilos of hard drugs, but it’s likely to be even worse in Trump’s America.  You would think that a former major league baseball player would be the kind of high profile suspect that Jeff Sessions and other prosecutors would love to throw the book at.  Also, Loaiza was born in Tijuana, but attended high school in San Diego County.  If he’s not a U.S. citizen, he could be deported after he finishes his likely prison term.

MLB Expansion

February 12, 2018

Every couple of years, I write a post advocating for another round of expansion in major league baseball.  It’s been about two years since my last such post, so here goes the latest iteration.  My original post from 2009 is here.  At that time, I favored Portland and San Antonio as the best options for a two-team expansion, with Charlotte and Indianapolis as the dark horse candidates.

It still appears that MLB is several years at least away from serious talks about expansion.  Commissioner Rob Manfred stated during the 2017 season that expansion is on the horizon but essentially has to wait until the Oakland A’s and Tampa Rays sort out their current ballpark problems/issues.  In other words, both the A’s and the Rays are hoping to get new, better ballparks and want to have as many good available metro areas to threaten to run away to if the Oakland East Bay Area and Tampa/St. Pete won’t kick in some money for the new ballparks.

Tracey Ringolsby wrote a piece in Baseball America, which everyone within the game reads, proposing expansion to 32 teams contained in four eight-team divisions, with a 156 game regular season schedule and the second and third place teams in each division playing a wildcard game to determine who faces the division champion. [If the season is dropped to 156 regular season games, which I support, I would prefer the wildcard winner to be determined by a best two-out-of-three series played in the second best team’s ballpark.]  Ringolsby’s piece led to a flurry of articles from other media outlets in the immediate aftermath of his article.

Last July, the Sporting News posted a piece on-line identifying 10 metropolises it though were good bets for expansion, featuring most notably Mexico City and San Juan, Puerto Rico.  At the time San Juan made sense, but now it’s virtually certain that the next round of expansion will not include a team in San Juan because of the effects of Hurricane Maria.  I also don’t see Mexico City as viable in the next two-team expansion, because I don’t think the players’ union would approve.  I just can’t see major league players from the U.S. or Canada all being enthusiastic about playing and living in Mexico, although Spanish-fluent Latino players might love it.

The main reason Mexico City gets or does not get a future expansion team probably comes down to whether an ownership group from Mexico City has the wherewithal to submit a bid and pay to build a ball club thereafter.

In my opinion, Charlotte, San Antonio, Portland and Montreal are the favorites in the next round of expansion, with Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Mexico City and Vancouver as the dark horses.  Montreal could definitely support major league baseball in the right ballpark.

If in fact the owners have figured out this off-season that most free agents’ likely future performance isn’t worth the amounts teams have been offering in past off-seasons, as opposed to owner collusion (and there have been grumblings about how many teams seem to know what other teams are offering to free agents), then players should strongly bargain for expansion.  Two expansion teams would mean both a watering down of the talent pool and an increase in demand for talent that should make free agents relatively more valuable again.

The Ten Best Players from Curacao and Aruba in MLB History

January 3, 2018

The islands of Curacao and Aruba have replaced St. Croix and St. Thomas as the tiny Caribbean islands that produce an oversized share of major league baseball players.  I have decided to combine players from Curacao and Aruba, because while both are governed more or less independently, both are part of the greater Netherlands, and they are part of the same island group, the Leeward Antilles.  Besides, it makes for a better list.

Curacao has produced at least 16 major league players, and Aruba has produced at least five.  To my knowledge, the third island in the group, Bonaire, has produced no major league players yet.  Almost all of these players have played recently so I’ll keep my comments relatively brief.

The first player from Curacao to play in the majors was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens in 1989.  He didn’t have a great deal of success in the U.S. major leagues, but he had some strong seasons in Japan’s NPB, and also played professionally in South Korea and Mexico.  After his playing career, he became a batting coach, most recently for the San Francisco Giants.

The first player from Aruba to play in the major leagues was Gene Kingsale, when he entered a game as a defensive replacement on September 3, 1996.  Five days later Calvin Maduro became the first Aruban to pitch in the major leagues.

1. Andruw Jones (1996-2012).  The big knock on Jones is that he was one of the early 2000’s steriods boys, and when the Vitamin-S spigot got turned off, his game dropped off sharply almost overnight.  Still he hit 434 major league home runs, plus another 50 in Japan.  He’ll likely remain the best player from Curacao or Aruba until Andrelton Simmons and Xander Bogaerts approach the ends of their respective major league careers.

2.  Andrelton Simmons (2012 to present).  Operating under the assumption that each generation of major league baseball players is a little better than the one that preceded it, it is possible to argue that Simmons may be the best defensive shortstop that major league baseball has yet seen.  He also had his best year with the bat in 2017, although it was his age 27 season.

3.  Kenley Jansen (2010 to present).  Through his age 29 season, Jansen has a career 2.08 ERA and 230 saves.  ‘Nuff said.

4.  Xander Bogaerts (2013 to present)  Bogaerts is no Andrelton Simmons with the glove, but he’s a better hitter, and he’s three years younger.  His bat may be what keeps him in the game long enough to pass Andruw Jones.  He’s the first Aruban on my list.

5.  Didi Gregorius (2012 to present).  Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, where his father was playing baseball professionally in the Dutch League and also working as a carpenter (the Dutch League only plays a 42 game schedule, so even with international play for the Dutch National Team, ball players need to have another job).  Gregorius’ grandfather was a great pitcher in Curacao in the mid-20th Century.  Didi and his family moved back to Curacao when he was five.  Needless to say, both the Dutch pro league and the national team are disproportionately made up of players from Curacao and Aruba.

The only other two players of any note born in Holland, Bert Blyleven and Jack Lelivelt, have perhaps even less claim to being Dutch than Gregorius, as both moved with their respective families to the New World at the age of 2.

6.  Jonathan Schoop (2013 to present).  It is little short of amazing that so many great players have come from such a tiny place (Curacao’s current population is about 150,000) all at about the same time.  Schoop is a 2Bman who hits for power and turns the double play extremely well.  That’s a combination made in heaven for a 2Bman.

7.  Sidney Ponson (1998-2009).  When I first started this blog in 2009, Sidney Ponson, along with Milton Bradley, was one of my favorite whipping boys.  It had a lot to do with his arrest in Aruba during the 2004 off-season for punching out a Judge in a dispute over Ponson’s operation of a motor boat or jet skis, and even more to do with the two DUIs he picked up in the U.S. in 2005.  Ponson had a world of talent, but he ate and drank his way out of taking full advantage of it.

Nevertheless, Ponson hung around long enough to go 91-113 with a career 5.03 ERA.  I once wrote that when Ponson retires “he will become the poster boy for talent wasted.”  I stick by this assessment, but 91 major league wins is 91 major league wins.

8.  Jair Jurrjens (2007-2014).  Arm problems did in Jurrjens’ major league career, but he’s pitching professionally.  He pitched in Taiwan’s CPBL in 2016, pitched for the Dodgers’ AAA team in Omaha in 2017 until he was hit with an 80 game suspension for testing positive for exogenous testosterone.  He’s currently pitching effectively in the Dominican Winter League as I write this.  However, his chances of returning to the major leagues in the future seem slim, particularly if he still needs to serve out any portion of the 80-game PED suspension. Jurrjens went 53-38 with a career 3.72 ERA.

9.  Ozzie Albies (2017 to present).  Albies has had only 244 major league plate appearances, but he makes my list because he was only 20 years old last summer and slashed .286/.354/.456 in those 244 plate appearances.  Unless something really awful happens to him, he’s going to be a good one.

10.  Randall Simon (1997-2006).  Randall Simon could hit, batting .303 with 19 home runs for the Tigers in 2002.  However, he walked less than 5% of this plate appearances and that’s a problem for 1Bman.

Simon famously got in trouble during the Milwaukee Brewers’ “Sausage Race” on July 9, 2003.  He hit the Italian Sausage mascot with a bat hard enough to knock the female college student inside the costume down.  He was fined by the local authorities $432.10 for “disorderly conduct” and fined by his team (the Pirates) $2,000.  Simon later apologized to the young woman and gave her an autographed bat. Even better, the Curacao Tourism Board gave her a complimentary trip to the island for two.  The next time Simon played in Milwaukee, now as a Cub, he purchased italian sausages for an entire section of fans and during that day’s race, his teammates playfully held him back while manager Dusty Baker guarded the bat rack.

Jurickson Profar turns 25 in February and has hit well in the minors, so there’s still a chance he’ll become a major league star.  Wladimir Balentien flopped in the U.S. majors, but he’s become a huge star in Japan, setting the single-season NPB record with 60 home runs in 2013 and belting at least 30 home runs in five other seasons.

Valmy Thomas

January 2, 2018

I want to start this post with a shout-out to Rory Costello, who is the Society for Advanced Baseball Research’s (SABR) co-chairman and chief editor of SABR’s bio project, which has produced hundreds of biographies of retired baseball players which baseballreference.com links to its player pages.  Costello wrote all the biographies for Virgin Islands players, and I relied on heavily in producing my recent post, The Best 10 Players from the U.S. Virgin Islands in MLB History and this post.  I don’t know whether players from the Virgins Islands are great story tellers or whether Costello is simply a great interviewer — probably a little bit of both.

Valmy Thomas was the first player from the Virgin Islands to play in the major leagues, and he had a fascinating career.  He was born in Puerto Rico because his mother thought she’d better care there than in the Virgin Islands, and she and the newborn Valmy returned to St. Croix as soon as it was safe for them to travel.

Thomas grew up in the same St. Croix neighborhood as Alfonso “Piggy” Gerard, the first important professional baseball player from the Virgin Islands and the only Virgin Islander who played in the Negro Leagues.  Gerard was about a decade older than Thomas, but they later played professionally together for eight years for the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers) of the Puerto Rican Winter League.

During Thomas’ youth in the Virgin Islands, the most popular sport was cricket, and that is what Thomas’ father and most of the fathers of the Virgin Islands’ first wave of major league fathers, with the notable exception of Al McBean‘s father O’Neal McBean, was one of the best pitchers in the Islands’ nascent amateur baseball scene.

By the time Thomas was a teenager, there were four amateur teams on St. Croix in which to develop young players.  However, Thomas did not quickly enter professional baseball.  Instead, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 or 18 in 1943 and remained in the service through 1949.  He was stationed in the much larger Puerto Rico during this time, where he was able to continue playing amateur baseball at a level than that available on St. Croix.

One of his most memorable experiences during this period was an amateur competition in which he played for a Puerto Rican team in Cartegena, Columbia.  According to Thomas, while he was playing left field, a couple of what he calls “Indians” wearing loin clothes and with matted down hair, came to down to observe the game.  The “Indians” thew something over the fence, but Thomas could not see what it was.  When he investigated, it turned out to be a snake, and that was the last time Thomas was willing to play in the outfield that game.

Thomas’ Puerto Rican Winter League career began in the winter of 1949-1950, and Thomas played on five Puerto Rican Champion Crabbers’ teams during his 13 years with the club and thus in five Caribbean Series during those years.  In one game in the 1950-1951 season, he was spiked on the hand by Puerto Rican star Vic Power on a play at the plate (Thomas was by now playing catcher) and a couple of his teammates asked if Thomas thought the spiking was intentional or an accident.  If the former, Thomas claims, the teammates pulled out knives and showed Thomas where they intended to stab Power.

In the summer of 1951, signed to play for St. Jean, a town 20 miles outside of Montreal, in the Class C Provincial League.  St. Jean had a working relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was common in the early integration era for major league organizations to send newly signed young black and Latino players to play in Canada, where their presence on integrated teams was much less controversial than in the U.S.

Although Thomas played well in Canada, batting .296 and playing all over the field based on the team’s need, he quit after the season because of economic reasons.  According to Thomas, he made $400 a month in 1951, and Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey sent him a contract for 1952 offering only $350 a month.  Thomas “voluntarily retired” in order to protect his future eligibility, but what he actually did was spend the next three summers playing professionally in the Dominican Republic, where he was paid $1,100 a month to play fewer games each week.  Of course, Thomas also continued to play professionally during the winters in Puerto Rico.

Valmy Thomas split catching duties with Harry Chiti on the Santurce Crabbers 1954-1955 team, a team which Don Zimmer has called the greatest Winter League team of all-time.  The club featured Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Bob Thurman in the outfield and contained numerous other major league and former Negro League players.

In the summer of 1955, Thomas returned to St. Jean after the Dominican League switched to a winter schedule.  The Crabbers owner Pedrin Zorilla had a good working relationship with New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham and after playing back in the Pirates organization, the Giants selected Thomas in the Rule 5 Draft that winter.

In 1956, Thomas was initially assigned to the Minneapolis Millers, the Giants’ top farm team.  However, it was a cold spring in Minneapolis, and Thomas threatened to quit and return to the Caribbean.  Instead, Thomas was able to convince the Giants to assign him to their Albuquerque club in the lower level Western League.  There Thomas batted .366 with power.

Thomas was apparently offered a September call-up to the Giants, but instead elected to return to Puerto Rico to prepare for winter ball, because Thomas said he didn’t want to sit on the bench in New York.  In the spring of 1957, he came into the Giants’ camp expecting assignment to AAA Minneapolis again.  However, a strong spring performance and injuries to catchers ahead on the team’s depth chart enabled Thomas to make the major league squad out of Spring Training.

Ever the sharp businessman, Thomas was irked when Stoneham’s son in law Chub Feeney tried to play a fast one on Thomas’ 1957 contract.  According to Thomas, the team’s major league minimum was $6,000, but a player automatically earned $7,500 if he made the team out of Spring Training.  Feeney represented the additional $1,500 as a “raise” even though Thomas had made the team out of Spring Training and the team was in Thomas’ understanding obligated to pay him the higher figure.  Thomas complained about it Horace Stoneham, and Stoneham offered to raise Thomas’s contract to $8,500.

Thomas was the Giants’ leading catcher during the team’s last season in New York.  He played in 88 games and slashed .249/.296/.390 and played his customary strong defense, throwing out 12 of 28 (43%) attempted base stealers. After the season ended, he returned to the Virgin Islands for a islands-wide Valmy Thomas Day to celebrate him as the first local player to reach and succeed in the major leagues.

However, Thomas was already 31 years old in 1957, and he became the back-up to the younger rookie Bob Schmidt in 1958, the team’s first season in San Francisco.  He played about as well as he had the year before in a more limited role, but he was traded along with Crabbers’ battery mate Ruben Gomez that off-season to the Phillies for Jack Sanford.  Sanford became a star for the Giants, winning 24 games in 1962, but Gomez and Thomas were reaching the end of their major league careers.

Thomas played 66 games for the 1959 Phillies, but only batted .200.  He only sporadically in the majors in 1960 and 1961, and 1962 was his last season in the MLB system.  It was a turbulent season for Thomas indeed.

Future manager Jim Frey was playing in the International League in 1962.  According to him, he was batting in a game in which Eddie Lopat‘s brother Ted was the umpire and was having trouble calling the high strike.  The ump called two pitches above the letters strikes and Frey complained.  Lopat told Frey to get back in the batter’s box and swing at the next pitch, because Lopat was going to call it a strike no matter where it was.  According to Frey, he responded, “If you do, I’ll take this bat and beat you to death with it!”  Valmy Thomas was the catcher while this exchange was going on.

Despite this threat on his life, Lopat did not eject Frey.  Later in the game, Thomas came to bat, and when Lopat called a strike on a questionable pitch, Thomas called Lopat an S.O.B., according to Frey, and was immediately ejected.  Thomas went ballistic, pushed the umpire and then hit him on the chin.

Thomas was sold by his team to a team in Rochester for which he never played, instead winding up on the Atlanta Crackers roster shortly thereafter, following a 30-game suspension imposed on Thomas.  Lopat resigned the next day in protest over what he thought was an insufficient punishment.

In Atlanta, Thomas became involved in a love triangle, and on August 21, 1962, the other man, 42 year old musician and mortician Cleveland Lyons, shot Thomas twice in the chest after Lyons climbed in threw a window of the building in which the shooting occurred.  Lyons then killed himself.

Despite being critically wounded, Thomas recovered quickly and was even able to play ball successfully back in Puerto Rico that winter.  According to Frey, the next time Thomas saw him, Thomas grabbed Frey by the throat and shouted at him, “You dirty S.O.B., you almost got me killed!”

The winter of 1962-1963 was Thomas’ last season of professional baseball however.  After his career, Thomas returned to St. Croix were he got a job with the Virgin Islands’ government Department of Recreation.  He arranged a Yankees-Red Sox exhibition game in St. Croix and brought down Hank Aaron and Lou Brock to clinics to teach young Virgin Islanders baseball skills.  He also worked as a promoter and brought Muhammad Ali to St. Croix for an exhibition in 1965.  He was also a supporter of horse racing on the islands and ran a sporting goods store there for many years.  He died in 2010, less than a week before his 85th birthday.