Until 1979, Ed Farmer's relief-pitching accomplishments were a lot closer to minor than major. Since being drafted in 1967 by the Cleveland Indians, he had played for 18 different teams; he had been sold once, released outright twice, signed as a free agent thrice and traded five times.
Then, in '79, he had 14 saves for the Chicago White Sox and in 1980 he had 30, one more than he'd had in his slightly more than four previous major league seasons put together. Thus, when his contract came up for renewal last winter, Farmer felt that his $130,000 salary was miserably low and even his employers agreed. The problem was that the Sox thought the $495,000 Farmer wanted was outlandishly high. Still, he pitched last season for $495,000 and he didn't have to become a free agent, threaten to hold out or throw a tantrum to get the loot. How did Farmer spell relief? A-R-B-I-T-R-A-T-I-O-N.
Farmer's case should be instructive to Ken Oberkfell of St. Louis, Omar Moreno of Pittsburgh and Gary Alexander of Cleveland, the most notable of the players who are expected to file for salary arbitration, which begins next week.
The Basic Agreement reached by players and management in 1976 established the right of players with between two and six years of experience in the majors to take salary disputes to binding arbitration. A player with six or more years could become a free agent. While free agency has gotten most of the credit—or blame—for driving salaries to astronomical heights, arbitration has quietly played nearly as important a role. In effect, it has compelled many clubs to "buy out" their best young players' right to arbitration with hefty multiyear contracts.
The key to arbitration is that mystical quantity: comparability, which is what hot-stove leaguers argue about all winter. Who's better? And by how much? In making his decision, the arbitrator in Farmer's case, Theodore J. St. Antoine, considered, among other things, Farmer's age (31), his stats, the salaries of other relievers and the fact that Farmer, a native of the Chicago area, had something of a hometown following. After hearing all the evidence, St. Antoine set Farmer's value at $400,000.
The rules dictate that each side submit an unalterable bid indicating what it feels the player is worth. The arbitrator must choose the figure closer to his own. The White Sox offer in arbitration was $300,000. Farmer's lawyer, Steve Greenberg, submitted a bid of $495,000, which was closer, by just $5,000, to St. Antoine's figure than the team's offer was. "It isn't the club's or the player's figure that's important," explains St. Antoine. "The critical figure is the breaking point."
In Farmer's case Greenberg worked out his bid with the help of his wife, Myrna, and another lawyer, Arn Tellem. Myrna liked the number $650,000. Greenberg thought the arbitrator would find Farmer was more comparable to the Pirates' Kent Tekulve at $400,000 than the Braves' Al Hrabosky at $647,000 or the Cardinals' Bruce Sutter at $975,000. He also guessed that the White Sox' bid would match their final pre-arbitration offer of $300,000.
Greenberg, it turned out, was right on the money. At the door of the hearing room, the White Sox offered $350,000. "The closer people get to zero hour," says St. Antoine, "the more realistic they become." "No way," Farmer told Greenberg as they went in. "Let's go for it all."
Most cases do end in compromise; of the 98 cases filed before the 1981 season, only 21 reached the hearing stage. Players seem to prefer the security of multi-year contracts for less money to arbitration's dicey one-year deals. In the first years of arbitration, the clubs won most of the cases. But since 1979 the players have had the edge. Nowadays even some losers win. For example, Mike Norris won 22 games in 1980, but lost in arbitration. Norris wanted $450,000 and the A's countered with $325,000, which was still $285,000 more than he earned the year before.
For Farmer, Steve Kemp and Sutter, arbitration has been a gold mine. Farmer won $35,000 at his first hearing in 1979. That same year Detroit's Kemp chose not to go to arbitration and got $75,000; in two hearings since, he has moved up to $210,000 and then to $600,000, which was too rich for the Tigers. They traded him in November to the White Sox, who were willing to pay the tab. Sutter, the 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner, demanded $700,000, twice what the Cubs had offered and nearly five times what he had been making. The arbitrator found for Sutter. The Cubs met that price for one year, but knowing it would set the minimum for a future long-term contract with Sutter, dealt him to St. Louis at the '80 winter meetings.
The Farmer hearing was a sort of glorified trivia contest. Each side had an hour to present its case, 30 minutes for rebuttal and another five or 10 for summation. Greenberg stressed his client's "short-term excellence," a term Ralph Garr, then of the Atlanta Braves, popularized in 1975 when he claimed he was worth as much as Pete Rose. Garr, then the defending National League batting champ, didn't claim he was as good as Rose in the long run, but that he ought to be paid as much as Rose for that one year. The arbitrator agreed, and raised Garr's salary from $55,000 to $114,500.
Greenberg also submitted that Farmer had as many or more saves than eight of the 14 teams in the American League and that by adding his saves and wins he was largely responsible for a greater percentage of his team's wins (53%) than any other pitcher in the majors. Also, Farmer's achievements were for the fifth-place White Sox, who had the most errors, the fewest runs scored and the second-lowest slugging percentage in the league.
St. Antoine is perhaps better known in legal circles as the former dean of the University of Michigan Law School. He was drawn for the Farmer hearing from a pool of professional labor consultants agreed upon by the owners and the Players Association, though he admits he's more at home judging electrical workers' cases than baseball players'.
"I come from the days when 'save' meant a relief pitcher got the last out," he says. "I had to be educated on that." So Greenberg and Farmer ran a seminar on what a save means. Only 16 other pitchers had ever saved 30 or more games in a season. In his search for comparisons with Farmer's accomplishment, Greenberg likened his client's feat to hitting 50 or more home runs in a season, like "some guy named Greenberg did." "I assumed that St. Antoine didn't know Farmer wasn't exactly a Hall of Famer," Greenberg says.
St. Antoine pretty much ignored Greenberg's Cooperstown ploy. "I was more interested in how Farmer performed vis-√†-vis the other relievers," he says. "I'll never forget one set of comparisons in the Farmer case.... It made me realize what yo-yo types they tend to be. They're like little dragonflies in a high wind. You never know what direction they'll take next."
St. Antoine also considered a number of intangibles. They included newspaper stories in which White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa was quoted as saying that for his money Farmer was the best reliever in the game; the fact that Farmer was the team's only All-Star; and the fact that he hails from the Chicago area. "By gum," St. Antoine says, "here was a native son playing in front of the neighborhood gang, and he had a following."
St. Antoine thought the club's representatives spent too much time talking of Farmer's poor won-lost percentages in 1979 (5-7 for a .417) and 1980 (7-9 for a .438)—an insignificant stat for relievers—and not enough time on Farmer's poor ERA over the second half of both '79 and '80.
But the White Sox' greatest blunder may have been their comparison of Farmer to 24 other pitchers, 17 of whom were starters. Farmer was at the bottom of nearly every list. Unfortunately for the Sox, the pitcher on their list with whom Farmer seemed most comparable was Tekulve, at $400,000.
Even though Farmer won and the Sox didn't try to ridicule him, he was annoyed by the comparisons to relievers who had saved only 10 games in 1980. "If that's what they think of me," he muttered half-jokingly, "I'll get them only 10 saves in 1981." Indeed, that's precisely how many he got in the strike-shortened season, along with a 4.58 ERA. St. Antoine, who hung on every one of Farmer's hanging curves last season, wasn't surprised. "I can't say that Farmer performed exactly the way I'd have liked him to," says St. Antoine, "but I took some solace in the fact that at least he was in line with the tradition, and maybe getting compensated for the superlative campaign he had in 1980. After all, we arbitrators can only follow the salary patterns that the clubs are establishing."
Which seems to lead to the question of what Hank Greenberg—who threatened to hold out after hitting 58 home runs and extracted an extra $5,000 from the Tigers—would take home from an arbitration hearing these days. About $600,000, his son guesses. "Then again," he says, "you've got to remember he's 71 years old."