Taking stock of baseball's record-breaking free-agent spending
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 1998 issue
Across the land, shoppers spent Thanksgiving weekend chasing
madly after a long-haired critter with a language all his own.
The pursuit of free-agent pitcher Randy Johnson was downright
Furby-like in the way people were willing to overpay for
something in short supply--in this case, an ace pitcher.
The Arizona Diamondbacks took home the package by giving
Johnson, 35, a four-year contract (with a club option for a
fifth) that guarantees him approximately $53 million. With that,
Arizona, which lost 97 games in '98, immediately became a
contender...to play .500 ball.
That's the problem with spending $13 million a year for a
player, as four teams recently lined up to do. These expensive
toys don't come with guarantees. As a consumer service, we rank,
in terms of wisdom, the holiday purchases that rewrote
baseball's highest-paid list.
1. Mo Vaughn, Anaheim Angels ($13.3 million per year for six
years). Think G.I. Joe, an action figure with leadership ability
and a proven track record. Now Anaheim can trade centerfielder
Jim Edmonds for pitching help and face September, its annual
Waterloo, with confidence. Vaughn and the Angels are the only
free-agent fit thus far that can turn a contender into a winner.
2. Bernie Williams, New York Yankees ($12.5 million, seven
years). Williams doesn't make or break New York; like a Beanie
Baby, he's part of a collection. But after the 1998 Florida
Marlins' markdown sale, keeping the 125-win Yanks intact is good
for the game.
3. Johnson. The problem with being this year's Furby is you're
next year's Cabbage Patch Kid. The short term looks great.
Arizona gets a premier attraction--a guy with a 62-17 record
over the last four seasons--and can now trade either Brian
Anderson or Omar Daal for a hitter. The long-term outlook isn't
nearly so appealing. Burdened with stadium cost overruns,
Arizona has backloaded several salaries and is deferring, with
interest, nearly half of Johnson's money. In a few years, when
the Diamondbacks should be ready to win, they will be stuck with
players past their prime.
4. Albert Belle, Baltimore Orioles ($13 million, five years).
Wind him up, and he'll hit 50 homers and drive in 130 runs.
Caution: extremely dangerous when wound too tight.
Already-suspect manager Ray Miller would be overwhelmed trying
to cope with Belle and a fading Cal Ripken when what the Orioles
really need are youth and athleticism. Tempting though he may
be, Belle underscores the first rule of holiday shopping: Buyer
beware. --Tom Verducci
Bark Worth a Bite
Remember that seemingly wacked-out naturalist Euell Gibbons, who
used to appear on The Tonight Show and in TV advertisements in
the 1960s? "Ever eat a pine tree?" Gibbons liked to drawl. "Many
parts are edible." Well, Gibbons was right--they're edible, and
According to scientists at Cal State-Chico, swallowing extract
from the bark of a particular maritime pine indigenous to the
Bordeaux region of France increases endurance by 21% in both
male and female athletes. The finding, presented at--gasp!--the
annual meeting of the Oxygen Society in Washington, D.C., on
Nov. 21 was based on a double-blind test of 24 recreational
athletes conducted over 60 days. Endurance was monitored by
grading the subjects' performance on treadmills.
Best of all, the bark extract, an antioxidant named pycnogenol,
isn't a steroid or a stimulant and apparently has no side
effects. (Dogs are not more likely to pee on athletes who've
eaten it.) So don't be surprised if the next time the Tour de
France courses through Bordeaux, a few riders stop off to kiss a
College Basketball Schedules
Too Much, Too Soon
Not so long ago Thanksgiving weekend meant the start of the
college basketball season. The 1998-99 season, however, tipped
off three weeks before Kansas and UNLV met in the Hall of Fame
Tip-Off Classic last Friday night, and by Sunday most teams had
played five or six games. The early action is attributable to a
proliferation of so-called "exempted events"--specially
sanctioned games or tournaments that don't count against the
NCAA's maximum of 27 games a team may play during a season.
Twenty-two such events were approved for this season, up from 19
a year ago. "It's preposterous for us to be playing college
basketball on November 7," says Big East commissioner Mike
Tranghese. "Every year we get more requests for exemptions. It's
out of control."
In an effort to pull in the reins, the NCAA Division I
Management Council last month passed a measure that would allow
schools to add a 28th game to their schedule in lieu of
participating in an exempted event. The council, hoping to
further shrink the list of potential participants for the
exempted events, also recommended allowing a school to
participate in any individual event only once every four years
and in no more than two such events in any four-year span. If
the proposals pass at the Division I board meeting next month,
they could be in effect by the start of the 2000-01 season.
Though early games are often characterized by sloppy play, the
suggested changes have more to do with economics than
aesthetics. Revenue generated from regular-season games held in
on-campus arenas usually go entirely to the host school.
Revenues from exempted games are shared with the events'
sponsors. "I don't want outside interests getting their hands in
the pot," says Tranghese, who serves as chair of the Conference
Commissioners Association, which unanimously endorsed the NCAA
Needless to say, the proposals don't sit well with people like
Russ Potts, the CEO of Dorna Sports Promotions Inc., which
manages the NABC Classic and the CoSIDA Classic. Those two-night
events, in their second and first years, respectively, were the
first two held this season--the NABC on Nov. 7-8, the CoSIDA on
the 9th and 10th. Potts appeared before the NCAA's Exempted
Contests subcommittee in September to argue against the proposed
changes, and he says that if they're implemented, they could
cause the NCAA more problems than they solve. "There are some
obvious antitrust implications here," Potts says. "I hope they
think this one out."
Tranghese, for one, has thought it out and is perfectly content
with the ramifications. "This will drive some people out of
business, and frankly I want them out of business. I'd rather
have the upper-tier teams play at home and make money for their
Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Hockey
Total Sports; 1,888 pages; $49.95
A volume with the heft of a newborn (6 1/4 pounds), Total Hockey
is a delightful and highly useful reference work for the common
fan. Years from now puckheads will wonder how they got along
before Total Hockey put a sag in their shelves.
Assembled by Total Sports, the same company that blessed us with
Total Football and Total Baseball, Total Hockey provides the
vital statistics of every player who has appeared in the NHL
since the league was formed in 1917. It also takes an expansive
look at the game in articles by no fewer than 72 contributors
from eight nations. While the writing is inconsistent and too
often bland, the research is exhaustive. There are pieces on the
origins of hockey as well as historical essays on every NHL
franchise, from the peerless Montreal Canadiens to the hapless
Pittsburgh Pirates, who played five seasons in the 1920s and
never made the playoffs. A 115-page section is devoted to the
international game, other essays explore the roles of women and
minorities in the sport, and in one insightful and eminently
readable entry Philadelphia Flyers coach Roger Neilson and
former Vancouver Canucks coach Harry Neale explicate such arcane
strategies as the "quick breakout with counter-pinching" and the
Thanks to quirky chapters with titles like "The Old Bootheel"
(i.e., the puck), the book is a browser's dream. A little
leisurely cross-referencing reveals that left wing Frank
(Seldom) Beaton was actually a defensive liability in his 25
games with the New York Rangers from 1978 to '80, and the reader
will learn (or be reminded) that there have been not one but two
forward lines that went by the honorable nickname Willy, Billy
Amazingly for a volume of this scope, not a single page is given
over to the rules of the game--an omission so blatant that it
defies explanation. The book also could have covered the NHL's
champions more comprehensively. The rosters of every Stanley Cup
winner aren't included but should be, and each coach's
statistical profile should indicate if he guided a team to a
championship. Readers may also find other reasons to
quibble--that's half the fun, eh?--but not enough to
significantly diminish Total Hockey's welcome weight. This is a
book every hockey fan, even a casual one, should own. --K.K.
The U.S. women's volleyball team's swift exit from last month's
world championships puts it in danger of not qualifying for the
2000 Olympics. SI reporter Bev Oden, a member of the American
team from March '94 through October '96, examines what ails it.
I believe our loss to Cuba in the quarterfinals at the Atlanta
Olympics contributed to pushing U.S. women's volleyball toward
the abyss. I am reminded of that every time I see soccer star Mia
Hamm advertising shampoo on TV or girls wearing WNBA standout
Teresa Weatherspoon's jersey at New York Liberty games. The
overdue celebration of women's sports has arrived, and volleyball
has missed out.
The American women's ice hockey team's gold medal performance
earlier this year in Nagano gave rise to a proposal for a North
American pro league. Conversely, the volleyball team's poor
showing in Atlanta caused national-team sponsors Champion and
Ricoh to pull out. The loss of funding sent player salaries
plummeting from a 1996 high of about $80,000 for leading players
to the current top salary of less than $20,000. My teammates and
I all earned enough to afford our own apartments near our
training facility in San Diego. By early '97 the team was forced
to move into dorms at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training
Center. This change wasn't likely to entice many
veterans--several of whom were married--to stay with the team.
Of the 12 Atlanta Olympians, five are now playing professionally
overseas, one switched to the beach game, and six (including me)
Mick Haley, the former University of Texas coach who took over
the U.S. team in 1997, has been forced to lead a group of pups
straight out of college into international competition. At the
world championships the U.S. was eliminated after being thrashed
in all three of its matches by more experienced teams from Cuba,
Bulgaria and Italy. Opposing players openly mocked the Americans.
To make matters worse, Haley, who had little international
experience before taking his current job, hasn't sought advice
from more established coaches and has done little to try to coax
veterans back onto the roster. To qualify for the Sydney Games,
the U.S., which hasn't failed to qualify for the Olympics since
1976, needs to win next year's regional tournament or place in
the top three at the '99 World Cup or the Olympic qualification
tournament. With such a green team any of those paths figures to
be a difficult one.
Tossing Out The Toss
The brouhaha that followed the disputed coin toss at the start
of overtime during the Thanksgiving Day Detroit Lions-Pittsburgh
Steelers game showed that even the flip's basic
instruction--"Call it in the air!"--can lead to confusion. That
makes a recent proposal by Micron Electronics, title sponsor of
the Dec. 29 Micron PC Bowl (formerly the Carquest and the
Blockbuster bowls), more sensible than it appears on first
glance. In the spirit of its New Rules, New Tools marketing
campaign, Micron has proposed replacing the pregame coin toss
with a rock-paper-scissors showdown. "We've already gotten a
raised eyebrow from the NCAA," says Mike Rosenfelt, Micron's
marketing director. "But we're deadly serious about shaking up
the boring corporate sponsorship thing at the bowls."
Now, just to make sure that everyone--are you listening, Jerome
Bettis and referee Phil Luckett?--is on the same page: Rock beats
scissors, scissors beats paper....
--That right now a sculptor is busy putting dreadlocks on the
--That all college baseball leagues take a cue from the Big
South and West Coast conferences and switch to wooden bats.
--That Jets loose-cannon linebacker Bryan Cox retire his act as
the NFL's dean of fine arts.
Years after he lost his 1980 NFC Championship ring that former
Eagles and Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik found it through a
NHL players suspended for on-ice infractions through Nov. 29 by
the league's rookie disciplinarian, Colin Campbell.
NHL players suspended through the same date last season by
Campbell's predecessor, Brian Burke.
Plastic trays of sod, each measuring 45 inches square and built
to fit over a year-round temperature-control system, that will
make up the proposed natural-turf field at Giants Stadium.
U.S. men who ran a marathon in less than two hours and 20
minutes in 1983.
U.S. men who ran a marathon under 2:20 in 1998, as of Nov. 9.
Revenue, in dollars, that the University of Kentucky will forfeit
as a result of its decision to sever advertising and marketing
ties with products containing alcohol.
Is Pete Sampras the best tennis player ever?
You want athleticism? Sampras serves at 120 mph and plays the
net with Savion Glover-like grace. Dominance? He just finished
at No. 1 for the sixth straight year. With 11 Grand Slam titles,
he trails only Roy Emerson (12) and is tied with Bjorn Borg and
Rod Laver--and he's 27. Don't judge him by his failure to win
the sadly irrelevant French Open or compare him with Laver, who
won nine of his Slam titles on grass and faced a far less
diverse field. --Sandra Bailey
Sampras is still down a break to Laver. The Rocket won the Grand
Slam twice, was in the Top 10 at 37 and, unlike Sampras,
excelled on clay and as a doubles player. Laver faced Ashe,
Emerson, Newcombe and Rosewall; Sampras's success has come
against...whom? A doddering Becker? An erratic Agassi? The
enigma that is Goran Ivanisevic? Just because Sampras stands out
against his peers doesn't mean he stands up against the past.
--L. Jon Wertheim
Citing Jimmy Johnson's five former assistants who became head
coaches for NFL or college teams, the Dolphins' media guide
trumpets Johnson as "Coach to Coaches." But the records of his
pupils--from John Blake, who was fired on Nov. 22 at Oklahoma, to
struggling Bears coach Dave Wannstedt--aren't nearly as immaculate
as their master's mane. No one should confuse Johnson with, say,
Bill Walsh, whose proteges have a .554 winning percentage in the
NFL. Here's how graduates of the Johnson College of Coaching have
fared on their own.
JIMMY PROTEGE COACHING RECORD WIN PCT.
John Blake, Oklahoma, 1996-98 12-22 .353
Butch Davis, Miami, 1995-present 29-15 .659
David Shula, Bengals, 1992-96 19-52 .268
Norv Turner, Redskins, 1994-present 29-46-1 .388
Dave Wannstedt, Bears, 1993-present 39-53 .424
TOTAL 128-188-1 .404
Last week's British national championship of professional dance
sport was held in a ballroom in Blackpool, England, but for
Donna Shingler, it might just as well have been staged in a mosh
pit. Donna and her husband, Alan, who were among the favorites
in the competition, had just swirled into a waltz when Donna
collided with another couple performing a high-speed stationary
spin and sustained a concussion and a dislocated jaw. After a
valiant attempt to dance on--"She survived the tango, but went
down at the end of the quickstep," Alan told The Times of
London--Donna collapsed on the dance floor. She was given oxygen
and rushed to the hospital, where she received treatment and was
released the next day.
The Shinglers won't be sitting out any competitions, but their
accident suggests that in dance sport--which has been granted
recognition by the International Olympic Committee and could
become a medal sport in the 2008 Games--the white gloves may be
off for good. "It was rough out there," said Alan. "All anyone
speaks about now is energy, energy and more energy. I am just
afraid that we're in danger of sacrificing beauty for speed."
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
The International Badminton Federation has suspended Indonesia's
Budiarto Sigit, a men's doubles world champion, for 13 months and
fined him $2,000 for testing positive for anabolic steroids.
They Said It
Calgary's $2.4 million-a-year winger and, at 5'6", the NHL's
shortest player, upon learning that rookie Flames teammate
Martin St. Louis towers over him by half an inch: "That's O.K.
When I stand on my wallet, I'm taller than he is."