On Dec. 5. the day baseball's 1988 winter meetings officially opened at Atlanta's Marriott Marquis Hotel, Rennie Stennett was milling around the lobby looking for a job—as a player. Remember Stennett? In December '79 the San Francisco Giants signed him to a five-year, $3 million contract, even though he was hampered by leg injuries and had hit no homers and had only 24 RBIs for the Pittsburgh Pirates the previous season. In '80, Stennett, an infielder, played 120 games and knocked in 37 runs, but San Francisco let him go after he got only seven RBIs in 38 games the following season. In so doing, the Giants, of course, ended up having to buy out his contract.
Stennett is 37 now, and he hasn't played in the majors since his release, but given the wild way the owners were throwing money around last week, who could blame him for showing up? As one general manager said, "If he'd stayed a couple of more days, [California Angels executive vice-president] Jackie Autry might have given him a million dollars."
Stennett's presence evoked memories of how out of control the free-agent market got in the 1970s and early '80s. "Remember how crazy things were back then?" says Peter Bavasi, a former executive for numerous teams and now president of Telerate Sports's Sports Ticker. Bavasi recalls it as a time when Autry's husband, Gene, the owner of the Angels, was so eager to land pitcher Catfish Hunter that he hired someone to hand out autographed copies of Autry's recording of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer in Ahoskie, N.C., a few miles from Hunter's farm.
And by all appearances those crazy days are back. After nearly three years of what commissioner Peter Ueberroth has euphemistically called "fiscal restraint," the once moribund free-agent market has reerupted into a full-scale bidding war. And this time a lot more money is involved. Here are some of the deals that were struck during the meetings or in the days leading up to them:
•The New York Yankees guaranteed pitcher Andy Hawkins $3.6 million—$1.6 million more than anyone else—for three years, even though he has a history of shoulder trouble and a modest 60-58 career record.
•The Boston Red Sox gave their catcher Rich Gedman a one-year, $1.15 million contract, despite the fact that no other team expressed interest in him.
•The Texas Rangers outbid the Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos in agreeing to pay their shortstop Scott Fletcher $3.9 million over three years. Last season Fletcher didn't hit any homers and had only 23 extra-base hits.
•The Indians landed reliever Jesse Orosco, who's widely perceived to be over the hill, with a two-year, $1.675 million deal, after everyone else was passing on him.
•Outfielder Jeffrey Leonard, whom the Milwaukee Brewers had let go, signed a two-year, $1.75 million contract with the heretofore ultraparsimonious Seattle Mariners.
A number of big trades were also made at the meetings. Most notably, the Dodgers acquired slugger Eddie Murray from the Baltimore Orioles, and the Rangers landed second baseman Julio Franco from the Indians and outfielder Rafael Palmeiro from the Chicago Cubs. But what dominated the meetings was the scramble to unload millions on this year's bumper crop of free agents.
The two players who grabbed center stage were Bruce Hurst and Nolan Ryan, not only because of their considerable pitching skills but also because they inspired the Singing Cowboy to get back in the saddle again. Last month Gene Autry, who turned 81 in September, told Bavasi, "I have a lot of money to spend and not a lot of time [to live], and I want a World Series ring."
Just before the meetings Autry blew up at Angel general manager Mike Port for allowing the Kansas City Royals to sign catcher Bob Boone for $883,001, or $1 more than the Angels had paid him last year. Autry then announced that he had ordered Port to sign Hurst and Ryan "no matter what the cost."
Port knew Hurst would never sign with the Angels as long as Doug Rader, a man not noted for his savoir faire, managed the team. Hurst was trying to decide between a three-year, $4.7 million offer from the Red Sox and a $4.6 million deal with the Padres. So the Angels offered him $5 million. When that didn't sway him, Jackie Autry instructed Port to raise the ante to $5.6 million. Boston responded with $5.5 million, and the Padres $5.25 million.
Hurst finally decided to sacrifice $350,000 and cast his lot with San Diego. "This is America—you have the right to choose." he said. "I really think San Diego is the best place for my family."
Most of Hurst's close relatives live in Southern California or near his hometown of St. George, Utah, which is only a short plane ride from San Diego. Hurst was also impressed with San Diego owner Joan Kroc's ban on alcohol in the clubhouse. Further, he has privately expressed dissatisfaction with the indifferent manner in which Red Sox management treats players' wives, handles travel arrangements and runs its clubhouse.
The bidding for Ryan was just as outlandish. According to Texas general manager Tom Grieve, Ryan's negotiations with the Rangers, Giants and Houston Astros "were stuck at right about $1.1 million or $1.2 million for one year." Then California offered Ryan, who will be 42 on January 31 and who had a 54-58 record for the Astros over the last five years, $3.8 million for two years. The Angels subsequently increased their offer to $4 million for the same number of years, but Ryan, who lives in Alvin, Texas, settled on a one-year, $2 million deal with the Rangers. "First and foremost I'm a Texan," Ryan said after signing. "I don't want to move my family."
After seeing the sums that Hurst and Ryan commanded, Oakland Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson felt relieved to have signed righthanded pitcher Mike Moore, formerly of Seattle, to a three-year, $3.95 million contract before the meetings began. "We're fortunate," said Alderson. "If he'd waited and come here, we probably never could've signed him, because the bidding would have gone out of sight."
One possible reason for the bonanza is the fact that two arbitrators, in separate decisions in September 1987 and August '88, found the owners guilty of collusion to restrict the free-agent market in the 1985-86 and '86-87 off-seasons. A decision on '87-88 is pending. Most owners, however, claim that those decisions had nothing to do with last week's generous offers.
"The collusion rulings didn't prompt some teams to run out and reopen the market," says one member of the Player Relations Committee. "Things had already been turning. The Dodgers started it last year by signing Kirk Gibson [$4.5 million over three years] and paying big bucks [$987,500 a season for two seasons] to Mike Davis. The Giants also signed Brett Butler away from the Indians, and the Yankees signed Jack Clark away from the Cardinals. Now, we're back where we were a few years ago."
Says Barry Rona, director of the Player Relations Committee, "Was what happened collusion? No. Was there peer pressure to exercise restraint? Yes. But there were no orders. This is a business of trends. The trend was to not sign free agents. Now the trend is to go out and spend. Some teams did it and had success, and others are following."
Not surprisingly. Players Association director Donald Fehr has a different perspective. "The owners essentially are admitting what we knew all along—that they're making money," says Fehr. "All along, they were lying."
Before the two-day players strike in 1985, the owners claimed that only five teams were making a profit. During last week's meetings Ueberroth's office put out a multicolored brochure boasting how profitable baseball has become. In the last two seasons, according to the commissioner's office, players' salaries rose a meager 4.7%, while attendance increased 11.5%, local-television revenue climbed 34.3% and Major League Baseball licensing profits soared from $2.5 million to $13.2 million. What's more, the value of teams has risen. Last week the estate of Edward Bennett Williams sold the Orioles to a consortium led by club CEO Lawrence Lucchino for $70 million. Williams had purchased the club in 79 for $12 million.
Two other developments make the future look even brighter for the owners. First, the Yankees signed a 12-year, $500 million contract on Friday with the Madison Square Garden cable television network—a deal that should have a major impact on local broadcast-rights negotiations in other markets. Second, baseball's new national TV contract, the terms of which will be announced soon, is expected to produce revenues of $1.2 billion over the next three years. Some clubs, it seems, have already started to spend the money.
"Nearly 18 teams think they can win next year," said one general manager. "[Expos owner] Charles Bronfman told his front office to win. Autry told Port to win at all costs. The same's obviously true with Joan Kroc in San Diego."
And don't forget the Dodgers, who blithely picked up Murray's three-year, $8 million contract, though they'll get some help from the Orioles in covering Murray's deferred income. Of course, they didn't have to give up much to get him: only minor league shortstop Juan Bell, whom they had already planned to dump, and two second-line pitchers, Brian Holton and Ken Howell.
The acquisition of Murray, who had 28 homers and 84 RBIs in '88, helped compensate for loss of second baseman Steve Sax, who signed with the Yankees on Nov. 23. During the playoffs Sax said, "I wouldn't live in New York for $10 million." But he changed his mind and agreed to a three-year, $4 million deal after Dodger general manager Fred Claire tried to play hardball with him during the negotiations. Los Angeles filled its hole at second base on Saturday by signing Willie Randolph, whom the Yankees had made no effort to re-sign after making the deal with Sax.
Another trend that became apparent at the meetings is the growing dominance of the Western Division in each league. A few years ago the National League West was the laughingstock of baseball. But last season five of its six teams finished at better than .500, and San Diego, which went 67-48 after Jack McKeon replaced Larry Bowa as manager, will go into 1989 as the club to beat in the division.
Before the Padres acquired Hurst, they sent infielder/outfielder Keith Moreland and third baseman Chris Brown to the Detroit Tigers for righty pitcher Walt Terrell. Hurst and Terrell should make San Diego's starting rotation, which also will include Dennis Rasmussen, Eric Show and Edd Whitson, one of the best in the majors. The offense looks impressive, too, since the Padres acquired Clark, who had 93 RBIs in '88, from the Yankees for Jimmy Jones, an ineffective righthanded starter, and Lance McCullers, a righthanded reliever who has never quite cut it as a closer. And they can still deal prized young catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. for more talent.
Since the start of divisional play in 1969, the American League East has looked down its nose at the West. But in '88, the Red Sox won the East with only 89 victories, and the Athletics swept them in the playoffs. Since then, Oakland has added Moore, Minnesota has picked up second baseman Wally Backman from the New York Mets, the Angels have acquired righthanded pitcher Bert Blyleven from the Twins and catcher Lance Parrish from the Phillies, and Texas has begun a major overhaul.
After finishing 33½ games behind the Athletics last season, the Rangers have realized that they can't rely entirely on their youth movement anymore. So Grieve traded reliever Mitch Williams, lefty starter Paul Kilgus, utility infielder Curtis Wilkerson and three other young players to the Cubs for Palmeiro and two lefthanders, Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall. Then Texas dealt first baseman Pete O'Brien, second baseman Jerry Browne and outfielder Oddibe McDowell to Cleveland for Franco. "We had to have a couple of batters in our lineup who can hit the good pitchers," says manager Bobby Valentine. "We got two of the best in Palmeiro and Franco, two .300 hitters. Now the free-swingers, who tend to strike out a lot, are balanced off."
The American League East has lost Hurst, Clark, Murray, Franco and Terrell without getting much in return. In addition to picking up Hawkins, Jones and McCullers, the Yankees shelled out $2,575 million over three years to land free-agent Dave LaPoint, a lefthanded starter with a 67-66 lifetime record. The Red Sox extracted promising righthander John Dopson from the Expos for backup shortstop Spike Owen but will probably have to settle for someone like free-agent Jim Clancy to fill the void left by Hurst. The way things are going, the 33-year-old Clancy, who has a career record of 128-140 with a 4.10 ERA, will command at least $2.5 million for two years. At week's end his agent, Randy Hendricks, said, "We've gone from here [pointing to his kneel to here [holding his hand at shoulder level], and we really haven't started talking."
Stick by the phone, Rennie. That call you've been waiting for could come any day now.
A MULTITUDE OF MILLIONAIRES
Buoyed by a new TV contract that will bring in $500 million over 12 years, the Yankees have again turned into big spenders. They've recently signed three free agents, all to three-year deals. LaPoint (near right), who has a 67-66 career record, will receive $2.575 million; Sax (center), a .282 lifetime hitter, $4 million; and Hawkins, 60-58 for his career, $3.6 million.
Embarrassed by their sixth-place finish in the American League West in 1988, the Rangers fortified their roster by trading for .300 hitters Franco (above left) and Palmeiro (above right) and by outbidding the competition for Ryan (below left) and Fletcher.