All right, everyone, take your places. Baseball is holding its second reentry draft this week, and we want a graduation picture of the first class of free agents. Taller players, stand in the back; you shorter guys, stand in the front. No, Reggie, you can't stand on your wallet. Always causing trouble. Hey, somebody wheel Rudi and Grich into place. Poor guys. Tenace, you showed a lot of guts coming here after the season you had. We appreciate it. C'mon, Fuentes, take the hot dog out of your mouth. Incidentally, fellows, Dick Allen hasn't come out of the shower yet, so he won't be joining us. Look this way now, and everybody say, 'Greenbacks.' " Click.
And what a handsome photograph they would make, those 24 men who signed with 15 teams for $24.57 million in long-term contracts and bonuses. When representatives of the 26 major league clubs gather at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Friday, they will closely examine a mental picture of this group and consider well the lessons it represents. Only then will they venture into the reentry market again, where about 85 more free agents are anxiously waiting to be drafted, courted and signed.
If the owners chase after them with less enthusiasm than they showed last year, it will be understandable. While, as a group, the first free agents played quite well, most of them did not bring the instant success and box-office riches that some club executives naively expected. National League champion Los Angeles and American League West winner Kansas City did well without any free agents. NL East leader Philadelphia had a free agent in First Baseman Richie Hebner, but he was not essential to the club's success. On the other hand, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant and the World Series with major contributions from Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett. Among the free agents, Jackson was the most obstreperous personality and the most productive hitter (.286, 32 home runs, 110 RBIs), and Gullett was the most successful pitcher (14-4).
There were some other fine performers. The Fireman of the Year in both of the leagues—Bill Campbell of Boston and Rollie Fingers of San Diego—came out of the reentry draft. So did the two Comeback Players of the Year, Chicago's Eric Soderholm, who did not play at all in 1976, and San Francisco's Willie McCovey, who did not play at all well. Meanwhile, hot-dogger Tito Fuentes batted .309 for Detroit, newcomer Paul Dade hit .291 for Cleveland, and Doyle Alexander was 17-11 for Texas. Others, like Montreal's Dave Cash, Milwaukee's Sal Bando, Texas' Campy Campaneris and Atlanta's Gary Matthews, played pretty much to form. In fact, only a few of the free agents fell far short of expectations, notably Gene Tenace of San Diego, who had a .233 batting average and was a disappointment behind the plate; Pitcher Wayne Garland of Cleveland, who was 13-19; and Designated Hitter Don Baylor of California, who did not start to produce until the Angels were so far out of the race that it didn't matter anymore. California also lost Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich in June to season-ending injuries. Oakland's Dick Allen departed in June, too. He was permanently suspended by owner Charlie Finley after Finley discovered Allen taking a mid-game shower.
Critics of the reentry draft invariably cite fifth-place California as proof that the system does not work. "The draft is not the answer," says Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith, whose team mounted a serious challenge without making use of it. "Look at [Angel owner] Gene Autry. He got taken." Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters says, "I don't like to name clubs, but California signed good players it didn't particularly need." Angel GM Harry Dalton counters, "If you exercise good judgment, the draft can help, and I think we exercised good judgment. Before they got hurt, Grich and Rudi were doing a fine job, and Baylor finished close to his best performance in several categories."
Still, despite the success of New York and the improvement of Boston and Texas, which finished second in the two American League divisions, the free agents did not provide the overall competitive lift that teams were seeking. Clubs like the White Sox and the Orioles made unexpected pennant bids with economy-model free agents whom nobody else particularly wanted. And free-agent-laden teams like Cleveland, Texas, California and San Diego got off to such bad starts that their managers were fired. According to Milwaukee President Bud Selig, "It is clear that you can't build a team through the free-agent draft. You can add to a team, you can fill in, but if your club is lousy to begin with, it's not going to make it great."
No team understands the lessons of the system better than Cleveland, whose experiences with Garland and Dade provide the year's most interesting case study. Last fall, following their first winning season in eight years, the Indians decided they were only a player or two away from being a contender in the Eastern Division of the American League. Even though Cleveland had not won the pennant since 1954 and was saddled with a $5.5 million debt, President Ted Bonda jumped into the free-agent pool. The Indians signed Garland, a 27-year-old righthander who had just won 20 games for Baltimore, and then added Dade, a 25-year-old infielder-outfielder who had been the Pacific Coast League's batting champion with a .363 average. Cleveland gave Garland an unprecedented (some said foolish) 10-year, $2.3 million contract and Dade a two-year deal for $93,000. Early in the '76 season the Orioles had rebuffed Garland's request for a $30,000 salary—he was then making $23,000—while all Dade had wanted from the California organization was the $19,000 big league minimum. They held out, and it paid off.
Bonda admits that Cleveland was "shooting craps," but he insists, "We had to make it this year to be economically viable. The fans were getting disgruntled and discouraged, and we wanted to tell them we were doing everything we possibly could to make us a winner. So we had to make a business judgment aimed at a short-term gain. I thought we already had the nucleus of a good team and that Garland and Dade would be the frosting we needed. We figured that if we stayed in the race we would draw 1.4 to 1.5 million spectators, and we would make money."
It did not work out that way. The Indians got off to a slow start, fired Manager Frank Robinson and did not improve under his replacement, Jeff Torborg. They finished fifth, 28½ games behind the Yankees, and their attendance fell from 948,776 to 900,365, the lowest in Cleveland since 1973 and among the worst in baseball. The dice had come up snake eyes.
Much of the blame for the team's failure has been directed at Garland. He had been the Indians' first selection in the reentry draft, and the contract they gave him was second in total value only to the $2.9 million for which George Steinbrenner signed Jackson. Cleveland General Manager Phil Seghi considered Garland a "career pitcher" who, with Dennis Eckersley, would give the Indians the nucleus of a strong staff for perhaps a decade to come.
Cleveland had not been Garland's first choice, or his second, or even his third. He had hoped to get a five-year, $1 million contract to play in Boston, California, Texas or New York, but none of those franchises showed much interest in him. When his agent, Jerry Kapstein, told him that Cleveland was offering more than twice what he had hoped for, Garland was flabbergasted. In fact, it was so much money that for tax purposes he declined to take a $300,000 signing bonus and told the Indians to dole out the amount piecemeal in his salary checks. Instead, he took only enough cash up front to make a down payment on a 12-room, $150,000 home in a Cleveland suburb. He was now making $230,000 a season (10 times his Baltimore salary), and he would continue to make it unless he did something crazy, like injure himself skiing, skydiving or performing some other risky stunt specifically prohibited by his contract. Garland remembers that soon after he signed, "I called my mother and told her, 'Mom, I didn't get my million.' And she said, 'Well, son, money isn't everything.' Then I said, 'No, I got two million!' "
After just three major league seasons—only one of them with a winning record—Garland had struck it rich. Now all he needed to do was deliver his sinker and slider in the same smooth, compact motion and with the same stunning success he had achieved with the Orioles in '76.
Garland could not do it. In spring training he developed a sore arm and spent 2½ weeks throwing at a picture of a truck tire on the outfield wall of Tucson's Hi Corbett Field to get back into shape. When the season began, he says, "I wanted to impress people too quickly, and I tried to rush my development." Instead, all he did was pitch terribly and enrage Cleveland fans.
Among them was a man from Warren, Ohio who wrote the pitcher a letter in mid-June that said, "Your performance for our team is a disgrace, to say the least. I am sure your teammates must feel an equal degree of disgust with your pitching to date. They, however, are not free to say what others say. Only you know how you rest with your conscience after pulling this dirty trick on Cleveland."
And there were the taunts from the stands. Garland heard one kid say. "I don't want that guy's autograph. He ain't worth a damn." One man called him a bum for an entire game, and Garland says he would have gone into the stands after him had Torborg not talked him out of it.
Garland realizes that he was not the pitcher he should have been. "There were one or two times that I thought maybe I was lousy," he says, "that maybe last year had been a fluke." But he also knows that the criticism and pressure were magnified by his contract. "Everywhere I went, everyone I saw talked about the money. People must think they dropped it all on a table and said, 'Have fun, don't spend it all in one place.' What they don't realize is, with the way things are going in baseball, I could be underpaid in 10 years. And if this club folds, I wonder if I'll be left out in the cold."
For a while, Garland seemed to be overpaid. Four times teams rallied to beat him in the last three innings. And he beat himself, too, losing one game on a wild pitch in the ninth and another on a wild pitch and a home run in the last inning. But as the season progressed he began to pitch better. Although he won only six of his last 15 decisions, his ERA in his last 16 starts was 2.63. He finished the year among the league's top five pitchers in starts, innings and complete games and with a 3.60 ERA. By his reckoning, he had done his job.
"All I wanted to do was be recognized as a consistent pitcher," Garland says, "and I feel I was that. There is no doubt in my mind that my record should have been a lot better than it was. In the second half of the season I pitched as well as, or perhaps better than, I did last year. Maybe now people can say I'm not such a bad pitcher after all." Did the money make the abuse more tolerable? "Even though I feel I did the right thing for me and my family, I'd like to forget this year," says Garland. "But I know I never will."
Paul Dade will remember 1977, too, but for very different reasons. In seven previous professional seasons he had consistently pounded minor league pitching for high averages, but in 24 major league games he had batted an unprepossessing .179. Although he was California's first-round draft choice in 1970, the Angels had no intention of bringing him up to the majors in '77. And when his name was put before the other 23 teams in last year's reentry draft, the Indians were the lone club to select him and make a serious bid for his services. Oakland also drafted Dade, but the A's were not really interested in signing him. Under the reentry rules, which are designed to ensure competitive bidding for all free agents, Oakland's lack of fervor once again made Dade available to all teams. The White Sox offered a one-year contract and bonus of $40,000, but they gave no guarantee that he would make the club. Only the Indians agreed not to send him back to the minors without his consent.
Teams were unwilling to commit themselves to Dade because he was thought to be a disciplinary problem. He came by the reputation early, drawing two fines in his very first week as a professional with Idaho Falls—one for missing the bus on a road trip, the other (shades of Dick Allen) for showering while a game was still under way. There were also his bad credit rating and his penchant for speaking loudly in his own behalf, even if no one particularly cared to listen. He might have been considered a smaller risk if he had had some major league success and, as one Indian official suggests privately, if he had not been black.
Dade himself wonders why it took so long for him to get his chance. He figured he was ready for the big leagues as soon as he completed high school in Seattle. Before the Angels drafted him, they tested their prospect by making him bat against a 6'5" pitcher from their Triple A team. According to Dade, "I took him out of the yard to all fields." So when he failed to reach the majors, he decided, "Somebody in California must have said something against me. But it wasn't right. I busted my butt in this game. I always knew I could do the job, and the setbacks just put more fight in me. I'd see other people being brought up, and I'd say, 'What's going on here?' When the Angels sent me down in 1976, I cried. And when that season ended I cried again—from happiness—because I knew that now somebody had to give me my chance."
The man who did was Seghi. "Dade can throw, run and hit," the general manager says. "When he became available, I was interested. I felt strongly that he had not been given the opportunity he deserved. I can relate to a player sitting on the bench, making big noises. He can get a reputation."
When Dade signed, he celebrated at his home in Renton, Wash. by drinking a lot of Michelob and promising his wife that this time he was definitely going to make it. Now he admits that "maybe the beer made me boast," but he kept his word. He emphatically fulfilled the pledge he made to himself that he would "show the people what they been missing." After a month of coming off the Cleveland bench, he was promoted to regular status on May 11. At the end of June he was batting .350, second in the league to Rod Carew. He ended the season with a .291 average, third highest on the team, and he proved himself remarkably versatile, starting at all three outfield positions, at third base and as the designated hitter. He batted everywhere in the order except ninth. A severely bruised thigh muscle prematurely ended his season on Sept. 25, but when he returns next year, Torborg hopes to play him in right field and bat him second.
In keeping with his personality, Dade managed to draw attention to himself in other respects than his fine play. He chose his uniform number, 00, he says, to represent his anonymity when compared to most of the free agents. He was also frequently found guilty by the Indians' Kangaroo Kourt for hot-dogging and fraternizing with the opposition. "I guess Paul is what you'd call a blithe spirit," says Torborg. "It just took a while for everybody to understand him."
In fact, Dade is quite easy to understand once his insecurity is recognized. It is as obvious as the number on his back. Even now he says, "I'm scared. They might not want me after next year." Dade will probably worry about that all winter, at least when he is not sitting in his new reclining chair in his new house, watching football games on his new 25-inch color television set. Now that Dade has made the big leagues and paid his bills, he figures he can start to enjoy life a little. "I've finally come through the door," he says.
Bonda claims he does not regret signing either of the two free agents. "Absolutely, I'd do it again," he says. "Dade had a fine season, and Garland was the backbone of the staff, even if he didn't have the won-lost record to show for it. This team may still be ready to blossom. If we become a contender any time in the next five years, it will still be worthwhile."
Despite Bonda's optimism, Cleveland's experience with Garland and Dade will not be lost on the other 25 clubs in this week's draft. Some will be hesitant because they fear they could be squandering their investment on a 19-game loser. Others will be bold because .291 hitters are hard to come by at any price these days. And a large number will not sign anybody because they think there are better uses for their money. Prominent in this group are the two expansion teams, Seattle and Toronto. Lou Gorman, the Mariners' director of baseball operations, says, "Rather than sign one guy for a million and a half dollars, we would prefer to sink the money into a farm and scouting system and perhaps develop two or three star-class players of our own for the same amount of money."
Surprisingly, one of the teams that will be active is Kansas City, even though the Royals stood pat during last year's draft and repeated as division champions. Owner Ewing Kauffman says it will be different this season because, "Last year we took care of our own. [George Brett and Hal McRae, for example, both signed multi-year contracts valued at more than $1 million.] Now I believe our guys realize that the players becoming free agents have taken a risk. So I don't think they will be concerned if we have to pay a free agent slightly more than they are receiving. We want to keep improving our club. We'll be bidding."
Kauffman will be glad to hear that the bidding will probably not be as high this year. At least, it will not be if the owners stick to their intention of being more astute about whom they go after and how much they offer. "Much of last year's bidding was created by the impression that if you didn't bid, you were a cheap bum," says White Sox President Bill Veeck. "Now fans have seen the experience of teams like Milwaukee and California, and they aren't going to exert the same kind of public-opinion pressure."
Another reason for moderation is expressed by San Diego GM Bob Fontaine. "Last year a lot of glamorous players were available," he says. "Now there are a few quality players, but they don't have the known appeal of a Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi or Rollie Fingers."
Nevertheless, it still takes only two teams to make a bidding war. And as a result, a few players are going to get most of the money, while others will be virtually ignored.
Most of the heavy action will involve the outfielders and pitchers. Among the few catchers available are journeymen like George Mitterwald, who played for the Cubs this season, and the best-known infielder is light-hitting Cleveland Shortstop Frank Duffy. The outfield offers some particularly attractive possibilities: Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock of Minnesota; Richie Zisk, Oscar Gamble and Ralph Garr of the White Sox; and Dave Kingman of wherever he happens to be at the moment. And then there are Bruce Bochte, who hit .301 for the Indians, and Rick Miller and Elliott Maddox, whose talents were hidden on the Boston and Baltimore benches.
There is no Gullett or Fingers among the pitchers, but there are the Yankees' Mike Torrez and Pittsburgh Reliever Rich Gossage. Those two, along with Hisle, Bostock and Zisk, should be the biggest gainers of all, but no owner, not even Atlanta's Ted Turner, is saying out loud what player interests him most. When Turner tampered with Matthews before last year's draft, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined him $10,000. Now acts of loud-mouthed indiscretion could cost $250,000. Better to keep quiet and save it for your No. 1 draft choice.
DOLLARS AND SENSE
As the 1977 season proved, it is whom you select, not how much you spend, that brings satisfaction from the free-agent draft. Owners and fans should keep that in mind as they look over this rundown of the best—and worst—of this week's reentry entries.
If there are any sure bets in the draft, they are these five players, each of whom can expect a contract for between $250,000 and $500,000 a year. They just might be worth it:
Lyman Bostock, Twin outfielder, 27 years old, bats left. A good all-round player who hit .300 in each of his two complete big league seasons. Key '77 stat: .336 batting average.
Rich Gossage, Pirate reliever, 26, throws right. The American League's top fireman in '75 with White Sox, he had 26 saves and a 1.62 ERA with Pittsburgh this season. Key '77 stat: 151 strikeouts in 133 innings.
Larry Hisle, Twin outfielder, 30, bats right. A bust during early years of his career as a National Leaguer, but has matured in five AL seasons into a solid run producer. Key '77 stat: league-leading 119 RBIs.
Mike Torrez, Yankee pitcher, 31, throws right. Has won 53 games the last three seasons and had two victories in this year's World Series. Key '77 stat: 17 complete games.
Richie Zisk, White Sox outfielder, 28, bats right. One of the most consistent hitters in baseball, coming off his best home-run (30) and RBI (101) season. Key stat: .297 career average.
OVERPRICED AT ANY PRICE
These players would like no-trade, no-cut, long-term, big-money contracts, but don't deserve them:
Dave Kingman, Met outfielder, Padre infielder, Angel and Yankee DH, 28, bats right. Hits the ball high, wide and seldom. Catches it occasionally. Key stat: 853 strikeouts in 2,648 career at bats.
Mike Marshall, Ranger reliever, 34, throws right. Injuries have diminished his skills, but not the sourness of his disposition. Key '77 stat: 4.71 ERA.
Bill Melton, Indian infielder, 32, bats right. Former home-run champ who now has a lead bat to go with his iron glove. Key '77 stat: 0 homers.
BARGAINS FROM THE BASEMENT
Available for much lower salaries, all they want is the chance to show what they can do, and their '77 performances say they deserve it:
Orlando Gonzalez, minor league outfielder, 25, bats left. Former NCAA Player of the Year who has hit .300 in three straight minor league seasons. Key '77 stat: 145 hits in 132 games.
Mario Guerrero, Angel infielder, 28, bats right. California doesn't like his attitude, but he has developed into a solid .284 hitter. Key '77 stat: 69 hits in 86 games.
Elliott Maddox, Oriole outfielder, 28, bats right. If his shaky knee holds up, he should be solid at bat, in the field and on the bases. Key '77 stat: one error in 100 chances.
WHAT PRICE GLORY?
$ per hit
Soderholm, W. Sox
Nordbrook, W. Sox-Toronto
$ per win
Stone, W. Sox
$ per save