BASEBALL ’91 : Paying a Price for Wealth : With High Salaries Comes Extra Pressure on Marginal Players Such as Matt Young
On Feb. 28, 1894, Edgar McNabb of the Baltimore Orioles checked into the Eiffel Hotel on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, closed the door to his room and shot himself dead. He remains the only known left-handed pitcher in major league baseball history to commit suicide.
McNabb apparently was despondent over a lover’s quarrel, not his fastball. Rest assured he didn’t pull the trigger based on his 1893 rookie season, during which he won eight games.
Ninety-six years later, Matt Young matched McNabb’s eight-victory total (while losing 18 games) for the Seattle Mariners and parlayed it into a three-year deal with the Boston Red Sox worth $6.35 million.
Looking down the barrel this time was baseball management.
In an eight-year career, Young has lost 27 more games than he has won and has an earned-run average of 4.29.
First, it must be mentioned that Matt Young is my brother-in-law. My first thoughts as the ink dried on Young’s contract were these: What’s in it for me? In 1989, after all, I was the one who yanked the garden shears from his hands the time Matt helped lay sod in our yard. Remember Bob Ojeda? Good thing someone did. Back then, Young appeared to be a washed-up pitcher recovering from serious tendon-transplant surgery in his throwing elbow.
Little did we know.
The rest is baseball history, or shame, depending on your perspective on the state of salaries. While some applaud a free-market society and explore trickle-down economic theories (hand-me-down summer cottages, etc.), others rail against a system run amok with owners who wantonly make millionaires of sub-.500 pitchers and .200 hitters.
“It’s not like I held a gun to someone’s head and said, ‘Pay me or else,’ ” Young said recently. “I had multiple offers, that’s scary. Who wouldn’t take the money? Let’s get real. Who wouldn’t take the money?”
Young pleads guilty only to being a member of the Fortune 650, the privileged few on this planet talented enough to work the baseball business. The going price for left-handers was established last winter when Bud Black signed a four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants for $10 million. Black’s career record: 83-82.
The line formed there. Catcher Darren Daulton, who batted .208 in 1988, .201 in ’89 and .268 last season, checked in at $6.75 million for three years with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dodgers signed pitcher Kevin Gross, 9-12 in 1990, to a three-year deal worth $6.4 million.
When the gold dust settled, 40 players had joined the $3-million-a-year club. Moreover, some of these guys actually could play.
Tim Leary, who pitched on the same UCLA staff with Young, was pulled from the Yankees’ rotation late last year to spare him the embarrassment of perhaps losing 20 games. He finished 9-19, signed a three-year deal for $5.95 million and now gets three more shots at 20.
The ticket price for two former Bruins who finished 1990 with a combined 17-37 record came to $12.3 million, or about $3 million less than the United States paid France in the Louisiana Purchase.
General managers can’t spend fast enough to keep up with competitors. Owners cry poor, while players bask in the riches of an open market they claim was artificially depressed in recent years because of owner collusion.
Fewer than 20 years after Curt Flood’s challenge led to the dismantling of the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams for life, baseball has exploded into a free-market madness that threatens the fabric of the game, some fear. The pendulum has swung, but how far is too far?
“Today, players are motivated by money,” said Buzzie Bavasi, a former general manager with the Dodgers, Padres and Angels. “Mr. (Branch) Rickey said this to me in 1948: ‘Once players are motivated by money, we’re in trouble.’ I think we’re in trouble.”
Bavasi has worked both sides of the reserve clause. In the 1940s, he was tutored by the master penny-pincher, Rickey, who ruled the Brooklyn Dodgers with an iron wallet. A player once remarked that Rickey would “go into the vault to get change for a nickel.”
Players haven’t always been the best negotiators. The great shortstop Honus Wagner once turned down a $2,000 salary increase, explaining, “I won’t play for a penny less than $1,500.”
Bavasi said the entire payroll of the 1955 World Series champion Brooklyn Dodgers was $555,000. On today’s Dodgers, that buys you less than one-third of relief pitcher Jim Gott’s $1.725-million contract. And Gott has arm problems.
Bavasi says the problem with baseball is not free agency, but lack of common sense. While general manager of the Angels, Bavasi readily jumped into the open market to pursue free agent Reggie Jackson, then offered him 50 cents on every ticket sold after 2.5 million for the season.
“Everyone said we were crazy,” Bavasi said. “But we drew 2.8 million, and he paid for himself in one year.”
It was a good investment. Of course, Bavasi could have kept pitcher Nolan Ryan with the Angels in 1980 but couldn’t accept Ryan’s original demand--a three-year deal worth $1.4 million. What, was he crazy? A 32-year-old man who had only 12 good years left in his arm?
Shelling out for superstars is a time-honored tradition. In his prime with the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth earned more than President Herbert Hoover, to which Ruth replied: “I had a better year.”
The same comparison cannot be made for Seattle Mariner catcher Dave Valle and George Bush in 1990, when Valle doubled his $485,000 salary despite a .214 batting average, while Bush earned $200,000.
In 1990, the Oakland Athletics signed Rickey Henderson to a four-year deal worth $12 million, making him baseball’s richest player at the time. A year later, Henderson dropped out of the top 30 and thought twice about showing up for spring training.
Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cash Brothers, grieved after “losing” arbitration hearings that fixed their 1991 salaries at $2.4 million and $2.3 million, respectively.
“I don’t think the public resents players getting money,” Bavasi said. “What they resent is when the player says $3 million isn’t enough.”
The payout to marginal players, pitchers in particular, is far more disturbing to Bavasi. Twenty-five years ago, Bavasi presided over the Great Dodger Holdout of 1966, when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale made a stand for the ages when they demanded the unthinkable sum of $125,000 each.
In leading their team to the World Series title in 1965, Koufax had a 26-8 record with a 2.04 ERA; Drysdale was 23-12 with a 2.77 ERA.
The holdout lingered into the spring and was settled when Koufax signed for $125,000 and Drysdale for $110,000.
The major league minimum today is $100,000. When Bud Black signed for $10 million, Bavasi almost fell out of the 619 area code.
“That one shocked everyone,” he said.
Then Matt Young stepped to the plate.
“Now, you’re making me sick to my stomach,” Bavasi said. “Who are these people?”
With each multimillion-dollar signing of a left-hander, Bavasi couldn’t help but reflect on Koufax, regarded by some as the greatest pitcher ever.
“No one could afford him today,” he said.
Bavasi shudders to think what a Koufax-Drysdale negotiation would have wrought in 1991.
“I’d commit suicide,” he said.
The reserve clause notwithstanding, Bavasi said owners didn’t have the money then to make millionaires of the entire roster.
“But the game was better,” he said.
“Pee Wee Reese once told me, ‘We don’t make a lot of money, but they can’t take our memories,’ ” Bavasi said.
No one can remember Lou Gehrig, walking out of Yankee camp in 1927 when he was earning $8,000, a fraction of Ruth’s $70,000 salary.
One of Bavasi’s Dodger first basemen, Wes Parker, once turned down a pay raise.
“We offered $25,000, he wanted $22,000,” Bavasi said. “There were boys like that. I feel badly when I see a player like Pee Wee or (Carl) Erskine or Drysdale today when players are making this kind of money. Because I know they were better than the players today.”
Young acknowledges that the whining of modern-day stars, who demand their contracts be renegotiated every time the winds shift, doesn’t help the game’s image.
“People look at Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds and want to group all ballplayers in that same group: Selfish players who are trying to rape the public and the family of four that has to spend $100 to go to a game,” he said. “I don’t like what Rickey Henderson is doing, but if he feels that strongly, he has only himself to please.”
Bavasi argues that big money produces better businessmen, not better players. Rarely do players spend entire careers with the same team anymore. When the Dodgers released pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Scioscia became the only Dodger who has played with the team continuously since 1980.
Free agency and television revenue have changed the spending game forever. CBS and ESPN paid $1.5 billion for the rights to broadcast major league baseball through 1993. Yet some clubs insist that’s not enough to keep up. General Manager Sandy Alderson of the Oakland Athletics contends that his team will finish $2 million to $5 million in the red this season because the team’s payroll has tripled since 1988, to $36 million.
Some paint a gloomy picture. First-year television ratings were poorer than expected, with CBS and ESPN estimating losses at $150 million. Yet, the New York Yankees cut a $50-million local cable deal, and major league owners can expect to share $95 million in entry fees paid by each National League expansion franchise in 1993. And baseball attendance has increased 27% in the last decade.
Still, the game’s commissioner, Fay Vincent, said recently he thought that baseball was poised for catastrophe. If television ratings don’t improve, many expect a slowdown in the salary wars after 1993.
“I can’t blame the players,” Bavasi said. “Somebody’s got to give them the money. I think the owners are fools. I have no sympathy for anyone anymore. They brought it on themselves. When the new contract expires with CBS, people will sit down and come to their senses on both sides.”
And while it can be argued that money hasn’t changed the game aesthetically, it certainly has altered the way baseball is being watched and covered.
Big money raises the stakes.
Simply ask Matt Young, who has endured a rash of criticism in Boston before throwing his first regular-season pitch.
“I’m the goat in every newspaper article in the United States or the world as we know it,” he said recently from Boston’s spring training complex in Winter Haven, Fla. “I’m the brunt of every editorial.”
Reading from a story about himself in the Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger, Young reported: “Matt Young, who underwent reconstructive surgery, signs a contract for $6.4 million. Apparently the surgery didn’t take. He was 8-18.”
Bob Ryan, writing for the Boston Globe, sums up Young’s future in Fenway Park: “You know and I know that Matt Young has no idea what he’s in for should he even so much as fall behind on a count.”
Veteran baseball columnist Peter Gammons skewered Young in a welcome-to-Beantown column last December: “Matt Young’s reputation is that he has the best bullpen stuff in baseball. He will be the star of spring training. But his history is that pressure has been cruel to him.”
Young can’t defend his 51-78 career record or the $6.35 million, except to suggest that he didn’t fall out of bed and into the major leagues.
“Think about the odds of a Little Leaguer making the big leagues,” he said. “It’s not that people are jealous of me, but here I am doing something I love to do, something I’ve dreamed of doing as a little kid. Should I be criticized for that?”
Young says he knows what pressures await in Boston. This is the franchise, remember, that once sold Babe Ruth and hasn’t won a World Series since 1918.
“At least give me the chance to fall on my face before you tell me I’m going to,” Young said. “Hey, I can do it myself.”
Despite his 8-18 record last season, Young said it has rarely been written that he was among the league leaders in innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games and opponents’ batting average against him, all while receiving little run support from Seattle teammates.
Young says he understands the outrage over his salary.
“Just about everybody played Little League,” he said. “Everybody still thinks they can play baseball. You go to a game and say, ‘Why can’t he throw the thing over the plate?’ It seems like a simple game.
“When people think about football, they think about getting stuck, and it doesn’t feel good. In basketball, they see a bunch of 6-8 guys and they figure, ‘I’m not tall enough to do that.’ But they see that 5-5 guys can play baseball. Some guys look like Saturday afternoon softball players.”
Which is what Young might soon become if he so much as falls behind on a count in Fenway.
MAJOR LEAGUE PROFITS:
Operating profit or loss for the 26 major league baseball teams In millions of dollars 1983: -$66.6 1989: $214.5 AVERAGE BASEBALL SALARIES:
In thousands of dollars as compiled by the Major League Baseball Players Assn. ** Average Salary: $597,537 * Minimum Salary: $100,000 Beginning in 1979, salary deferrals without interest are discounted at 9% per year. Beginning in 1987, signing bonuses are increased at 9% per year. Figures as of Dec. 4, 1990