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Baseball by Bavasi : At 76, He Talks About Good Times, Regrets, and His Biggest Headache: Arbitration

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Buzzie Bavasi was a prominent figure in baseball for such a long time that when he talks, it’s probably a good idea to listen.

Bavasi doesn’t buy the popular theory that free agency has caused salaries to soar out of sight. In his mind, the culprit is arbitration.

Now a robust 76 and in his seventh season of retirement, Bavasi spoke about the game and its problems recently as he relaxed at his home in La Jolla. In his 46 years in baseball, always without a contract, he has been a president or executive vice president of all three Southern California clubs--the Dodgers, Padres and Angels, in that order.

“I’ve never been so happy in my life,” Bavasi said. “But I hate to see what’s happening in the baseball world. I resent seeing a guy making $2.5 million when he can’t run 90 feet, and I resent seeing somebody else want $2.6 million because he thinks he’s better than the other guy.

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“The worst thing in the world is arbitration. I went to one arbitration hearing and I walked out. Bobby Clark, an outfielder for the Angels, had hit something like .208 the year before. He won a $20,000 raise.

“Before the hearing, the arbitrator asked somebody what an RBI was. Can you believe that? Not long after Clark won his case, he was released by two minor league clubs, Edmonton and Vancouver. How do you live with something like that?”

Turning to a more common salary situation, Bavasi cited the arbitration case of Angel first baseman Wally Joyner last winter.

“After playing in 83 games, Joyner asked for $2.15 million,” Bavasi said. “The Angels offered $1.65 million, and he won. He got a $500,000 raise for playing half a season. I have nothing against Joyner--he’s a fine ballplayer--but that doesn’t make sense.”

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Basically, arbitration is granted to players whose contracts have expired and who have three years’ experience. Players are eligible for free agency after six years.

Bavasi says that free agents wouldn’t be paid anywhere near as much if they--and their agents--had not taken their cues from arbitration awards.

“When a player wins an arbitration case, the next guy who plays the same position wants the same contract. This happens with free agents, too, but the whole salary structure is due to arbitration.”

Bavasi’s rationale is that teams going to arbitration with a player are forced to offer him far more than they think he is worth. If they didn’t, they would have no chance at all, because the arbitrator is required to decide on one figure or the other.

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“Think how much agents get out of baseball that baseball otherwise wouldn’t have to pay,” Bavasi said. “My idea would be to have six young lawyers represent the players’ association. That would eliminate what Marvin Miller (former head of the association) calls the bane of baseball’s existence--the agent.

“The lawyers would be paid by the players’ association or baseball, so they wouldn’t have their own ax to grind. The trouble is, that makes too much sense. As people say, there’s the right way and baseball’s way.”

Bavasi also is disturbed by the way the Pete Rose case has been handled.

“They banned Pete for income-tax evasion,” Bavasi said. “They didn’t accuse him of betting on the Cincinnati club, but by innuendo they were saying he did. I don’t think it’s fair to Pete or baseball. If it’s there, it’s there, but they should come out and say what happened if it did happen.

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“There’s nothing wrong with (legalized) gambling. I’ve seen Pete at Del Mar. They say gambling is terrible, yet I can think of at least four major league teams that have race tracks as sponsors. Are we saying that gambling is all right as long as a ballclub gets a piece of the action?”

Bavasi feels that the owners have erred by making a practice of electing non-baseball men as commissioners. Fay Vincent is the latest to fall into that category.

“It’s strange that there are so many on the staff without baseball backgrounds, since both league presidents (Bobby Brown of the American League and Bill White of the National) are former major league players,” Bavasi said.

Bavasi’s playing career ended at DePauw University, where he was a catcher, and he joined the Dodgers in Brooklyn shortly after his graduation in 1938.

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“I was a catcher, and a pretty good one,” he said. “Bill Terry (manager of the New York Giants) offered me $1,500 to sign, which was pretty good money in those days, but I couldn’t run at all, and I decided not to go.

“Fred Frick (son of Ford Frick, then National League president, later baseball commissioner) was my college roommate, and he took me in to see Larry MacPhail, who was running the Dodgers, to see if I could get a job.

“I grew up in Scarsdale and I was a Yankee fan. I hated the Dodgers. When I met MacPhail, he asked me, ‘Do you know anything about baseball?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘You’re the man I want.’

“So he hired me, and I stayed around the office for 13 weeks as a glorified office boy. He forgot I was there.”

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Not for long, though. In 1940, Bavasi was made general manager of the Dodger farm team in Americus, Ga. Then he moved to Valdosta, Ga.; Nashua, N.H.; Durham, N.C., and Montreal before being named vice president of the Dodgers in 1951.

Americus doesn’t sound like a romantic place, but it was there that Buzzie and Evit Bavasi began a marriage that is now in its 52nd year. They have four sons, three of whom have gone into baseball, and nine grandchildren.

Peter Bavasi, the oldest son, was the expansion Padres’ first farm director, then became their vice president and general manager before joining the expansion Toronto Blue Jays as executive vice president and general manager. Later he served as president of the Cleveland Indians before leaving baseball to become president of Telerate Sports, a statistical firm in New York.

His son Bill is farm director of the Angels, and Bob, who was with the Padres briefly as an administrative assistant, owns the Everett (Wash.) club of the Class-A Northwest League. Chris, the only son who stayed away from baseball, is mayor of Flagstaff, Ariz.

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“I envy Bob,” the senior Bavasi said. “The minor leagues are where baseball is at.”

One of Bavasi’s favorite Dodger players was Don Zimmer, who later managed the Padres under him and was fired early this season as manager of the Chicago Cubs.

“Buzzie had fun negotiating with players before agents came along,” Zimmer said. “It was like he made a game of it. We had some great contract sessions. But once all those agents came along, it took the fun out of the game for him.

“I never knew one man who didn’t respect Buzzie. We had our differences, but we’ve always had a good relationship. We had a great time when I was in town, telling stories from years ago. Like the time he caught us shooting craps on the wooden floor in Dodgertown (in Vero Beach, Fla.), and how he talked somebody out of $400 in salary. He was something else.”

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Bavasi recalled his greatest negotiating coup. It revolved around Tommy Davis, who in 1962 had led the National League in hitting and had driven in 153 runs.

“I signed Tommy for ’63 for $36,000,” Bavasi said. “There was a guy in my office who was making $12,000 and wanted a pretty good raise, and I had already made up my mind he wasn’t going to get it.

“I had a fake contract made out for Davis for $18,000, and I put it under a paperweight on my desk. I left the corner open, and I arranged for my secretary to call me out of the office for a minute. I knew the (other player) would peek at the fake contract, and when he did, it was all over. He said, ‘Buzzie, I’ll take the $12,000.’ ”

On the other side of the negotiating coin, Bavasi once gave Gil Hodges more than he asked for.

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“It was for the ’55 season,” Bavasi said. “Gil came in and wanted $25,000. I had it in mind giving him a few bucks more, but I couldn’t tell him that. So I said, ‘Gil, I’ll put five numbers in a hat. They’re 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27, so the odds are in your favor, 3-2. I put 27 on each slip of paper, and when he picked his number, he walked out with a grin on his face. He thought he had made a sucker out of me.”

Fifty-three men who played under Bavasi have managed in the major leagues. Ten of them are managing now--Sparky Anderson, Bobby Cox, Roger Craig, Jim Essian, Jim Fregosi, Cito Gaston, Tom Lasorda, Jim Lefebvre, Jeff Torborg and Bobby Valentine.

“I’m proud of those guys,” Bavasi said. “They worked hard to get where they are.”

When Dodger owner Walter O’Malley moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, Bavasi was one of many in the front office who didn’t want to go.

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“Walter finally made me an offer I couldn’t turn down,” Bavasi said. “He sold me the parking lot on Sullivan Place, beyond right field, for $1. I sold it later for a pretty fair profit.

“The people in Brooklyn were devastated, but Walter’s argument was that he couldn’t compete (for players) with Milwaukee, which was drawing 2 million a year. He said, ‘We’re drawing only 1 million, and we just can’t keep up.’

“Now the Milwaukee club is leading the campaign for profit sharing because it’s in one of the smallest markets. Isn’t it ironic that the city that forced the Dodgers to move west is taking this stand now? Do you think Milwaukee would have voted for profit sharing in ’56 or ’57?”

When San Diego landed an expansion franchise in 1969, Bavasi switched to the Padres as president.

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“It was Walter O’Malley’s idea,” Bavasi said. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to get something to stick to your ribs.’ What he meant was, C. Arnholt Smith, the principal owner, gave me 32% of the club for getting the franchise.”

Bavasi retired after the 1977 season, but only until owner Gene Autry of the Angels asked him if he would serve as executive vice president for one year. Bavasi stretched that one year into seven before retiring for good after the 1984 season.

“Gene had a good general manager in Harry Dalton, but the place was a country club,” Bavasi said. “Too many people, too many assistants, not enough work being done. I didn’t even have an office at first. I used a board room. But then Milwaukee gave Dalton an offer he couldn’t turn down, so I stayed on.

“We should have won the pennant in ’82, but we lost to Milwaukee after winning the first two games. That was the biggest disappointment of my career, even bigger than when the Dodgers lost the playoff to the Giants in ’51. The ’51 Dodgers had the potential to come back and win the next year, but the ’82 Angels didn’t. That’s what made it so tough to take.”

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The Angels left Bavasi with one of his two biggest regrets: failure to win a pennant for Autry.

The other was that the fans in Los Angeles never got to see Roy Campanella play.

“Can you imagine what Campy would have done with that screen in left field?” Bavasi said. “He would have hit 90 home runs.”

He would rather not imagine what is going to happen to his favorite pastime.

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“The game is in trouble, or will be, and the owners have nobody to blame but themselves,” Bavasi said. “I don’t know of any player who took an owner by the throat.”


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