Galaxy must seize their moment
Three weeks ago on a sunny, perfect Southern California winter's day, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim owner Arte Moreno stepped to the top of a podium and asked the man he'd agreed to pay $254 million over the next 10 years for a small loan.
He was kidding, of course, and Albert Pujols laughed, too. But the point was well-taken by all 4,200 fans who showed up at Angel Stadium to welcome the best hitter of his generation: Even men in position to offer or sign $254 million contracts can't talk about them with a straight face. The figure is too ridiculous. It's too much for one man and too big for one team.
And yet not once during the news conference, or even when I had a chance to speak with Moreno alone after all the cameras had been turned off, did he seem like a man who regretted an impulse purchase.
In fact, he seemed emboldened by it.
"It was really the time to make the investment," Moreno said.
When the money is that big, it becomes irrelevant. The statement such a move makes is what's important.
Opportunities like the one Moreno captured with Pujols come around once or twice in the lifetime of a franchise. Not every owner is courageous or creative enough to make the most of them. But in the last few months, the sports landscape in Los Angeles has been reshaped and reconfigured by men who were brave enough to seize their big moments.
Pujols will break all of baseball's hallowed records over the next 10 years wearing an Angeles jersey. Chris Paul will be throwing lobs to Blake Griffin in a Clippers uniform for at least the next two seasons. Matt Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension with the Dodgers, the richest in National League history.
There were plenty of sensible reasons to say no to all of those moves. There was one really good reason to say yes:
"For us to get this opportunity," Moreno said. "It was really magical."
Five years ago, the Los Angeles Galaxy reached a similar moment when they had the chance to lure David Beckham away from Europe to a league still looking to find a footing at home and abroad.
Today they revisit it.
As much as Beckham's initial decision to come here spoke volumes about Major League Soccer, its future and its legitimacy, his choice to remain here past what was expected of him would say even more.
If he stays, he says it was all worth it for him, that MLS is more than a league he wanted to conquer. It's a league he actually likes playing in, as well.
By asking him to stay, the Galaxy and MLS are saying he was worth every penny.
And he was worth it. All $250 million dollars he reportedly was in line to earn from the initial contract.
"David's done his job for us," Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, who owns the Galaxy, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "This league is at a different level than it's ever been, in large part due to David.
"We have players knocking at our door, world-class players, some of them pretty shocking, the guys that want to come to L.A. now. They're chasing us. We're not chasing them."
That wouldn't have happened for another 10 years without Beckham crossing the ocean first. Frankly, it might never have happened.
We will never know if Beckham maximized all $250 million he could earn. The number reflected Beckham's overall earning potential over the course of the five-year deal; he was paid $32.5 million in salary by the Galaxy.
But like Pujols' deal with the Angels, its symbolic value to the franchise and the league cannot be measured. Soccer is still a secondary sport in this country. But it has a place now. One that feels solid and lasting. It might even be growing.
Leiweke has always seemed to know this. It's why he's been so serious about bringing Beckham back for next season.
"[MLS commissioner] Don Garber has been lockstep with me on this every day, including every day over the holidays," Leiweke said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We have worked solidly every day on this, including Christmas Day."
But there's a greater urgency now that Paris Saint Germain has let it be known that Beckham seems to prefer a return to Los Angeles over its rich, 18-month, $18.7 million offer.
It would've been perfectly acceptable for Beckham to end his time in America with an MLS Cup six weeks ago and ride out of Los Angeles with his head up and his heart full, knowing he did what he set out to do here.
No one would have faulted the Galaxy for failing to match PSG's huge offer. No one would have criticized Beckham for taking it.
But by saying no to PSG, Beckham is saying yes to MLS and further validating the league internationally.
The league cannot afford to take that gesture for granted.
Beckham has meant too much these last five years. Although he will be 37 years old soon, and his skills have dulled a bit as his body has aged, he is just as relevant of a figure in the soccer world -- if not moreso -- than he was on the day he arrived.
Leiweke smartly tried to tamp down the expectations of an imminent deal following the PSG comments. While negotiations are ongoing and Leiweke is optimistic a deal can be reached, the team was prepared to move on without him when it looked as if he'd take the PSG deal.
"The difference now is that if David doesn't come, we will fill that slot," Leiweke said. "And that is because of David, ironically."
The Galaxy have been linked to several prominent European players in recent months, the most realistic of which is English midfielder Frank Lampard. There has also been talk of brilliant Brazilian forward Ronaldinho and Obafemi Martins, a Nigerian forward who plays in Russia.
All of them are fabulous players. All of them would help the Galaxy win another MLS Cup, which is Leiweke's stated reason for trying so hard to re-sign Beckham now.
"This is about winning," Leiweke said. "This is not about money. We were the best team in the league last year, not even arguably. We'd like to compete again for the MLS Cup and David was arguably as good a player as the Galaxy had last year."
But it's more than that. Leiweke knows it now just as well as he did a decade ago when he had the first big idea to lure Beckham to America.
It will probably cost him too much. More than Beckham is worth on the field. Maybe even more than he is worth off it.
As Leiweke rightly points out, "Our TV deal [$55 million over 10 years] is what it is with Time Warner. Our relationship with Herbalife is what it is. David doesn't really swing it one way or another. This has never been about financials."
Leiweke is exactly right. Strange as it may sound to say, when the money at stake is that big, it becomes irrelevant. Only the statement that's made matters.
Leiweke has always been a man who prefers to find reasons to say yes. He is creative and persistent and savvy. He has always had the will to seize big moments like this.
Now he just needs to find the right way to do it again.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.