It hit me last week when I heard Carmelo Anthony trade rumor number 4,932—the one that, if I remember correctly, had the Nuggets asking the Knicks for three starters, two draft picks, salary-cap relief, a pied-√†-terre on Central Park West and half of Walt Frazier's wardrobe. I realized then that as career moves go, nothing beats contractual wrangling: You gain a higher profile with each round of speculation and, if you do it right, a pile of money even Blake Griffin can't jump over. So I want to follow the lead of Anthony, Albert Pujols, LeBron James et al. and make my future employment as newsworthy as my current performance. I have decided to become a free agent.
You've heard of athletes playing out their contracts? I am writing out my contract, unless Sports Illustrated signs me to a fat multiyear deal or trades me to another publication. I'm giving my bosses three more issues to make me an acceptable offer. After that, I'm cutting off negotiations, as Pujols has done with the Cardinals, because I don't want this to be a distraction to the other writers. It's not that I want to leave; the editors, reporters and photographers at SI are great teammates, and the readers have supported me ever since I was a rookie. But, hey, I've got to do what's best for my family. Either the magazine moves quickly to lock me up long term, or in a few weeks I call Jim Gray and tell him to book us a Boys & Girls Club and a camera crew.
Why am I announcing this now, when there's plenty of time before I actually put myself on the market? Because this is the way the elite performers play it. Forget championships and individual statistics. The true measure of greatness is whether you can make everyone agonize about your possible departure long before you're eligible to leave. You know they love you if they miss you before you're even gone.
Pujols can't exit St. Louis until after this season, yet the prospect of his slipping into a different major league uniform already has the Cardinals faithful chugging Tums as if they were Tic Tacs. NBA stars Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams are contractually committed to their teams until the summer of 2012, but that hasn't eased their fans' anxiety about whether they'll leave when they get the chance. Of course no one can match James, who had the Cleveland populace fearing his departure a full two years before he actually took his talents to South Beach. No wonder they call him the King.
As for my own future, this will be the last public statement I'll make on the matter. I don't want to negotiate through the press, even though I am the press. Speaking of which, I want to alert my colleagues in the media that I will now begin referring to them dismissively as you guys, as in, "I don't know where you guys are getting your information" and "The hardest part of this is dealing with all the questions from you guys." Then I will sigh deeply and rub my temples to let them know how stressful it is to keep thinking of cryptic answers. I may take a page from Anthony and "take my hat off to myself" for enduring the aggravation that I created. That's a nice touch.
I will also make sure to maintain my negotiating leverage by having my people leak rumors about my possible plans. (Note to self: Get some "people.") Then, when asked about those rumors, I will pretend to have no knowledge of them. ("My own CNN interview show and a three-book deal with Doubleday? Wow, haven't heard that. You guys know more than I do.") To keep the buzz about me from dying down, I will open a new Twitter account, where I will tweet out my troubles. ("HATE losing my PRIVACY!!! BTW, going to Jay-Z concert 2nite. Row D, Seat 6.")
You may be thinking that the free-agent gambit won't work for me because a sportswriter is far easier to replace than an elite professional athlete. I've considered that myself, which is why I'm hiring Scott Boras as my agent. Boras is famous for coming up with reams of research that make it appear that his client should not only get a huge payday but also have a statue erected in his honor. If he can bamboozle the Mets into giving an inept pitcher like Oliver Perez a three-year, $36 million contract, he can make me look like the second coming of Red Smith.
It may seem that I'm driven by ego and greed, but let's be realistic: This is a business. A writer's prime doesn't last forever. What happens in a few years, when I can't come up with just the right adjective quite as quickly? Or when some young writer with a flair for turning a phrase comes and tries to take my job? I have to use my leverage while I have it.
If I do go to another publication it has to have a shot at a Pulitzer; otherwise I'll play the retirement card like Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who has reportedly said he'll hang up his cleats if the Bengals don't deal him. But if my plan works I won't have to go anywhere: I can retire with an SI laptop. This is just my way of helping my bosses see the merits of a long-term deal—provided, of course, it has an early opt-out clause. That way, as soon as I decide to stay, the speculation can begin about when I'll leave. What could be better than that?
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As career moves go, nothing beats contractual wrangling: You get a higher profile with each new rumor and a pile of money Blake Griffin can't jump over.