At dawn on Nov. 13, Mark Langston stirs in his bed in a Santa Monica, Calif. hotel, content in the knowledge that he is at the top of baseball's most wanted list. After six seasons as a pitcher for Seattle and Montreal—86 wins, 76 losses and 1,253 strikeouts—he has become a free agent in an auction in which even the low bid figures to rank with the highest outlay ever made for a player.
A few miles east, in Brentwood, Langston's agent, Arn Tellem, bounces around the bedroom of his house as if he were electrified. He snaps his hips, slices the air with his elbows, rotates his arms with glee. "I feel like Secretariat waiting for the bell," he says. "I feel like Magic Johnson ready to explode on a three-on-one break. I feel like Keith Richards...."
Langston just feels like falling back to sleep. He has come down to L.A. from his home in Bellevue, Wash., to be near Tellem while the agent sets up a series of rendezvous with the owners and general managers of half a dozen teams. Ironically, today Seattle makes the first offer.
The Mariners could have signed Langston back in February for three years at $5.4 million. But the owner at the time, George Argyros, wanted to run the team on the cheap. In late March the Mariners seemed ready to shell out that sum, but it was too late. "No thanks," said Tellem. "Now we want the same $6.7 million Dwight Gooden got from the Mets."
December 11, 1989
Tellem was in the catbird seat. He had a 28-year-old lefty who had led the American League in strikeouts three times. If Langston were to become a free agent after the '89 season, the bidding had to take off.
The Mariners offered Gooden's deal in May. "O.K.," said Tellem. "But it's got to be retroactive to the start of the season."
No way, said the Mariners.
"Fine," said Tellem. "Give me the deal Roger Clemens got from Boston: three years at $7.5 million."
Langston wondered if he should settle for $7.1 million. Tellem advised him to wait. Argyros wouldn't. Langston was dealt to Montreal, where he finished the season 16-14. In August he turned down the Expos' three-year, $9 million offer. "Montreal had gone into a tailspin," says Tellem, "and Mark wanted to play on a contending team."
By the time the real Langston sweepstakes are set to begin in L.A., the Mariners have a new ownership, led by Jeff Smulyan, who bought the team in August. Smulyan opens the bidding by faxing a proposal to Tellem's office: three years, $10 million. Tellem, who over the next two-plus weeks will give a reporter a daily account of his dealings on Langston's behalf, won't consider anything less than five years. "Ideally," Tellem says, "we're looking for five years at $17.5 million."
Does he really think Langston is worth it?
"Yeah," says Tellem. "Every cent."
"This is a sick business," Tellem cackles. "Sick people are in it, like me." At 35, he has the air of a man who could negotiate a truce with guerrilla forces while armed only with a cellular phone and chutzpah. He's a Philadelphian in exile, a Broad Street Danny Rose. Langston, who met Tellem in 1981 while still at San Jose State, calls him the Master Manipulator.
The Dodgers are the first team in line. They invite Tellem, Langston and his wife, Michelle, for a get-acquainted lunch at Dodger Stadium: vegetable soup and broiled salmon. Team attorney Santiago Fernandez jokingly suggests that Tellem should rent a room at the Biltmore Hotel and raffle Langston off.
"I've been thinking about it," says Tellem. He isn't kidding. He's been toying with the idea of holding a silent auction with sealed bids. He would like to hold it in the Felt Forum in Manhattan with Brent Musburger doing color commentary and maybe Vanna White opening the envelopes.
"Would you consider sealed bids?" Tellem asks.
"No!" Fernandez says flatly.
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda drops by to schmooze. He talks about the pride of wearing Dodger blue, how once you put on a Dodger uniform you never want to take it off.
Lasorda, however, is wearing a sport jacket and a tie as he shows Mark and Michelle around the clubhouse. They inspect the photos on his Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles walls. "These are the nicest walls I've ever seen in a manager's office," says Langston.
Lasorda plays up the celebrity angle. "A guy like me has to turn down movie and TV roles all the time," he says. "If you play here, young man, you'll get offers too." He hands Langston a couple of jars of Tommy Lasorda's Chunky Tomato Marinara Pasta Sauce.
Later in the day, the Langston entourage descends on the recording studio of rock musician Bruce Hornsby, whom Langston once met backstage in Seattle. Hornsby asks Michelle about the bidding for her husband: "How would you handicap this?"
"I just have one prediction," she says. "We'll be a Dodger."
Standing in the Laker locker room at the Forum, Langston looks slightly embarrassed. He's posing for a picture with forward James Worthy, who doesn't seem to know who Langston is.
"He's a baseball pitcher," says a photographer. "A free agent. Gonna sign for millions."
Worthy eyes Langston soberly. "Well," he says, "better get it while you can get it."
Langston has arrived at the Forum by way of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles. Autry, the Angel owner, conducted the Langstons and Tellem on a tour that was perhaps even more impressive than Lasorda's. He showed them his old saddles, hats and holsters. "By the time he showed me his favorite gun, I was fighting back tears," says Tellem.
Mark, too, is touched by the Singing Cowboy. "I was overwhelmed when I saw him surrounded by all these adoring little old ladies," he says. "It was like he was Michael Jackson, only older."
The souvenir of the day is a cassette called The Gene Autry Story. Tellem finds an omen in the title of one of the songs: There's a Gold Mine in the Sky.
Michelle is decked out in Rodeo Drive taupe—taupe slacks, taupe blouse, taupe jacket—with a multitude of gold bangles. If not for her sugary drawl, you would never guess she was Chattanooga born and bred. She never felt comfortable in Montreal, and was widely blamed for Mark's decision not to stay. "The Montreal papers called me a prom queen!" she says.
Michelle wants to be an actress. She has taken acting lessons for two years in Seattle. "We don't read plays," she says, "just unsold TV pilots." Jackie Autry, Gene's wife, told Michelle that she would introduce her to friends in the TV biz. Today, in a hotel near a Los Angeles airport, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner says he'll open doors for her at Paramount. Michelle is charmed. "I loved George," she says later. "I felt like kissing him."
Steinbrenner romances Mark by saying he sees him as the next Ron Guidry. He makes the Big Apple sound delectable. "If you can make it there," George says in all seriousness, "you can make it anywhere."
Langston, folded into a chair in Tellem's office, is feeling the disorientation that occurs when yesterday begins to blend with tomorrow. "I don't know who I'm seeing tonight," he says. "I just go where I'm told."
He's midway through a day-night doubleheader with San Diego and St. Louis. The Padres had been his first choice. He was born in San Diego and likes the players. Tony Gwynn has promised to give him hitting lessons. But the Padres are in disarray because the franchise is for sale, and the team must also worry about re-signing their own free-agent pitcher, Mark Davis.
St. Louis looks more promising. Busch Stadium is Langston's favorite park. "If Mark pitched here," manager Whitey Herzog said during the season, "he might never lose."
Before the meeting, Tellem agonizes over whether to bring along a baseball bearing Ozzie Smith's autograph for Herzog to sign as well. "Or should I have him sign a new one? This is the major decision of my life."
Herzog and Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill are waiting at their hotel with a cooler full of Budweisers. Herzog tells Langston he's the best lefty in baseball. He says he wants to help him win 300 games and make the Hall of Fame. He even makes a pitch to Michelle. "St. Louis has all kinds of opera and stage shows," he says.
Tellem asks Herzog to autograph his Ozzie Smith ball.
"Are you asking everyone to do this?" Herzog says.
"I wanted to, but I forgot."
Tellem is back in Philly for a bas mitzvah. He's gnawing on a Jim's cheese steak and wondering if Langston will get a five-year deal. San Francisco canceled its meeting. The Padres say five years is out of the question. The Cards claim they can't go more than three. Herzog has said, "I have a feeling the Angels are the team to beat. It'll be tough competing with the Cowboy."
Tellem sees it coming down to the Angels and Yankees, the two teams that seem willing to go five years. He thinks the Dodgers are too conservative. He calls Langston, who's vacationing in the Cayman Islands.
"Lemme ask you this," Tellem says. "Which would you choose, the Angels or the Yankees?"
"The Angels," Langston says. "But what about the Cubs?"
The Cubs are the wild card. Tellem still hasn't met with them. He doesn't know what they'll offer.
The news is out that Rickey Henderson has signed a four-year, $12 million contract with Oakland—complete with a no-trade clause. The stakes have been raised. At Tellem's Santa Monica office, Cub general manager Jim Frey plays up the Chicago fans, the city, day baseball. Tellem tells him, "Five years." Frey is noncommittal.
Tellem calls the Dodgers. "I need to know where you stand," he says. The Dodgers refuse to talk terms on the phone. Tellem says he'll meet with them the next day, after his meeting with the Angels.
The Cubs just say no, which leaves the Angels, Dodgers and Yanks. "The Dodgers are a slight favorite," Tellem says. "Mark wants to play in the National League so he can hit." In addition to five years, Tellem wants a no-trade clause, more than $3 million a year and a sizable signing bonus as a hedge against a possible spring lockout by the owners. "If the Dodgers or the Angels won't satisfy our demands," says Tellem, "we'll have to look east."
He meets with the Angel brass just after noon. He keeps in intermittent contact with Langston, who's flying back from the Caymans. Langston calls at every stop: Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Seattle. "Don't give in on a no-trade clause," he tells Tellem. "It's worth millions to me." He doesn't want to wind up back in Montreal.
In three hours Tellem and the Angels make little headway; only the five-year term seems solid. The Dodgers come by to take their whacks, but they seem even less flexible. They balk at the no-trade provision. Tellem leaves the room and calls the Angels back. He details a contract. We'll get back to you, they say. Later that evening, they do. They agree to everything but the total figure. Tellem lowers his demands. The Angels accept. The Yankees never even get a shot. The final payout: five years, $16 million, including a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Tellem asks Langston if he minds not hitting. "I'll get to do it in the World Series," Langston says.
Tellem feels an aching weariness. "I'm like a rock star at the end of a 12-month tour," he says. "I don't know what to do with myself. I'm totally burned out."
Tellem sheds his fatigue as he attacks a table full of Chinese food. "I already miss the action," he says, taking a final bite of chicken in Hunan sauce. With a wink he adds, "I have this feeling I could've gotten a half million more."