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Inside Baseball

Dec. 21, 1998
Dec. 21, 1998

Table of Contents
Dec. 21, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Inside Baseball

LIAR'S POKER
L.A. outbid itself in giving Kevin Brown an embarrassment of
riches

This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1998 issue Original Layout

Here is a man-bites-dog story about a baseball owner who
actually said, "Enough!" It happened last month, right after
Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner agreed to retain his
free-agent centerfielder, Bernie Williams, by paying him $12.5
million per year over seven years. That's when Williams's agent,
Scott Boras, broached the idea of including incentive clauses,
which have become an industry standard. Steinbrenner,
recognizing that a $12.5 million player should make All-Star
teams and win Gold Gloves, snapped, "Stop. Don't even bring it
up." Boras, with Williams's blessing, backed down.

Steinbrenner's resolve, albeit on an ancillary matter, is rare
in a business in which teams throw in luxury suites as
sweeteners to $13 million-per-year contracts, as the Mets did
for catcher Mike Piazza and the Diamondbacks did for lefthander
Randy Johnson. The Dodgers stretched the boundaries of
acquiescence further last Saturday at baseball's winter meetings
in Nashville by adding a seventh year to a contract proposal to
Kevin Brown--paying him through his 40th birthday--and tossing
in the use of a Citation 10 jet to ferry his family from its
Macon, Ga., home to Burbank, Calif., 12 times per season. For
$105 million Brown, who was 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA in '98 for the
pennant-winning Padres, became not only the sport's first player
with a nine-digit deal but also another example of the way clubs
are becoming increasingly creative in spending money. If Brown,
who has as many 20-win seasons as the Rangers' Rick Helling
(one) and who will turn 34 in March (making him four years older
than Sandy Koufax was when he last pitched in the majors), can
command that kind of package, what could satisfy Mariners
shortstop Alex Rodriguez, arguably the best young player in the
game, who can be a free agent in 2000 at age 25? Equity stake in
a team?

"It depends on what the player wants," says Boras, who
represents Brown and Rodriguez. "I'm sure if Kevin Brown wanted
to be involved in a [Fox] TV show, that could be included,"
Boras added, referring to the network that owns the Dodgers.

Though they incurred the wrath of other clubs, the Dodgers were
not alone in their zest to sign Brown. The Cardinals, Orioles,
Padres and Rockies were also eager to accommodate him. "I've
never seen anything like it," says Boras, who had predicted a
six-year deal. "We had to turn off the faucet."

Only the Dodgers and the Rockies, however, presented firm offers
that would make Brown the game's highest-paid player, according
to one source familiar with the talks. The Cardinals spoke only
in general terms with Boras; the Orioles offered $55 million
over five years with indications that they'd add a sixth; and
the Padres offered $60 million over six years. Colorado was
willing to add dollars to its original six-year, $81 million
offer.

The Dodgers' front office was unaware that on Dec. 2, Brown told
Boras that he preferred to play in Los Angeles. Still, last
Friday, Boras told the Dodgers that they could close the deal
with Brown if they added another year to their six-year, $90
million offer. Los Angeles, which earlier this year agreed to
pay rightfielder Gary Sheffield's $5 million state tax bill upon
his trade from Florida, quickly swallowed the hook.

"We felt fairly certain that if we didn't [add the seventh year],
someone else would have," explained Dodgers general manager Kevin
Malone. "This is not just about the Dodgers. Other teams were
willing to go the distance."

Said Padres owner Larry Lucchino, "The Dodgers were bidding
against themselves. We're operating in a wide-open system of
liar's poker."

The signing touched off the usual sky-is-falling wailings that
are heard every time the salary ceiling is raised. Baseball's
newly appointed executive vice president of baseball operations,
Sandy Alderson, joined in the chorus of complaints--the same
Sandy Alderson who, in 1990 as general manager of the Athletics,
made outfielder Jose Canseco the highest-paid player in the game
($4.7 million per year). Alderson exceeded the previous high
salary ($3.86 million), which the Yankees had given to first
baseman Don Mattingly less than three months earlier, by 22%.
The Dodgers raised the bar 12.5% higher than Mo Vaughn's record,
set just 17 days earlier when he signed a six-year, $80 million
deal with the Angels.

"I wouldn't expect, nor would I think the Dodgers expect, that
they are going to get seven years of production from a player
[Brown's] age," said Braves general manager John Schuerholz.

Meanwhile, at least one other club summoned enough resolve to
draw the line. On Sunday the Astros angrily rejected a request
by five-time American League Cy Young Award winner Roger
Clemens, 36, who has $16.6 million and two years left on his
contract, to add one year and $27 million to the deal, if the
Blue Jays are able to trade him to Houston. "Quite frankly, we
are absolutely stunned and outraged," Houston G.M. Gerry
Hunsicker said.

"Teams have got to have some backbone," Lucchino said. "That's a
part of it. But the system has got to change."

A Mets Heist?
AT 40, RICKEY'S NOT OVER THE HILL

Eighteen years ago Rickey Henderson stole 100 bases in a season
for the first time. Eight seasons ago he slid into third base
with alltime-record steal number 939, pulled up the bag and held
it aloft. On Christmas Day he will turn 40, yet his one-year,
$2.3 million contract with the Mets is a flat-out steal for New
York.

Widely considered the best leadoff hitter in history, Henderson
remained among the American League's finest in that slot with
the A's last season. He led the league in walks (118) and stolen
bases (66), and his .376 on-base percentage was third best among
leadoff men. Mets leadoff hitters, in the meantime, had only a
.321 on-base percentage, and the team stole four fewer bases
than Henderson did.

Still a chiseled physical specimen and still deeply numbers
conscious, Henderson has his narrowed glare set upon two alltime
records: He needs 167 walks to pass Babe Ruth's 2,056 and 232
runs to pass Ty Cobb's 2,245. (Henderson scored 101 in '98.)

"You have some initial reservations when you think, Hey, here's a
40-year-old player," says Mets general manager Steve Phillips.
"But Rickey, he's not normal."

Payroll Restraint
GETTING FISCAL: 60-40 OR FIGHT

Even before the Brown signing, commissioner Bud Selig was
getting a little light-headed looking at the precipitous rise in
salaries. So when he addressed the owners at a Dec. 3 meeting in
Chicago, he told them that they'd have to adhere to a guideline
adopted in 1982 but rarely enforced in recent years: The "60-40
rule," which requires all franchises to maintain at least a
60-to-40 ratio of assets to liabilities. Assets are defined as a
club's appraised value while liabilities include total player
salaries and all deferred money. Roughly 10 teams--whose
identities the commissioner's office won't reveal--are currently
in violation of the 60-40 rule. (They may not be the usual
big-spending bogeymen like the Yankees and the Dodgers, whose
high franchise values might allow them to conform to the 60-40
guideline.) If the violators don't fall in line within three
years, the commissioner, in the words of one baseball official,
"has broad powers to get a team into compliance."

An obvious course for a club attempting to comply would be to
reduce its payroll, a scenario that raises the ire of the
players' union. In January 1985 a union grievance against the
edict that was filed two years earlier was denied when an
arbitrator ruled that 60-40 does not necessarily limit what a
team can spend. That is, a team could conform to the rule by
enhancing its value--by getting a new stadium, for instance, or
negotiating a richer TV contract--while also maintaining, or even
increasing, its player payroll. "The rule is meant to help ensure
we continue to have 30 healthy teams, without directly affecting
player compensation," says Bob DuPuy, baseball's executive vice
president of administration and chief legal officer.

But if it could be proved that a team didn't pursue a player
because of 60-40, says union associate general counsel Gene
Orza, it could be grounds for a grievance. That's why baseball
officials tread so carefully around the issue and refuse to name
the teams not in compliance.

Whatever its hazards, enforcement of 60-40 could clearly make
many teams watch their wallets more responsibly. Remember that
the current luxury tax system--which will levy a toll on five
teams that each shelled out some $70 million or more on player
salaries last season--does little to deter spending because it
affects so few teams and those only negligibly: Of the five
clubs who will be taxed for '98, three are expected to pay out
less than $700,000 each, including the Dodgers, who may pay as
little as $39,000, approximately half of what Albert Belle will
earn for one game.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Though he's won 20 games only once, Brown was the big winner in the richest free-agent class. [Kevin Brown pitching]COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY NESTE [Tom Seaver pitching]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Dennis Eckersley pitching]

When Brown Turns Gray

Kevin Brown will be 40 in the final season of the seven-year,
$105 million deal he signed with the Dodgers last Saturday. Will
the righthander still be dominant, or even effective, in the
later stages of his contract? Considering the late-career
won-lost records and ERAs listed here for five recent Hall of
Fame starters and one shrine shoo-in (Nolan Ryan), it's far from
a sure thing.

PLAYER AGE 36 37 38 39 40
Steve
Carlton 3-4, 2.42 23-11, 3.10 15-16, 3.11 13-7, 3.58 1-8, 3.33

Bob
Gibson 19-11, 2.46 12-10, 2.77 11-13, 3.83 3-10, 5.04 retired

Jim
Palmer 15-5, 3.13 5-4, 4.23 0-3, 9.17 retired

Gaylord
Perry 21-13, 2.51 18-17, 3.24 15-14, 3.24 15-12,3.37 21-6, 2.73

Nolan
Ryan 14-9, 2.98 12-11, 3.04 10-12, 3.80 12-8, 3.34 8-16, 2.76

Tom
Seaver 14-2, 2.54 5-13, 5.50 9-14, 3.55 15-11, 3.95 16-11, 3.17

Eckstraordinary

Red Sox righthander Dennis Eckersley retired last Thursday,
ending a 24-year career in which he filled two roles: 20-game
winner as a starter, and dominating closer. Eck pitched in more
regular-season games (1,071) than any other pitcher in baseball
history and bowed out ranking third on the alltime saves list.
Perhaps more impressive, he is the only pitcher to amass both
150 wins and 100 saves--and no hurler in history has a higher
combined total in those two categories.

PITCHER CAREER WINS SAVES TOTAL

Dennis Eckersley 1975-1998 197 390 587
Lee Smith 1980-1997 71 478 549
Cy Young 1890-1911 511 17 528
John Franco 1984-present 77 397 474
Rollie Fingers 1968-1985 114 341 455
Walter Johnson 1907-1927 417 34 451
Jeff Reardon 1979-1994 73 367 440
Goose Gossage 1972-1994 124 310 434
Grover Alexander 1911-1930 373 32 405
Christy Mathewson 1900-1916 373 28 401

--David Sabino

HOT STOVE REPORT

In an effort to reduce their $72 million payroll, the Braves
intended to move outfielder Ryan Klesko, who is to be paid $4.75
million next season. But now G.M. John Schuerholz is
reconsidering cost cuts as teams such as the Dodgers, the Mets,
the Orioles and the Yankees redefine baseball's high-rent
district. "We may just decide to go a little higher than we
expected," Schuerholz says, "depending on what other teams do."...

Barry Larkin would like to be the next Roger Clemens--get
traded, then renegotiate--but Reds general manager Jim Bowden is
in no hurry to satisfy the shortstop. "I know what he wants,"
Bowden says. "He's making $5 million a year and sees where the
market has gone. If he is traded, it would have to be a Herschel
Walker type of trade." Bowden was referring to the celebrated
1989 NFL deal in which the Minnesota Vikings got Walker (and
four draft picks) from the Dallas Cowboys for a package that
included eight draft choices and five players....

The Indians' Omar Vizquel is another shortstop unhappy with his
pay. Vizquel is playing under a seven-year, $21 million deal and
would like years or a balloon payment added to his contract....

The Diamondbacks set a free-agent budget large enough to afford
either centerfielder Bernie Williams or the package of
lefthander Randy Johnson and centerfielder Steve Finley. Arizona
wound up with the latter, and a random survey at the winter
meetings supported its choice. "Bernie Williams won't win 20
games for you," says Indians manager Mike Hargrove....

Gregg Jefferies, arguably the best bat still on the free-agent
market as of Monday night, had drawn only a few halfhearted
suitors (Mariners, Red Sox, White Sox). His stock has plummeted
since he signed a four-year, $20 million deal with Philadelphia
before the '95 season. Jefferies hasn't developed the power some
had projected for him, and he is not strong defensively at any
of his positions (first base, second base, third base and
leftfield)....

It appeared that Expos centerfielder Rondell White, who last
month seemed on the verge of being traded, will be staying in
Montreal. In return for White, general manager Jim Beattie was
demanding at least three young players who could make the Expos'
roster next season....

Free-agent second baseman Mark Lewis signed a one-year contract
with the Reds last Saturday. Lewis, who played for the Phillies
in '98, has now changed teams after each of the last six seasons.