DOUBLE PLAY WHEN HE SIGNED ALBERT BELLE, JERRY REINSDORF BROKE THE BANK--AND MAYBE THE LABOR IMPASSE

December 02, 1996

Once the initial shock and outrage passed, the only thing for
baseball fans to do was take comfort in an old and undeniable
fact of life: Some people are simply meant for each other. A
mysterious force of nature draws together the most loathsome
among us, forming a bond between Don King and Mike Tyson, Brooke
and Andre, Regis and Kathie Lee, Alan Dershowitz and almost
anyone he defends, and now Jerry Reinsdorf and Albert Belle.

The George and Reggie of this generation.

While the five-year, $55 million free-agent deal that Belle
signed with the Chicago White Sox on Nov. 19 was generally
considered an affront to common sense and decency, it leaves all
right-thinking fans with something to look forward to. Now when
the notorious Belle climbs a Comiskey Park light tower and
starts swinging his corked bat at the little green men who
distracted him from his pregame routine, we can turn with
perverse delight toward the owner's box and wonder how much
Belle would have been worth to the White Sox had he come with
all his marbles.

What else can you do but laugh? The signing took place two weeks
after an owners' meeting in which Reinsdorf was the driving
force behind killing a labor agreement because, as he told SI
after the Belle deal was announced, "we need some meaningful
salary restraint and sharing of revenues, so everyone has a
chance to compete." It was like listening to Bill Clinton
espouse campaign-finance reform or Lou Holtz say he really
doesn't want to break Knute Rockne's record. How could Reinsdorf
say such a thing without giggling uncontrollably?

Salary restraint? Belle's annual salary is $2.5 million more
than that of the second-highest-paid player in the game, Ken
Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners, who signed his four-year,
$34 million contract less than a year ago. Reinsdorf didn't
disrupt the pay scale in major league baseball. He destroyed it.
Together, Belle and White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas will
earn approximately $18 million next season, which exceeds the
payroll of four small-market teams, among them acting
commissioner Bud Selig's Milwaukee Brewers. As owner of the
Chicago Bulls, Reinsdorf also signed Michael Jordan to a
one-year, $30 million contract last summer, meaning Reinsdorf is
to the salary structure of players what Ricki Lake is to the
literacy rate among teens.

"There's hardly anyone in the game who hasn't made a signing
that everyone thought was stupid," Reinsdorf said. Cynics view
Reinsdorf's actions as anything but stupid. He helped zap the
six-year labor agreement, retroactive to the 1996 season, that
was tentatively reached between the owners' negotiator, Randy
Levine, and Donald Fehr, head of the players' union. The deal
would have included a luxury tax on payrolls of more than $51
million in 1997, more than $55 million in '98 and more than
$58.9 million in '99, and granted players service time for the
1994-95 strike, making 11 of them free agents. Reinsdorf not
only avoided paying a projected $3.1 million levy on the White
Sox's estimated $59.8 million payroll and a $2.8 million
revenue-sharing payment, but he also kept star pitcher Alex
Fernandez, who would have been one of those free agents. The
Florida Marlins, among others, were poised to make a run at the
27-year-old Fernandez, who was 16-10 with a 3.45 ERA in 1996.

"I know [signing Belle] isn't going over well outside Chicago,
but inside of Chicago is what I'm worried about," Reinsdorf
said. "I've already called a number of other owners, and they
say they understand. The small-market teams should know I've
always been with them. I've always been a leader in the push for
revenue sharing. Hey, I think the system stinks, but for now
it's the system we're all operating under, and I've got to
remain competitive."

Belle, who hit .311 with 48 homers and 148 RBIs last season,
will give the White Sox a dangerous bat in the cleanup spot
behind Thomas (.349, 40 homers and 134 RBIs), to form
potentially the most potent one-two punch since Mantle and
Maris. Signing Belle to such a lavish deal will sell tickets for
Reinsdorf, but it will cost him credibility. To his peers
Reinsdorf would not have appeared more duplicitous if he had
been caught in a hot tub with Fehr. At least we can thank
Reinsdorf for one thing: There will be no talk of collusion.

Reinsdorf says he did some research before bidding for Belle and
determined that another owner was about to make an overwhelming
offer to the former Cleveland slugger. In Reinsdorf's mind, all
he did was beat a competitor to the punch. "It was either going
to be me or someone else in this position," said Reinsdorf. "If
I was not positive that someone was going to give him that kind
of money, I wouldn't have done it. This is like testing the
atomic bomb: We can stop, but we can't make the Russians stop."

As much as anyone, Reinsdorf has been blamed for the absence of
a labor agreement since the previous one expired after the '93
season. The Belle signing, ironically, might have pushed the
owners closer to a deal out of sheer revulsion at Reinsdorf's
brazen double-talk. "You can make your own judgment, but any
owner who breaks the market like this, it makes you scratch your
head," said Cleveland general manager John Hart.

Prompted by the Belle signing, the owners called a meeting,
scheduled for Tuesday in Chicago, at which they were expected to
discuss the labor deal again and possibly take another vote on
ratifying the agreement. As SI went to press on Monday, the
consensus was that the pending labor deal had a better chance of
being approved this time. At the owners' last gathering, on Nov.
6, they shot down the deal by an 18-12 vote. Twenty-three votes
are needed for passage.

Reinsdorf denies convincing any of his counterparts to vote
against the deal, but his backroom powers of persuasion are
renowned. Some people are still amazed at how little Reinsdorf's
lips move when Selig speaks. "I barely spoke," Reinsdorf said of
the owners' meeting three weeks ago. "I didn't call a single
person to solicit a vote. I've heard this theory that people are
going to cave in to the union because they resent me, but no one
has said anything to my face."

Reinsdorf's fellow owners offered little or no public reaction
to the Belle signing. Even Selig, who was privately nursing the
knife wound in his back, maintained a diplomatic front. "Each
club has to do what it thinks it has to do to be competitive,"
he said.

While the owners might be feeling burned by the signing, the
White Sox fans are thrilled to add another tabloid time bomb to
their growing collection. The pipeline from the lunatic fringe
to the Loop has now carried baseball's most volatile personality
to a scene that already includes Dennis Rodman and Bryan Cox.
Who's next, Diego Maradona?

After the White Sox went 85-77 last season and finished 14 1/2
games behind the Indians in the American League Central,
Reinsdorf made up his mind to give his customers the best team
money could buy. But before embarking on his shopping spree, he
solicited the advice of Thomas, his resident superstar. "Frank
wanted Belle--period," said Reinsdorf. "I said to him, 'How
about Barry Bonds? I hear he's available.' And Frank said, 'Oh,
no. Albert's better. He's the guy I want.'"

Reinsdorf said he met with Belle for three hours before making
the record-breaking offer, and he came away convinced that Belle
will behave in his new surroundings. If Reinsdorf believes that,
he is the only one. Compared with Cleveland, Chicago has more
people, more photographers, more writers, even more
trick-or-treaters--all things that push Belle past his breaking
point. And how will Belle's White Sox teammates react when he
smashes the clubhouse thermostat with a bat because the room is
too warm, as he did in Jacobs Field last season?

"Albert wants a fresh start," said Reinsdorf. "We talked about
it. He is obsessive with game preparation, but he understands
that he can't continue to do the things he's done in the past."

Oh, he can't? Reinsdorf's outrageous offer made just the
opposite clear to Belle. He can continue to treat the fans and
media as if they are pests intruding on his solitary pursuit,
and in the long run there will be no consequences. Forget Mike.
The message from Reinsdorf is clear: Be like Albert. Anger and
arrogance pay well. "Sometimes it got a little scary when things
started flying around," Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. said
of Belle's tantrums. "But what could you say? The guy is a great
hitter."

To his credit Reinsdorf understands that Belle is not just
another harmless, cross-dressing self-promoter he added to his
payroll. While fans were quick to draw a comparison between
Belle and Rodman, another well-paid employee of Reinsdorf's,
there is one big difference: Rodman is all act. Belle is a
genuine head case, a human explosive device that can detonate at
any moment. "People want to compare the two, but there's no
comparison," said Reinsdorf. "All of Rodman's antics are
deliberate. Albert's problems involve emotional responses to
things that happen around him. He regrets most of them, and
we're going to work with him to see that they don't happen again."

Belle is the only player in baseball who scares both teams every
time he shows up at the ballpark. For the next five years, no
one will be more nervous than the man who guaranteed him $55
million. But in the end, if it is all about getting people's
attention, we have to give Reinsdorf his due. This we've got to
see.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG [Drawing of Jerry Reinsdorf holding mask of himself surrounded by Michael Jordan, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Dennis Rodman and various baseball club owners]

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