For Kirk Gibson the divorce is finally final. The former Detroit Tigers slugger—who had been snubbed by 25 teams the first time he became a free agent in 1985—was granted his freedom again by arbitrator Thomas Roberts and only 10 days later signed a three-year, $4.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. That made Gibson the first free agent in three years to sign with a new team for more cash than his old one offered. It also made him the first player to take advantage of a second chance at free agency.
Roberts had ruled in September that after the 1985 season the owners had violated Article XVIII, Paragraph H of the Basic Agreement between management and the players. It's a provision that the owners had originally insisted upon having: "Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs." The owners had been worried that, say, an entire infield would walk out together as a contract-bargaining ploy. Roberts ruled that in snubbing the '85 free agents, the owners had worked together for "the contemplated benefit of a common goal." On Jan. 22 he declared that seven aggrieved players, Gibson most notable among them, were entitled to become free agents again and had until March 1 to strike a bargain for themselves. During this summer Roberts is expected to decide on the amount of monetary damages due those players who were unable to prosper during their second chance at freedom.
Gibson, 30, was the only one of the seven still young enough to have great market value. (The others were Carlton Fisk, Donnie Moore, Joe Niekro, Butch Wynegar, Tom Brookens and Juan Beniquez.) He had a season to go on his Tiger contract, which would have been worth $1.3 million this year. Within hours of Roberts's decision, Dodger executive vice-president Fred Claire, who had turned down a Gibson-for-Pedro Guerrero deal in December because he feared that Gibson might become free again in January, expressed interest in signing him. So did the San Diego Padres.
"My first choice was Detroit, hands down," says Gibson. "But the Tigers wouldn't budge." By Jan. 26 Claire and Doug Baldwin, Gibson's agent, had agreed to the basics of a three-year deal, including a bonus and salary totaling $2.5 million for 1988. The Tigers, in turn, finally made their move. They offered to extend Gibson's contract through 1989, adding a very slight raise, to $1.33 million, and a no-trade provision. The total difference between the two contracts might have been less than $500,000, since Gibson would have been eligible to receive damages had he stayed in Detroit. "The way the Dodgers structured the deal, with so much of the money up front, I'd have been crazy not to take it," he said.
There were two serious hitches, however. Says Baldwin, "The deal was effectively done when Claire said, 'We're sending you a couple of small clauses we want you to agree to.' For 48 hours they looked like deal busters."
The first clause would have allowed the Dodgers to suspend Gibson without pay if they thought he was abusing drugs, illegal or prescribed. The second would have given them the right to stop paying Gibson in the event of a lockout when the basic agreement expires Dec. 31, 1989. "The PRC [Player Relations Committee] has been trying to force these [lockout] clauses into a lot of contracts," says a spokesman for the players. "They are in some 1988 and 1989 contracts, but it's 1990 that [the owners] are aiming at, because the basic agreement is up." After those 48 hours the Dodgers softened the language in the offending clauses, and the deal was done.
Gibson will add some much needed power to the suddenly rebuilt Dodgers. Since he took over from Al Campanis in April, Claire has acquired outfielders John Shelby, Mike Davis and now Gibson, plus shortstop Alfredo Griffin, relievers Jesse Orosco and Jay Howell and starting pitcher Tim Belcher. The only player from the 1987 opening day lineup likely to be playing in the same spot on Opening Day '88 is catcher Mike Scioscia. If both Guerrero and Mike Marshall make the starting team, the Dodgers could have five 20-home run hitters in their batting order.
Since they paid $4.5 million for Gibson, one might wonder why the Dodgers didn't sign Tim Raines, perhaps the game's best player, when he was available for only $4 million last March. That's a question arbitrator George Nicolau may answer in April, when he decides the fate of the players who became free agents in 1986 and failed to benefit financially from it. If Nicolau, like Roberts, rules against the owners, sudden baseball divorces could become epidemic.