Weaver chooses comfort over dollars and Angels' fans rejoice
ANAHEIM -- Two massive metal baseball caps, size 649 ½, hang over the home-plate entrance at Angel Stadium, and Jered Weaver stood under one of them Tuesday afternoon. A raucous crowd surrounded him, held off by a thin red rope, and chanted Weaver's name until his voice cracked.
This is how desperate fans have become for home-grown players who love them back. The Angels were 4 ½ games out of first place. Vernon Wells was still batting .204. Weaver was not even pitching that night. But he was announcing a five-year extension worth $85 million, and in a sports culture racked with fear over the next round of free agents who might leave, he was feted simply for staying. Never mind that the Angels play in one of the largest, most appealing and talent-rich markets in the country, or that Weaver grew up less than one hour from the ballpark, went to college less than 30 minutes away, and has never played for another organization. The fear has seeped into just about every corner west of I-95.
"I'm not a big fan of business," Weaver said. "You can go to the East Coast and do that thing. But I don't like to deal with that stuff." A lanky 6-foot-7, with long blonde hair that nearly grazes his shoulders, Weaver can come across like a taller and wealthier version of Jeff Spicoli, the Southern California philosopher and
Weaver leads the American League with a 2.10 ERA, one year after he led the majors in strikeouts, and if he let his contract expire after next season, he might have commanded the kind of bounty awarded to recent free-agent pitchers Cliff Lee ($120 million over five years in Philadelphia) or even CC Sabathia ($161 million over seven years in New York). But he did not see as much of a difference in salary as the players association surely will. "If $85 million is not enough to take care of my family and other generations of my family, I'm pretty stupid," Weaver said. "How much money do you really need in life?"
There is the question that fans always ask and athletes rarely do. Weaver will now be known as the ace who retained Scott Boras but rejected his advice, opting for a contract that conceivably will cost him more than $30 million. How Weaver arrived at his decision is not so different from how he built his career. He followed his big brother, adapting what worked and discarding what didn't.
Jeff and Jered Weaver were born six years apart in the San Fernando Valley, a gap that felt like a gulf. "Jered wanted to hang out and Jeff wouldn't let him," said Dave Weaver, their father. "He said: 'Why am I going to hang out with this little kid?'" Dave recounts how Jered struggled in school, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and prescribed medication he would have to take through college. Teachers warned his parents he would not amount to anything.
Dave tried to show Jered traditional pitching mechanics, but after Jeff went off to college at Fresno State, he brought home a newfangled delivery in which he turned his back to home plate, pointed his hip toward the third-base dugout, and threw across his body. Jered imitated it, and after a dominant career at Long Beach State, hired Boras in part because he represented Jeff. Because of Boras's perceived bonus demands, Jered fell to 12th in the 2004 draft, and did not sign until the deadline 11 months later. Jered was uncomfortable with all the attention he received during the negotiation and vowed to avoid similar conflicts in the future. "You don't see guys stay with one team too often," he said. "I grew up in an era when they did. That's how I wanted to go about my career."
Weaver stands on the far right side of the rubber, strides almost toward the on-deck circle, and uses a three-quarter, cross-body release that discombobulates hitters from both sides of the plate. "Nobody else throws like him," said Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher. "Lefthanded hitters think the ball is coming right at them. Righthanded hitters think it's coming behind them." Because of Weaver's long limbs, he has more moving parts than a marionette, yet his front foot always lands in the same spot on the right side of the mound. He arrived in Anaheim five years ago, and thanks to his deceptive delivery, went 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA as a rookie. After hitters figured him out, he learned to change speeds on all four pitches, added a two-seam fastball and even a zero-seamer, thrown only on the leather and known as a "dry spitter."
Weaver now compares notes with Dan Haren the way he used to do with former teammate John Lackey. As Weaver's workload has increased over the past three years, his ERA has diminished, and he would probably win the AL Cy Young Award this year if not for Detroit's Justin Verlander. The Angels, who rank 20th in the majors in runs but first in ERA, are the Southern California version of the Giants, still in the pennant race despite their slapdash lineup. Weaver is a fly ball pitcher in a cavernous park with three de facto centerfielders chasing down drives -- Peter Bourjos, Torii Hunter and Wells. He is in the right spot, and unlike so many others, he knows it.
Jered saw Jeff come of age in 2002 with the Tigers, posting a 3.12 ERA, only to be traded to the Yankees, where he was a punching bag for both tabloids and opposing hitters. Jeff resuscitated his career with the Dodgers, winning 14 games in '05, but then signed with the Angels, where he went 3-10. After Jeff landed in St. Louis and started the World Series clincher, he bolted for $8.3 million in Seattle, even though the Cardinals wanted to keep him. Now, he is out of baseball. The major leagues are full of independent contractors who chase money into oblivion, and Jered happens to know a few of them. Chone Figgins, Francisco Rodriguez and Lackey have all deteriorated from cornerstones to spare parts, practically since the moment they left Anaheim. They wound up with heftier salaries in less comfortable environs.
Jered pitches with his parents sitting behind home plate. He plays golf on off-days with Jeff at Wood Ranch in Simi Valley. Jeff has a baby boy, Drake, who will get to roam a major-league ballpark even though his dad doesn't have a team. Of course, Boras is also based in Southern California, and still keeps a box at Angel Stadium. Boras is often ridiculed for taking his players to free agency and milking the market for every last hundred thousand. Weaver is an important reminder that the agents still work for the players, and if a star really wants to stick with the club that reared him, he usually can. "Ultimately, you have the final say," Weaver said. "He would have liked to see me go through free agency, but I told him I wanted to get this done." Weaver was asked, tongue in cheek, if the arguments with Boras ever grew physical. "He's not a strong arm wrestler," Weaver said. "So he didn't want to arm wrestle me."