By comparison, Ulysses is a breeze. The lease agreement for a
new car? A snappy bit of creative writing. That essay answer on
your Russian Lit final? Nothing less than a monument to clarity
and brevity. To find the height of arcane verbiage look no
farther than Rule 10 of the rules governing Major League
Baseball, in what is known as the Blue Book. The corresponding
entry explains the waivers system--the procedures that pertain
to certain player transactions--in a way that makes the Magna
Carta look like part of the Jackie Collins oeuvre. Not even
those in the know profess to fully understand it.
"Archaic," says Chicago Cubs general manager Ed Lynch, a law
"If you read the Blue Book," says Florida Marlins general
manager Dave Dombrowski, "it's a little hard to comprehend
because it's almost like--what's the word?--surreal."
"From what I hear," says Nancy Crofts, the National League
executive director of player records, who is baseball's foremost
authority on the matter, "many clubs don't even bother reading
August 24, 1997
For 15 years Crofts has served as the chief administrator of all
league transactions. She is the proverbial bird on the waiver
wire, and even she has difficulty quoting the Blue Book. "To
tell you the truth," she says, "I've got the book open on my
desk right now. I'm no different than a general manager. I don't
want to make a mistake, either."
There are actually five waiver periods of varying length during
the year, but none as loony as the one that runs from Aug. 1
until the day after the regular season ends. Most moves this
month are inspired by a midnight Aug. 31 deadline--anyone
acquired thereafter is ineligible for postseason play. With 22
players having switched teams by week's end since the so-called
trading deadline on July 31, the market is anything but
quiescent. You know what they say about the foundation of a
championship team: You've got to have good starting pitching,
strong defense up the middle and a former CIA cryptographer to
master the nuances of the daily waiver report, known as the
Player Transfer Sheet, which spits out of every club's printer
at 2 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday.
"It's confusing, especially to the average fan," Lynch says.
"You have to be careful. The worst nightmare of any front-office
person is losing a player [by mistake]. We're all paranoid about
Baseball people paranoid? You mean just because Major League
Baseball maintains a gag order against speaking in detail about
the waivers system and threatens violators with a secret fine?
(Psst! It'll cost any Aldrich Ames of the national pastime up to
a quarter million bucks if he's caught spilling the waiver
beans.) Just because clubs wind up, or stick other teams, with
players they don't want only to spite their competitors? Just
because the skills general managers need to manipulate the
system--in waiverspeak, "blocking," "masking" and
"sneaking"--happen to be the same ones needed for three-card
The Cliffs Notes version of the waivers system, as it pertains
to player movement beginning Aug. 1, goes like this: A player
cannot be traded unless he has passed through major league
waivers--that is, gone unclaimed by another club for three
business days. If a club claims that player, his team can
withdraw the waivers and keep him, or it can release or trade
him to the claiming team within 48 hours. If more than one team
makes a claim, the claiming club with the worst record in the
player's league is the only one that can work a deal for him.
In this wacky world clubs fight over lefthander Terry
Mulholland, a 12-game loser with a sore knee, and righthander
William VanLandingham, a rarely used pitcher only Vanna White
could love, while three-time RBI champion Albert Belle sails
through unclaimed. "It's just part of the mental gymnastics we
go through in this job," San Francisco Giants general manager
Brian Sabean says. "There's a lot of gamesmanship involved."
The business has turned cutthroat this season. In past years
general managers often gave winking approval to August trades.
The 1990 Oakland Athletics, for instance, obtained the National
League batting leader, Willie McGee, en route to the American
League pennant. The Toronto Blue Jays solidified their '92 club
by trading for righthander David Cone and went on to win the
world championship. And in what typified the common practice of
courtesy calls, one American League general manager telephoned a
National League counterpart last year upon seeing a relief
pitcher on the waiver wire and said, "I won't claim him as long
as you promise not to trade him to" the American League team's
division leader. (Names omitted to protect parties from the
waiver police.) "Agreed," said the National League guy.
All that changed after the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, having
announced they would not conduct a fire sale, sneaked lefthander
Denny Neagle through waivers last August before trading him to
the team with the best record in baseball, the Atlanta Braves,
much to the embarrassment of everyone else. "After that," Lynch
says, "it got harder to get people through. Now it seems that
every lefthanded pitcher alive is claimed."
The Player Transfer Sheet reports whether a player has passed
through waivers with a simple Y or N typed next to his name.
According to one general manager, the list last August included
between 50 and 59 no's; this year the number of players claimed,
or "blocked," soared past 100 through Sunday. Teams still try to
sneak a player through by placing the per-club maximum of seven
players per day on waivers (the Player Transfer Sheet could thus
contain up to 196 names)--a worn-out trick called masking.
Further complicating matters is the fact that some waivers are
irrevocable, meaning they cannot be recalled. That distinction
escaped the Pirates seven years ago, when they lost outfield
prospects Julio Peguero and Wes Chamberlain to the Philadelphia
Phillies by mistakenly putting them on irrevocable waivers,
rather than on major league waivers.
The escalation of salaries, as well as the wild-card playoff
format that keeps more teams in contention through August, has
ratcheted up waiver diligence. New York Mets rookie general
manager Steve Phillips is so intent on preventing competitors
from obtaining pitching help, for instance, that he claimed
VanLandingham, whom the Giants were trying to option to the
minor leagues. Infuriated, Sabean pulled the pitcher off waivers
and then released him outright rather than work out a trade with
New York, or release him to the Mets. At week's end,
VanLandingham was a free agent.
"Phillips went nuts, claiming everyone," says one National
League general manager. "And it seemed like those he didn't
claim, Dombrowski did."
Phillips and Dombrowski--who says he had never claimed a player
in four previous years, while his Marlins were out of
contention--have succeeded in preventing the Braves from getting
help for their bullpen while fortifying their own. (The Mets
obtained righthanders Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell from the Cubs;
the Marlins nabbed southpaw Ed Vosberg from the Texas Rangers.)
"These things go in cycles, and this is an aggressive one," says
Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz, who knows better than
to complain. He may have clinched the heated '93 pennant race
with San Francisco when he blocked the Montreal Expos from
sending righty Dennis Martinez to the Giants. Not all general
managers, however, find blocking so palatable.
"I still think the rule should be, If you want him, claim him.
And if not, don't," Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas
says. "All this claiming is bad for baseball, because without
it, you'd have more trades, which is fun for the fans and good
for the game."
There is a caveat to the strategy of claiming players to prevent
trades: Blocker beware, you might wind up with that player
yourself. Such a fate befell the Giants on Aug. 8, when they
claimed Mulholland to keep him from going to the Braves, the
Marlins or the Mets. The Cubs, who needed to open a spot in
their rotation after acquiring Mark Clark from the Mets, tried
to negotiate a trade with San Francisco. The Giants had no
interest in giving up any value for Mulholland, so Chicago said,
"Fine, take him." The Cubs let him go for the $20,000 waiver
claiming price--and the remainder of his $2.3 million contract.
The move left Giants manager Dusty Baker with 13 pitchers and
only four reserves on his bench.
Getting stuck with big salaries is another reason clubs are
squeamish about blocking, which is why the Chicago White Sox's
Belle, who is guaranteed $44 million for the next four years,
went unclaimed. Says Milwaukee Brewers general manager Sal
Bando, "That's why, with Rickey Henderson [whom the San Diego
Padres traded to the Anaheim Angels last week and whose contract
calls for him to make $5,000 per at bat], teams didn't want to
put in a claim."
All this cloak-and-dagger intrigue can put general managers in a
foul mood. Sabean screamed at San Francisco reporters when he
found out they were reporting the details of the VanLandingham
incident. Baltimore Orioles general manager Pat Gillick still is
upset that Dombrowski traded righthander John Burkett to Texas
last August in a waivers-claim deal after telling Gillick's
assistant, Kevin Malone, that the pitcher was unavailable. "The
guy lied to Kevin," says Gillick, who had interest in obtaining
Says Dombrowski, "A good amount of time had passed from the time
we spoke. They weren't even one of the teams I was talking to at
the [July 31] deadline. Things change all the time."
Until the Blue Book comes out in an abridged edition, however,
the unwritten rules of the waiver system will be as vexing as
the written ones. If you're having trouble getting a good read
on it, you're not alone. "I've tried," Oakland assistant general
manager Bill Beane said of curling up with the Blue Book. "It's
the kind of subject you could study for four years in graduate
school and still not pass the final exam."