03/08/12 5:10 PM EST
For Kemp and Kershaw, commitment was easy
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
"I went in with my chest puffed out -- and in 10 minutes he had me crying. When it was over, I was just glad I still had a job," recalled Wills. "He said, 'Maury, I'm going to give you a $10,000 raise, but you can't tell anybody.' I said, 'I don't want anybody to know.' "
A half-century later, Matt Kemp, who didn't win the NL MVP Award last season, nonetheless won an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. Clayton Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young Award, went from earning $500,000 last year to a two-year, $19 million contract. Kemp will make more this season per game, and Kershaw will make more per inning pitched, than Wills did that entire season ($40,000).
Even more important than the money to Wills, who in 1962 had been assigned a bunk in the Minor League barracks in Vero Beach, Fla., the MVP earned him a promotion to the Major League clubhouse and Spring Training housing that included heated bathrooms.
"Every year I came back, they had three or four guys trying to take my job," Wills said. "The Dodgers had a way of not letting you get complacent. But I often wondered if I should be grateful for it. Making me go through that every year kept me from being complacent. I had to earn it every year."
The two players the Dodgers will count on most in 2012 not only have tough acts to follow, they are heading into one of those seasons that manager Don Mattingly said causes him concern.
"I went through it, and you wouldn't think anything is different, but you get paid [more] and your mind-set can change," said Mattingly.
But Mattingly also said that a new contract can also have the opposite effect of complacency, as he recalled from his first "big" contract -- $1.375 million in 1986 coming off the American League MVP Award he won in '85.
"For me there was a feeling you have to prove you're worth it," he said. "That puts pressure on you that you don't need. A guy gets to the big leagues, he's reached one goal. Another goal might be to get paid. So you have to keep clarifying what your goals in baseball are, why you play. Guys say they love to play but sometimes need goals. It's human nature. You made it, now you have access to stuff -- cars, houses, people wanting things, all the outside stuff -- and that's when you have to worry about it."
Over the past dozen years, the Dodgers' long-term contracts have generally been dreadful. The list of those receiving deals of longer than four years consists of Kevin Brown, Shawn Green, Juan Pierre, Darren Dreifort, J.D. Drew, Derek Lowe, Mark Grudzielanek, Kaz Ishii and Eric Karros. Few of those deals worked out well for the club, as most of the players were either traded or injured by the end of the contracts.
Still, management made the commitment to Kemp and Kershaw, and it's easy to see why, considering the immense talent of the pair. But why did the players reciprocate the commitment to a franchise that has been in chaos and bankruptcy?
Their situations this past offseason differed. Kemp was entering his final year before free agency. Ownership was compelled to act before the season started, as Kemp's agent, former Dodgers pitcher Dave Stewart, set a preseason deadline to sign or cut off negotiations until after the season.
Ownership, in the middle of an auction of the club, only enhanced the team's value by securing its best position player through the prime of his career.
"The people who take over ownership know they are going to have one of the better players in the league," said general manager Ned Colletti. "This is a steadying factor. We still have a budget. And we were going to have to pay him for 2012 regardless.
"He was on the verge of free agency in a year and, typically, free agents at his level are getting seven, eight years. ... [We] have a good feel for who he is, with the skill set he has. He does everything and he plays every day. There's always risk, but in his case less than most."
The long-term commitment was easy for Kemp, whose worst season was 2010, right after he'd signed a two-year contract.
"This is where I wanted to be," Kemp said. "It happened kind of fast. They started talking about the numbers, and, 'Oh my God, for real?' It was kind of cool. It was a fun process, but I also had to ask myself, 'Am I really in this position right now?' All I could think about was being a sixth-round pick, not sure if I even wanted to play baseball, and now I was getting a long-term deal. For me it was a dream. I still pinch myself, because I've got nothing to worry about but play baseball and win games. I can take care of my family, and there's no stress."
Kershaw has two fewer years of service time, thus his situation was different because he's still three years away from free agency. Talks with his representatives focused on four years before compromising at two, but he said taking the shorter term had nothing to do with the ownership situation.
"It was just the terms and the years," Kershaw said, adding that the money won't change him.
"I know it won't," he said. "If anything, with two years there's a sense of security. I can just throw now. As far as I'm concerned, I can play baseball for two years, and I'm good with that. You've just got to perform no matter what the contract is."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.