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Just How Poor Can Sport Be? : Players: Signing of Jefferies by Phillies, acquisition of McDowell by Yankees go against laws of economics.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They keep telling us the game of baseball is in financial trouble, and after the labor talks collapsed Wednesday, we’re supposed to be convinced.

Yet, on the day the players and owners finally came to an agreement--that a resolution is hopeless--the game of baseball fired a fastball that landed between the eyes.

The Philadelphia Phillies, after crying they must slash their payroll, signed free agent Gregg Jefferies of the St. Louis Cardinals to a four-year, $20-million contract. They even gave him a comprehensive no-trade clause, meaning he will remain with the team until the fall of 1998.

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The Phillies also signed pitcher Tommy Greene for $2 million and Curt Schilling for $2.3 million. The two pitchers combined for four victories last season.

New York Yankee principal owner George Steinbrenner, who has been strangely silent throughout the strike, once again showed little concern for any budget constraints by trading for Jack McDowell of the Chicago White Sox. The Yankees must tender McDowell a contract of at least $5.83 million, while sending minor league pitcher Keith Heberling and a player to be named.

And, then, of course, in the last few days the Cardinals signed free-agent pitcher Danny Jackson to a three-year, $10.8-million contract; the Texas Rangers paid $6 million over two seasons to free-agent pitcher Kevin Gross, and the Angels gave free-agent closer Lee Smith a two-year, $4-million contract when everyone else refused.

“The owners are absolutely insulting the fans’ intelligence,” player-agent Tony Attanasio said. “How any fan in the world can stand behind these people and believe these people is beyond comprehension.

“I mean, how more hypocritical can they get. It’s a joke. It’s a farce.

“Do the owners really think they can say they’re losing money and continue to sign players like they have been?

“I’d like to think these owners aren’t dumb, but I really think they are.”

The flurry of signings the last few days, agents say, is prompted by the fear that owners will implement a salary cap today and a new set of rules.

The free-agent market will not only become flooded, driving down prices, but the owners could also eliminate guaranteed contracts.

But while that might explain the agents’ inducement to sign contracts, it hardly is justifiable for a group of owners who canceled the World Series in the name of cost containment.

“It sure doesn’t look like there’s much of a change, does there?” said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president. “I’m not sure our words match our actions.

“We’re having to make extremely tough decisions because of our tremendous loss of revenue. Regardless of the system there is, or will be there, the fact is there’s a certain budget I have to operate under.

“But you look around, and fundamentally I don’t think there has been a change.”

Said Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi: “I’m not saying teams are wrong for what they’re doing, it just has people confused. I know I can’t figure it out.”

Certainly, no one prospered more this week than Jefferies, who appeared to have made a mistake this summer by rejecting a four-year, $20-million contract from the Cardinals. The season ended, the Cardinals pulled their offer, and Jefferies was running out of options.

While Jefferies was kicking himself, wondering if he had become the Jody Reed of ’95, along came the Phillies to the rescue. Reed had rejected a three-year, $7.8-million offer from the Dodgers, only to end up signing a one-year contract with the Milwaukee Brewers for $350,000.

The Phillies lost Jackson to the Cardinals two days earlier, so to get even, they signedJefferies.

“I know people are saying the market for him would have gone down (today),” Phillie General Manager Lee Thomas said. “Maybe it would have. But I’m not that good to make that prediction.”

Just think, perhaps by the end of today, those kind of decisions will be eliminated. There will be a salary cap imposed, ending the wild, wild days of free agency.

“It’s hard to believe the game has come to this,” said Buzzie Bavasi, former Dodger and Angel general manager. “I’ve never seen a player grab an owner by the throat and demand a contract.

“In our days, we had a budget. Nowadays, they keep spending money until they force themselves to stop.

“My God, if all businesses ran their business like baseball, we’d all be buying Russian warbonds.”


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