Million-dollar sweepstakes are all the rage these days among state governments, so it is not so surprising that the rulers of baseball now have a high-priced lottery of their own. The first drawing in the great baseball sweepstakes appropriately took place on Nov. 4 in New York's Plaza Hotel—where a draft beer costs $1.95—and within 48 hours there was a million-dollar winner. Right-handed Relief Pitcher Bill Campbell, who last season was paid $22,000 by the Twins, signed a contract with Boston that during the next five years will put $1,075,000 in his kick. "This is the beginning of the new era," said Campbell's agent, LaRue Harcourt, an economics professor at Cerritos (Calif.) JC.
Campbell's windfall came 11 months-after Arbitrator Peter Seitz, ruling in the Andy Messersmith case, overturned baseball's reserve system, forcing the owners into an open-market situation. Thus, between wails about the ruling, the owners had to devise a way to apportion the negotiation rights to players who had played out their options. Twenty-one major-leaguers and three minor-leaguers fell into that category for this year's draft. Under the formula worked out by the owners and the Players Association, the negotiation rights to a free agent could be selected by 12 teams. The drafting dozen—plus the player's former club—could then bid to sign him.
The first player chosen 12 times was not a Reggie Jackson or a Bobby Grich, but Catcher Gene Tenace, late of the A's. That was because Tenace is considered "signable," the owners' term for a player who commands a lower price than some of the bigger names. Nonetheless, Tenace stands to get at least three times the $41,000 he earned in 1976.
Campbell, whose salary rose almost 750%, is the only one to sign to date, but Third Baseman Sal Bando, also formerly of the A's, was reported leaning to Milwaukee last week, and Third Baseman Richie Hebner had supposedly boiled his options down to returning to Pittsburgh or moving to Baltimore.
The other signings are expected to take longer. In a rented conference room in Providence, R.I., agent Jerry Kapstein—whose 10 free-agent clients include Tenace, Second Baseman Grich (ex-Baltimore), Outfielder Joe Rudi (Oakland), Pitcher Don Gullett (Cincinnati) and Reliever Rollie Fingers (Oakland)—is sifting through sealed bids. Meanwhile. Jackson (Baltimore), who expects to sign for about $3 million, was getting enthusiastic responses from the Expos, Dodgers and others. When all the haggling is over, seven or eight players will join Campbell in the millionaire category. Another six or seven should become $100,000-a-year men of means.
Campbell becoming a millionaire, Grich turning down an $800,000 offer from Baltimore to become a free agent and Jackson talking $3 million are indications enough that management is reacting to the free market just as the players hoped it would. "I thought the owners were smarter than this," groused Oriole Pitcher Jim Palmer. "I thought they'd show more restraint."
The Campbell story is evidence that players now can become very rich—even without trying hard. It began in spring training, when he asked for a raise to $30,000. Twins President Calvin Griffith said no. "I was willing to sign for that right into May," says Campbell. "Then I decided to take my chances and play out my option." It turned out to be an astute gamble. After two seasons of contrasting performances—in 1974 he had 19 saves and eight wins, but the next year he dropped to 4-6 with five saves—the 28-year-old Campbell was the best reliever in the majors in 1976. He had a 17-5 record and 20 saves in 78 games.
Because lottery rules forbade teams from talking to the free agents about money before the selections were made, pre-draft discussions centered on the players' willingness to work in certain cities. "Teams would call up and ask if I'd talk," says Campbell. "But St. Louis flew me there and took me to Mr. Busch's mansion. They asked me if I would give them the first shot if they drafted me first, and since they seemed more interested than anyone, I flew to the draft resigned to playing with the Cardinals. I also flew there thinking that somehow the owners would get together and say, 'O.K., this has gone too far, we need a ceiling,' and that what we were talking about was a lot more than what I'd get."
Soon after the draft was finished at 12:30 p.m., he knew otherwise. Harcourt met with St. Louis, then at three o'clock sat down with Red Sox Assistant General Manager John Claiborne. Two and a half hours later, Campbell was almost certain he was headed for Boston. "Claiborne and I exchanged some figures and found we were in the same ball park," says Harcourt. "We met again that night and, except for a few details, had a deal."
The contract calls for $250,000 as a signing bonus, then $165,000 a season. "I think we may have gotten a steal," says Claiborne. "If he had wanted to get into a bidding war—Bill only talked seriously with two teams—he might have been able to get a lot more."
But waiting around for more money made no sense to Campbell. "Look, this business seems insane to me," he says. "No player is really worth what they're paying me, but if they want to, then fine. Maybe I could have gotten more if I'd waited, but at the end of the season my wife and I wrote down our preferences. Both of us chose Boston first. Besides, what would I do with more money? I can't conceive of the difference between $150,000 and $200,000. I didn't want any bidding war. I just wanted to go home, have a couple of beers and relax."
"If you're talking about contracts a year ago, then this all is crazy," says Claiborne, who this summer worked out the contracts that persuaded Kapstein clients Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk and Rick Burleson to stay with the Red Sox. "But we're dealing in an entirely different market. In the perspective of the future salary structure, Campbell's contract isn't inflationary at all."
Claiborne points to players all around the big leagues who recently have signed multi-year contracts: Philadelphia's Garry Maddox, St. Louis' Al Hrabosky and Ted Simmons, Kansas City's John May-berry, whose $1 million deal was a harbinger for Campbell. But the new salary levels are most evident on Campbell's new team. In 1976, the Red Sox had the highest payroll in baseball history, with salaries averaging more than $85,000 per man. Next season the average will be more than $100,000. Second Baseman Denny Doyle, a refugee two years ago from the waiver wire, will get $100,000 in 1977. In August, Lynn signed a five-year, $1,615,000 contract, including a signing bonus of $875,000.
Claiborne now has 18 Boston players signed to multi-year contracts. "People have criticized us, but I think we saw what was coming ahead of some other teams," he says. "You may see three times as many players available in the draft next year, but the quality will be less. Each team now will try to sign up its good players for a long time."
Even the cautious Twins are doing that; last week they gave 20-year-old Catcher Butch Wynegar a two-year deal worth about $85,000. But Minnesota isn't seriously engaged in the free-agent lottery, and neither are several other teams with conservative owners, despite some face-saving statements that they are hoping to sign a new player or two. In fact, amid all the hue and cry about the horrors of the draft, only the World Champion Reds—who can most afford to stand pat—refused to participate in it. Ironically, some of the new system's most vociferous opponents, notably the Cardinals, are now among the most avid pursuers of free agents. Along with several other teams, the Cards fall in a particularly frustrating category of clubs that would like to sign one of the available stars but, because of lack of funds, less-than-choice locations or other factors, probably will be unable to do so.
The draft is already causing problems with stars who are still bound to their teams by old contracts. In Boston, Carl Yastrzemski and Luis Tiant are trying to renegotiate. San Diego's Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones says that if the Padres sign one or two of the high-priced free agents, they will have to pay him more. The average big-league salary in 1969 was less than $25,000. In 1976, it was around $50,000. In 1977? "I shudder to think," says Twins Vice-President Clark Griffith.
Fans will be the first to pay. Ticket prices in Boston were raised 50¢ last week. The Orioles had announced a similar increase a few days earlier. Cuts in farm and scouting systems and roster size will continue, and veterans earning more than $50,000 will see their careers dramatically shortened. "But there's a limit to how much you can cut," says Claiborne. In other words, there are franchises that may not be around in 1980.
"Four or five teams are spending themselves right out of baseball in a hurry," says Calvin Griffith, mentioning Atlanta and Cleveland for two. But the question remains: What happens in a place like Minnesota when the fans realize their team has no real hope of ever winning a pennant because it cannot afford to buy (or hold on to) the Campbells and Griches? Will they give up? "You hear a lot of baseball people say, 'Well, we'll be better with 16 teams,' and resign themselves to it," says Clark Griffith. "It's tough when you're not one of the 16. It's also tough when you're one of the 200 or 300 players who'll be out of work."
The attrition might not be that severe—or it may not happen at all. Exactly what effect the baseball lottery will have on the game probably will not be fully evident for about five years. But two things are already clearly discernible: that Players Association Director Marvin Miller was right when he said years ago that the reserve system existed "to protect the owners from themselves," and that Campbell, the first of the instant millionaires, will not be the last big winner in the sweepstakes.