It has become more and more obvious that money makes the world of baseball go around. The game may have been Fantasyland when we were kids, but now it's free agency and TV millions and superstations and supercontracts. There are few villains and few heroes—just a lot of people trying to make the best buck possible while playing by the rules. Like most of us.
So it was no surprise that the big headlines out of last week's winter meetings in Houston involved free-agent reliever Bruce Sutter, who became the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with a six-year, $9.6 million deal courtesy of Atlanta's Ted Turner and his superstation, WTBS; Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, who has a chance to top Sutter's contract but is torn between remaining with the Cubs and moving to San Diego, Atlanta or Kansas City; and Rickey Henderson, who finally signed with the Yankees nearly 24 hours after the meetings closed—and almost 72 hours after the Yankees and A's, who said he was costing too much, agreed on the trade that sent Henderson east with a five-year, $8.6 million contract.
With the new speedster, New York's lineup next year will start like this: Henderson, Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Don Baylor and Ken Griffey. Duck, you chuckers.
Leftovers: The Braves may have added Sutter, but Bob Horner needs surgery on his right wrist and might very well miss '85.... Sutcliffe, Fred Lynn, Ed Whitson and Don Aase are the key free agents still on the loose.
As major league owners tried to come to grips at Houston with a potentially explosive superstation situation—what to do about broadcasts that invade other teams' territories—the most likely scenario to emerge was one of compromise: The superstation forks over a modest share of the profits, and baseball as we know it survives.
The superstations in question are Atlanta's WTBS, whose owner, Ted Turner, also owns the Braves; Chicago's WGN, whose owner, the Tribune Company, also owns the Cubs; and New York's WOR and WPIX, which provide Met and Yankee broadcasts, respectively, for cable systems. The team owners are annoyed because, they say, they can't land a profitable national cable contract if the superstations offer so much baseball so cheaply. They get no compensation when a game is beamed into their turf, and they feel such broadcasts hurt attendance and local ratings. They're also furious that Turner and WGN can route baseball cable profits into Braves and Cubs player contracts, like the $9.6 million deal Turner made with free agent Bruce Sutter and the fortune he is reportedly offering the Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe.
"It's not baseball, it's two networks bidding for talent," says White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn, the TV maven who helped negotiate baseball's record $1.2 billion national TV contract. "Baseball is incidental to them."
By a 25-1 vote the owners gave commissioner Peter Ueberroth authority to deal with the superstations. Ueberroth reportedly has devised a formula for getting compensation from them. "It's just a drop in the bucket, but it's a start," said one owner. Turner reportedly has agreed to go along with Ueberroth's formula; WGN hasn't made any decision.
Said Einhorn: "I could have had the best superstation in the world, but I had to get along with the rest of the people in baseball. You can't have total anarchy."
Signals, the guy kept sending out signals. New commissioner Ueberroth spent his first winter meetings staking out an identity and taking every opportunity to contrast himself with Bowie Kuhn, the guy who used to be accused of starching his underwear.
First, Ueberroth played in a media Softball game the day before the meetings began, and he sucked on a couple of beers between innings, just like everybody else. A few days later he visited the Baseball Writers Association meeting, showing that he knows the value of good p.r.
In his State of the Game speech, Ueberroth said he was baffled by the way baseball has only "reacted to problems," adding that "We seem to be a defensive unit." He said he had already met on the q.t. with Marvin Miller and with Don Fehr, a successor to Miller as head of the players' union, and that, contrary to the belief of many owners, he did not feel they were "villains." That was enough to make some of them gag. Kuhn, of course, was squarely on the owners' side in recent negotiations.
Ueberroth later flew to Las Vegas, where he met with the leaders of the Players Association. "The players," he said, "are what make the game exciting. They're baseball."
Bowie, of course, wouldn't have dreamed of such a meeting with the players, but one agent who works closely with the association wasn't sold on Ueberroth. Not yet, anyway. "His technique is terrific," he said, "but we still don't know about the substance." Presumably, the players will decide on Ueberroth's "substance" during their negotiations with the owners this week.
The first thing Peter Bavasi did when he took over as president of the Indians two weeks ago was to give everyone in the front office a 10% raise. Then he resigned free agent Andre Thornton, 35, who had been expected to sign with Baltimore or Minnesota.
"[Signing Thornton] is credibility, it's important for all the things we want to do," said Bavasi, the successor to Gabe Paul. "This is an abused franchise [no pennant in 30 years], and you can't restore it to the glory it used to have when the first thing you don't do is sign Thornton. We wanted to send a very strong signal to the young players in the organization that if they did well they would be rewarded. We want them to say, 'Hey, these guys mean business.' " And he wants the rest of us to stop cracking wise with "...and second prize is two weeks in Cleveland."
BALL PARK FIGURES