Where Have All The Big Spenders Gone?

Free agent Kirk Gibson had expected to be a multimillionaire by now, but the baseball owners have closed their vaults
December 09, 1985

Grand Prix from Pontiac, 28, seeks position (right or center) with forward-thinking franchise. Rare combo of speed and power (30 SBs, 29 HRs) with proven production skills (.287, 97 RBIs). Asking a little security & a lot of money. If interested in "next Mantle," contact agent Doug Baldwin, waiting by phone in Seattle.

There's something fishy going on. Here we have Kirk Gibson, a certified mega-talent who led Detroit to the 1984 world championship and the biggest free-agent prize since Dave Winfield. The situation he covets—a five-year contract for, oh, $8 million—can be met by roughly a dozen teams. But since the end of the season, Gibson has gotten nothing but cold shoulders from everybody but the Tigers.

No, thank you, say the Cubs. Not us, say the Royals. Don't call us, we'll call you, say the Braves. The Braves? The team that gave Bruce Sutter $42 million last winter and just threw good money after Bruce Benedict (.202 batting average, terrible arm)? George Steinbrenner and Gene Autry say no, too.

What gives? Obviously not the owners. Not yet, anyway. They seem to be working under a twofold gentleman's agreement: Don't offer more than three years, and don't poach on another team's player until Jan. 8, the deadline for free agents to re-up with their clubs. Gibson is not the only star affected. The White Sox' Carlton Fisk, California's Donnie Moore and the Yankees' Butch Wynegar would also ordinarily be enjoying the blandishments of other teams at about this time, but they haven't even been winked at.

Owners claim they are only exercising common sense, but some people on the players' side think they may be practicing collusion. Says Baldwin, Gibson's agent, "It's pretty clear there was a directive from somewhere. If the market doesn't open up, I think the agents and the Players Association will be getting together to make charges of collusion."

Gibson is upset that the Tigers won't budge from their offer of a piddling, by his standards, $3.6 million for three years. He's especially unhappy since the club already has players working on very long-term contracts—Chet Lemon is signed until 1992. Said Gibson last week, "For me to sign a three-year contract and then shake hands with [Tiger G.M.] Bill Lajoie or [president] Jim Campbell, I think I would vomit."

According to Dave Pinter, one of the agents for Moore, who saved 31 games for the Angels, "Five, six teams told us to see them after January 8. Every time I talk to a general manager, he says, 'Come see me after the eighth. We can't sign anyone until then.' "

"I'm getting a little bitter," says Moore, who was given a three-year offer from the Angels for a guaranteed $2.28 million only to have it withdrawn as part of the maneuvering. "They tell me I'm the best reliever they've ever had, but the way things are going, I'm not sure they want me."

Giving the owners the benefit of the doubt, they may just be coming to their senses after years of rash spending. Lee MacPhail, retiring in a few weeks as the chairman of the Player Relations Committee, sent a five-page, parting-shot letter to each of the owners on Oct. 16. He pointed out, among other things, that close to $50 million is being paid out to players no longer performing, that players on long-term contracts spend more time on the disabled list, and that performance progressively falls off in each year of a multiyear pact. "I just told them what I've been telling them all along, that they were crazy and running themselves into bankruptcy," says MacPhail. It also has not gone unnoticed that the more successful clubs in recent years have not resorted to signing free agents.

But the owners' new tune does sound well orchestrated. Gibson and Baldwin were led to believe that certain clubs would make offers befitting a player of his stature. Then, suddenly, those teams disappeared.

Detroit's hard line is a little baffling. Gibson is the heart, if not the soul, of the club, a clutch performer who plays hard. He is a local boy who grew up in Pontiac. He has signed six one-year contracts with the Tigers, and his last two (at $250,000 and $685,000) were virtual bargains.

Although Detroit technically has until Jan. 8 to sign Gibson, it has an artificial deadline of Dec. 21, which is the day Gibson marries JoAnn Sklarski. A few days later, the happy couple embark for Australia, not to return until mid-January. Gibson says that under no circumstances will he interrupt his honeymoon. "That's a negotiating tactic," says Lajoie.

Meanwhile, no other team professes a desire for Gibson. "An interesting name," says John Cox, assistant to Cub president Dallas Green. "He does possess talent. But when you break down his career, he's never been a league MVP, he's never been on an All-Star team, he's never hit 30 homers or won a batting title or Gold Glove."

The most shocking denial has come from Atlanta, where new general manager Bobby Cox said the Braves were more concerned about fiscal responsibility than about Gibson. There are probably a lot of Braves fans, however, who would be more excited by a batting order that had Gibson batting third, Dale Murphy fourth and Bob Horner fifth. It's probably coincidence, but Cox lost interest in Gibson after Ted Turner had lunch with commissioner Peter Ueberroth. The commissioner says he had nothing to do with it.

Baldwin, for one, thinks that Ueberroth is somehow behind the new bear market. His telephone answering machine carries this message: "Everybody but commissioner Ueberroth please leave a message. If it's you, Peter, I'll know by your presence."

PHOTODAVID WALBERGGibson's honeymoon with Detroit is over as he gets ready for his real honeymoon. PHOTOTONY TOMSICGibson got away from it all in Hawaii.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)