How many people would refuse to collect five million dollars that they could have just by showing up? That is what Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Keith Foulke did, deciding to retire before Spring Training camp officially opened rather than after, when the terms of his 2007 contact would have required the Indians to pay him the entire five million dollar amount to sit home and watch games on Direct TV. Needless to say, his is not the typical way in professional sports.
But Foulke is definitely an odd duck among baseball players. When he played for the Boston Red Sox, he roused the ire of fans by saying that he really didn’t care what they thought of him, and annoyed sportswriters by admitting that he didn’t like watching baseball and found it boring—a cardinal sin in baseball-crazy Beantown. A premiere closer with the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland A’s, he signed a three year free agent contract with the Red Sox before the 2004 season and played a lead role in the team’s storybook World Championship. He pitched in eleven games during the play-offs and World Series, and was almost unhittable. He also, some say, permanently damaged his arm with the intense workload he shouldered in the team’s quest to end an 86 year-long championship draught.
Foulke fielded the final out of the Series, sending Boston fans into hysteria, but he was never the same. Knee problems sidelined him in 2005; last season, he lost his closer job and hurt his arm. After the Red Sox declined to exercise the team’s option to have him pitch in 2007, Foulke could have used his player’s option to bind the team contractually to pay him 5.25 million for the year. He could have easily rationalized it too, regarding the money as part of his just reward for ending “The Curse of the Bambino.” No Boston fan, even his critics, would have faulted him. Foulke didn’t want to take money to play where he wasn’t wanted, and gambled on the free agent market. Cleveland signed him for almost as much as he would have made in Boston, knowing it was a gamble, understanding that they might have to pay millions for a hurt, useless or retired relief pitcher.
Ninety-nine point nine per cent of major league players would have let them do just that. But when Foulke realized that his elbows and knees still hurt after a four month rest, he concluded that it wouldn’t be fair to take the Indians’ money. “Over the last few weeks, while preparing for the 2007 season, my body has not responded as it has in years past,” Foulke’s brief exit statement read. ”I feel strongly I will not be able to perform at the level where I need to be to help the Indians this season. They are a class organization and I wish them the best of luck in 2007.”
Players always say that their decisions about where to play and when to quit are “not about the money,” but that is almost always a lie. “Almost,” because of the rare player like Foulke, who said the same thing and then backed it up with action. It isn’t that it is so remarkable for a person to decline money for a job he or she cannot perform, for most of us know that this is the right thing to do. In the world of professional sports, however, players assume that they should collect every cent a contract allows, regardless of whether they earned it, and teams accept that attitude as one of the costs of doing business. Most players probably think Keith Foulke is a sap, or even resent him for setting a precedent that might make future players look greedy or dishonest. Foulke, however, simply displayed a clear understanding of what ethical conduct is.
If it is wrong to accept money for a job you can’t perform, the amount of money shouldn’t matter. Keith Foulke’s body wouldn’t let him be a baseball hero any more, but he’s still an Ethics Hero worth cheering.