An hour before the game Sunday, his batting average edging ever closer to the Mendoza Line, Ryan Zimmerman got a cortisone shot to relieve the ache in his right shoulder. Figures.
It figures because, well, Zimmerman plays for the Washington Nationals — and because he just signed a six-year, $100 million contract extension that will keep him with the team for the better part of eternity. These things always seem to happen to D.C. athletes as soon as they’re handed headline-grabbing megadeals. They get hurt … or their performance declines … or they commit an off-field/court/ice indiscretion. Or some combination of the three.
And soon enough, fans find themselves wondering: Was a long-term contract, and the huge financial commitment that goes with it, really such a good idea for this guy? What if the injuries continue, and his best seasons turn out to be behind him? What if the money ruins him, takes the edge off his competitiveness? What if we’ve overestimated his talent or misjudged his ability to withstand the spotlight?
Every sports town deals with this, of course, but Washington does it with distressing regularity. In fact, every time one of our teams goes all-in on a player, we’re almost guaranteed to be debating — within a few years, if not a few months — the merits of that decision. In Zimmerman’s case, it’s because he missed 60 games last season following abdominal surgery and has already made one trip to the disabled list this year with the aforementioned shoulder issue. Is this merely a bump in the road for him, or is it (shudder) the new normal?
Zim is just the latest example D.C.’s Curse of the Megadeal. Others members of the lodge include Jayson Werth (seven years, $126 million), Albert Haynesworth (seven years, $100 million), Gilbert Arenas (six years, $111 million), Alex Ovechkin (13 years, $124 million) and, a bit further back, Juwan Howard (seven years, $105 million), Chris Webber (six years, $59 million) and Jaromir Jagr (eight years, $88 million).
It’s a harrowing list, you have to admit. Werth’s OPS+ plummeted 47 points in his first season in Washington, and 27 games into this one he broke his wrist diving for a fly ball. The misbehaving, underachieving Haynesworth, meanwhile, lasted less than two years with the Redskins, and Arenas landed in a halfway house after being convicted of gun violations. Then there’s Ovie, the former 65-goal scorer, who has managed just 32 and 38 the past two seasons.
Howard? After getting the big bucks, he never played in the All-Star Game again. Webber? The Wizards didn’t win a single playoff series while he was with them (and he had durability problems to boot, never mind the occasional run-in with the law). Jagr? Didn’t come close to resembling the offensive force he’d been in Pittsburgh.
Naturally, all of them were signed with the best intentions. They were going to take the franchise to the next level. They were going to put fannies in the seats. They were The Missing Piece — or at least a crucial building block. But Haynesworth, Arenas, Howard, Webber and Jagr ended up being traded well before their contracts were up, and some of the others may suffer the same fate.
It’s clear why clubs throw their cap dollars (and uncapped dollars) around like this. They’re looking for security, for cost certainty, for continuity. They want to be able to say to their followers, “This player is going to be with us for the rest of his productive days.” The players seek these kinds of deals for many of the same reasons. Careers, after all, can be capricious, so why not protect yourself with a six-, seven-, eight- or even 13-year contract, most if not all of it guaranteed? Yeah, it might deny you another shot at the free agent jackpot while your market value is still high, but $100 million — in the hand — is a considerable nest egg. Dinosaur-sized.
At the time these agreements are struck, many of them seemed to make a good deal of sense. Ovechkin was just 22, remember, when he got his gargantuan deal — as was Howard — and Webber was only a year older. They hadn’t even entered their prime yet, the reasoning went. As Ted Leonsis said when Ovie signed his (hyper)extension, “After 10 years the deal might look really attractive.”
And from a bottom-line standpoint, perhaps it will. The Capitals continue to fill Verizon Center and, from all indications, increase the size of their footprint in Washington. But they still haven’t gotten out of the second round of the playoffs in the Ovechkin era. And Alex is no longer 22.
Some will say these megadeals are just the cost of doing business, and they’ll get no argument here. If the Nats, Redskins, Wizards and Caps don’t pony up, some other team will. It would just be nice if their batting average in these transactions was a little higher. Then Washington might have a few more championships to celebrate, a few more banners to hang.