Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was offended. Here were Cuban refugees swarming into the U.S., a land that prides itself on maintaining a free market for talent. And here was Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, alerted that there might be some big league prospects among the refugees, warning clubs to refrain, for now anyway, from signing any of them. Which was all Miller needed to hear. "We should readapt the slogan: 'the land of the free—except for baseball,' " he said.
It would be a gross overstatement, of course, to equate the yearnings of major league ballplayers, many of whom are earning small and not-so-small fortunes, with the refugees' quest for freedom. Still, Kuhn's directive played right into Miller's hands—and at a rather awkward moment for baseball's establishment. As Miller and other sports labor organizers never tire of pointing out, owing to amateur drafts, compensation requirements and vestiges of the old reserve system, professional athletes are generally less free to sell their services to the highest bidder than Americans in other professions. It is only because baseball players have succeeded in shedding some of the restraints on their freedom to negotiate in the open market that their salaries have soared in recent years. Conversely, it is largely because the owners want to introduce new restraints, including increased compensation to teams that lose the services of free agents, that the players have set their May 23 strike deadline. Last week, even as Kuhn was acting on the Cuban situation, the owners and Miller's union resumed their long-stalled negotiations in an effort to avert a walkout.
In ruling that clubs not sign Cuban players, Kuhn may be paving the way for putting the Cubans under the same constraints imposed on home-grown American prospects, who are divvied up by the clubs in amateur drafts. Ironically, players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin baseball hotbeds aren't subject to drafts but are free to bargain with more than one club.
May 18, 1980
Of necessity, Cuba has long been a special case. After Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, the flow of talent from that country to the U.S. was cut off. When Castro invited the New York Yankees to play on his island in 1977, Kuhn vetoed the trip, expressing fear that the Yankees might otherwise gain an unfair advantage in scouting and signing Cuban talent. That was the same rationale officially given for last week's action, but Marty Appel, a spokesman for the commissioner, acknowledged to SI's Robert Sullivan that Kuhn's pronouncement also was meant to prevent a costly bidding war for Cuban players. Appel said that a draft expressly for Cubans might eventually be set up.
Kuhn's hastily imposed moratorium made it difficult to say for sure whether there actually are bona fide big league prospects among the refugees. Before the commissioner intervened, Cincinnati scout George Zuraw visited a refugee encampment in Florida to check out some 30 players, including Second Baseman Julio Soto and Catcher Rogelio Mediavilla, both of whom have played at the top level of Cuban baseball. It was a poignant scene. Going through their paces on a field overgrown with crabgrass, the Cubans, some of them barefoot, scooped up ground balls, ran timed sprints and took cuts at Zuraw's pitching, a fence serving as an improvised backstop. Hundreds of other refugees watched and cheered.
Zuraw said that several of the Cuban players "looked all right," but added, "I'd like to see some of these guys under better conditions." However, following Kuhn's directive, the Cincinnati brass said it wouldn't pursue the Cubans further. But the memory of Zuraw's unique scouting trip will linger. From the standpoint of public relations, to say nothing of humanity, it stands in sharp contrast to Kuhn's attempt to hold down the price on Cuban talent. Zuraw said that during his hour-long visit with the refugees, he lost two baseball gloves, half a dozen balls and a pair of spikes. "Actually, I happily gave them away," he said. "I even brought extra balls and gloves because I knew what would happen."
A CLASSIC OF ITS KIND
Move over, Boston and New York, and make room for the American Odyssey Marathon in the rolling dairy country of central Wisconsin. Held for the first time last fall, the American Odyssey drew just 89 runners, who were greeted by coveralled farmers, contented cows and signs on tractors reading WELCOME MARATHONERS. Despite its down-home flavor, the fact that the race begins in Marathon and ends in Athens gives it an instant and irresistible identity.
Marathon is a town of 1,500 inhabitants that was named in 1849 by W.D. McIndoe, a lumber tycoon and member of the Wisconsin legislature. A lover of the Greek classics, McIndoe also was instrumental in getting the surrounding territory named Marathon County. Athens, which has 900 souls, is situated 18 miles northwest of Marathon. It was originally called Black Creek Falls, but because it was forever being confused with the larger Wisconsin community of Black River Falls, in 1879 the town acknowledged both its proximity to Marathon and its presence in Marathon County by changing its name to Athens.
Although suggestions had been made over the years that a road race from Marathon to Athens might have a certain allure, it was only last year that the Jaycees in the two towns joined to stage one. In recognition of the distance Pheidippides supposedly covered in his Mara-thon-to-Athens run, they devised a course along county roads and State Highway 107 that, with a detour here and a loop there, measured the requisite 26 miles, 385 yards. The course has several steep inclines that, according to Race Director Gerald Koeller, "make Heartbreak Hill seem like a shrimp." Under the circumstances, says Koeller, last year's winning time (2:33:45) by Jeff Valley of Iron Mountain, Mich. was better than it appears.
Koeller, a bowling alley manager in Athens, is an unabashed booster for Marathon County. "We don't have much major industry around here, and we aren't very well known," he says. "We thought a marathon would let the world know we exist." This year's American Odyssey is scheduled for Sept. 13, and lest the world have any doubt that this particular Marathon-to-Athens race is set in a most unusual locale, Koeller adds, "Marathon County has an Italian sheriff, a Polish-German population and, as far as I know, not a single Greek."
HE'S A TRUE INSPIRATION
It seemed fitting enough when the Cleveland Browns selected Cleveland Crosby, a defensive end from the University of Arizona, in the second round of last month's NFL draft. Given their ambition of finishing ahead of the Steelers in the AFC's Central Division, the Browns were even more pleased when they learned the young man's full name: Cleveland Pittsburgh Crosby.
DOWN, MAYBE NOT OUT
First Notre Dame fails to make college football's Top Ten, then the Montreal Canadiens are bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs, and now, what's this about Southern Cal's baseball team? Ah yes, the mighty Trojans. In 39 seasons under Coach Rod Dedeaux, USC has won 11 NCAA titles and produced such major league stars as Tom Seaver, Dave Kingman and Bill Lee. Not to mention the 1973 national champions, whose lineup included Fred Lynn, Roy Smalley, Steve Kemp, Rich Dauer, Ed Putman, Randy Scarbery and Pete Redfern, all of whom are currently performing in the American League; the '73 team also had a couple of other players who made it to the big leagues for a spell.
But the just-completed 1980 season proved to be something else again. Starting out with what Dedeaux called his youngest team ever, USC was weakened by injuries and during one torturous stretch lost nine games in a row. The Trojans got back on track for a while, but lost three straight games to UCLA in a season-ending series last weekend for a final record of 27-24 overall and 13-17 in the Pac-10, their first sub-.500 conference showing in 15 years. Nevertheless, an upbeat Dedeaux said, "They'd better beat us this year because this whole club will be back next year and we'll be pretty tough."
These are brave words, but when Dedeaux talks about bouncing back, you'd better listen. A case in point is that talent-laden 1973 team, which somehow managed to lose 11 games (against 40 wins) in the regular season and was being shut out 7-0 on a one-hitter by University of Minnesota Pitcher Dave Winfield going into the ninth inning of a late-round game in the College World Series. Lynn, Smalley & Co. then went to work, and before Winfield and his Gopher teammates knew it, eight USC singles, a sacrifice fly and a stolen base, mixed in with an error, a passed ball and a wild pitch by Minnesota, gave Southern Cal an 8-7 win.
All right, Rod, we'll wait till next year.
In the 15 months since David R. Foster stepped down as Colgate-Palmolive's chief executive officer, his successor, Keith Crane, has sharply cut back the company's deep involvement in sports, something that Foster had avidly promoted. Under Crane, Colgate has dropped sponsorship of such golf tournaments as the women's European Open and the men's Hall of Fame at Pinehurst as well as the men's tennis Grand Prix. It has also sold off several sports equipment lines, including Leach (racquetball) and Ram (golf), and reportedly is trying to dispose of its Bancroft tennis subsidiary.
An unanswered question has been whether Crane's broom would also sweep away the Colgate-Dinah Shore LPGA tournament at Palm Springs' Mission Hills course, an event that because of its big prize money and high TV ratings has taken on a significance in women's golf comparable to the importance of the Masters to the men's tour (SI, April 14). Crane had been rumored to favor switching the tournament, which traditionally is played in late winter, to a summer date that would allow it to be played in the East—and, perhaps not incidentally, far away from Foster, who has a home overlooking Mission Hills' 6th hole. LPGA Commissioner Ray Volpe insisted on retaining the earlier date, which is believed to account for the event's impressive TV ratings, and keeping the tournament in Palm Springs. He also asked for at least a three-year contract.
Win some, lose some. The negotiations are finally over and Crane has agreed only to a one-year contract with an option to renew. But he has consented to leave the tournament when and where it has been during its nine-year history, thereby preserving intact, at least for another year, the LPGA's flagship attraction.
BUZZIE GIVETH, BUZZIE TAKETH AWAY
Just when you thought all the sports promotion possibilities had been exhausted, California Angel Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi has come up with a new one. If he ever gets around to trying it, remember, you read it here first. Bavasi's brainstorm is to proclaim a Dollar Night on which every fan who passes through the turnstiles would receive $1 in cold cash.
Bavasi's idea may be the ultimate extension of baseball's existing giveaways, such as the Cap Night the Angels recently staged while drawing a sellout crowd of 40,376 for a game against the Mariners. Every paying customer received a baseball cap, and Bavasi, although pleased with the promotion's results, said, "A cap costs us $1.25. You might as well give everybody a dollar bill. I'd like to try that some time." And why, exactly, would he like to? "Maybe they'd use the money to buy hot dogs and peanuts," Buzzie said. "Then we'd get 35% of it back as our cut from the concession sales."
THEY SAID IT
•Mickey Rivers, Texas outfielder, explaining why he opposes an early-season players' strike: "There are more games in the second half than the first."
•Walt Garrison, former Dallas Cowboy running back, asked whether coach Tom Landry ever smiles: "I don't know. I only played there nine years."
•John McMullen, Houston Astro owner and former limited partner of Yankee boss George Steinbrenner: "Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George's."