They were playing far-sies, top-sies and knock-sies with live players in Dallas last week at the 79th official baseball meetings. Whitey Herzog, manager and general manager of St. Louis, shuffled a whole lot of Cards by trading away six pitchers, three catchers, two infielders and one outfielder for four pitchers, two catchers and an outfielder. The popular term of endearment for Herzog is the White Rat, and he lived up to his nickname as he scurried through the suites and cocktail lounges of the Loews Anatole Hotel, packing away players.
Even before Herzog made his first deal, the winter meetings—held annually in the fall—had a touch of the bizarre. The Loews Anatole Hotel is a striking example of an architectural style that can only be called Texas-Egyptian. During the week Deena the Chimp, the San Diego Chicken and Max Patkin, Clown Prince of Baseball, were trying to outmug each other to get minor league bookings for 1981. By the time the zaniness ended at midnight on Friday, 17 trades, some of them blockbusters, had been consummated. Fred Lynn and Ron Guidry were shopped around like third-string catchers. One manager lost his job and his lunch in-one fell swoop. And Hank Peters, the Orioles' general manager, proudly announced that his daughter had given birth to a baby "to be named later."
These meetings were a delightful departure from the killjoy confabs of recent years. There were 58 players traded, the most since 1975. The inauguration of free agency (in 1976) and a second inter-league trading period (in 1977) had been responsible for the decline. Now the owners seem infused with more traditional values. Besides, as Chicago White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond said, "It's a lot more fun trading a player than signing him."
Even so, it was Herzog's signing of a free agent, Catcher Darrell Porter, on Sunday, Dec. 7 that set off his Whirl Series of trades. On Monday, Herzog and Padres General Manager Jack McKeon unveiled an 11-player deal, which baseball-card collectors immediately recognized as a variation on two Tom Sturdivants for one Harvey Kuenn. The most noteworthy names were Pitcher Rollie Fingers and Catcher Gene Tenace of San Diego and Catcher Terry Kennedy of St. Louis. "I plan to see you guys every day," Herzog vowed to reporters at his press conference. "If I do it all in one day, I'll have to go home."
Sure enough, the White Rat was back Tuesday afternoon to announce he had just gotten Relief Pitcher Bruce Sutter from the Cubs for Third Baseman Ken Reitz, Outfielder-First Baseman Leon Durham and a player to be named later. Cubs General Manager Bob Kennedy said he was happy with the trade, though not as happy as he would've been if he'd got his son, Terry. Herzog said the trade took about 74 phone calls to make. "The general manager is doing a great job," said Herzog. "Now if the manager doesn't screw up, we're in great shape." So, just two days into the meetings, Herzog found himself with two of the best relievers in the game—between them, Sutter and Fingers had 51 saves last season, 24 more than the whole Cardinal staff—and three first-rate catchers: Porter, Tenace and Ted Simmons. He clearly had some more dealing in mind.
That materialized on Friday when Herzog and Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton announced that the Cardinals were sending Fingers, Simmons and Righthander Pete Vuckovich to the Brewers for Outfielder Sixto Lezcano, Righthander Lary Sorenson and two minor-leaguers. "Now I have to leave to catch a plane," said Herzog. "Goodby."
The Herzog trades were actually a lot of sound and fury that seem to signify very little for the Cardinals; they may, in fact, have done more harm than good. All Herzog really added was Sutter, while losing the switch-hitting Simmons, one of the game's half dozen toughest outs, in the process. The sleeper in the deal with the Brewers may be Outfielder Dave Green, a 20-year-old Nicaraguan who reminds some baseball people of Roberto Clemente. "You haven't heard of him yet," said Dalton, who was very reluctant to give Green up, "but you will." The Brewers are going for broke in 1981 because both Vuckovich and Fingers can become free agents at the end of next season. Milwaukee also had to throw in a reported $750,000 to persuade Simmons and his agent, LaRue Harcourt, to waive the 10-and-5 rule, otherwise known as the Santo Clause: a player with 10 years' experience in the majors and at least five years with the same team can veto a trade, as Ron Santo first did.
Milwaukee seemed to have helped itself the most. Simmons is the best catcher the Brewers have ever had, and Fingers gives them their first solid reliever since Ken Sanders in the early '70s.
The other big trade of the week came on Wednesday when the Red Sox sent Shortstop Rick Burleson and Third Baseman Butch Hobson to the Angels for Third Baseman Carney Lansford, Pitcher Mark Clear and Outfielder Rick Miller. Lansford is a prize, but what the Red Sox really need—as usual—is pitching, and Clear has performed rather murkily since the first half of his rookie season, 1979. Why would Boston give up one of the three best shortstops in baseball? It happens that Burleson's contract expires at the end of next season, and the Red Sox held little hope of signing him.
Therein lies the twist of these meetings. Many teams were suddenly glad to unload even the best of players, preferring an already-signed or easier-to-sign lesser performer to an expensive one bound for free agency. That's why the Red Sox were so anxious to unload Lynn, who is in the last year of his contract. One of their proposed deals would have sent Lynn to the Dodgers in the wee small hours of Thursday morning. The two teams had been talking all week. After Boston General Manager Haywood Sullivan announced the Burleson deal with the Angels at 11 p.m., he and his new manager. Ralph Houk, went up to the L.A. suite to meet with their Dodger counterparts, Al Campanis and Tommy Lasorda. At about midnight they agreed on the players: Lynn for Pitchers Steve Howe and Joe Beckwith and minor league First Baseman Mike Marshall. In order to avoid charges of tampering, Bill Murray of the commissioner's office was brought in to oversee the Dodgers' negotiations with Lynn, whom they wanted to tie to a long-term contract right away. Campanis tried unsuccessfully to raise Lynn's agent, Jerry Kapstein, in San Diego and had to phone Lynn instead. Lynn was told of the trade and asked to contact Kapstein. At 1:30 a.m. Kapstein called back, and Murray told him he would send the necessary telegram immediately, granting L.A. permission to talk contract.
At about 2:30 Kapstein called back and said he had received the telegram and would set up a conference call with the Dodgers, himself, Lynn and Lynn's wife, Dede. With everyone on the line 25 minutes later, Kapstein asked for a one-year contract at an undetermined price, and the Dodgers countered with five years for a reported $5 million. The Dodgers asked Kapstein to call back with another proposal. At this point the Dodgers were very grateful the hotel had all-night room service, having gone through several helpings of frozen yogurt and fruit and a dozen sandwiches. Kapstein was on the line again at 4 a.m. with the same one-year offer. Lynn didn't mind L.A.; he just wanted to keep his options open for a future free-agent plunge. Campanis said no change, no deal, and at 4:20 the Dodgers told Sullivan the trade was off.
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had a go at Lynn later in the week. In one variation, New York envisioned an outfield of Lynn, Reggie Jackson and the then-unsigned free agent, Dave Winfield. New York was offering Boston Guidry, who will also become a free agent next October, and either of two outfielders, Ruppert Jones or Bobby Brown. In a second attempt, the Yankees offered Jackson for Lynn straight up. The Mets, too, made an offer, but they literally and figuratively were out of their league.
Agents helped make trades, too. Harcourt talked his client Reitz into going to Chicago, although it took $150,000 from the Cubs to persuade Reitz to waive his no-trade clause. Harcourt also tried to get $1 million for Simmons in exchange for Simmons' 10-and-5 waiver, but settled for about 250 grand less. Dalton said making the deal with the Cardinals was a lot easier than making it with Harcourt. "He's the slowest talker I've ever met," said Dalton.
"The owners are learning to live with free agency," said Harcourt, a former junior college business teacher from Cerritos, Calif. "I'm not here to kill deals. I'm here to make everybody happy."
"Many clubs are willing to move quality ballplayers and complicated contracts," said Sullivan. "But there's another reason for all the deals. It's this hotel. Everyone can find each other. It's great for baseball people and media people, too. I wish I had the notebook concession."
There was other activity as well. Houston set a record for free-agent extravagance by giving utility man Dave Roberts a five-year, $1.1 million contract. The Giants fired their manager, Dave Bristol, while the managers' luncheon was going on. No wonder he didn't show. San Francisco owner Bob Lurie issued a short statement citing "philosophical differences" as the reason for the dismissal. Philadelphia Manager Dallas Green read that and said, "Philosophical differences. Hell, that would have gotten me fired a long time ago." Bristol was back in the hotel lobby the next day, joining hundreds of other job-seekers. Texas General Manager Eddie Robinson, who used to work for the Braves, said to Bristol, "When I hired you in Atlanta, I said you were a fiery manager. Well, you sure do get fired a lot." Last week made four times.
The Indians acquired malcontented Pitcher Bert Blyleven and contented Catcher Manny Sanguillen from the Pirates for Catcher Gary Alexander and Pitchers Bob Owchinko, Victor Cruz and Rafael Vasquez. It was the third winter session in a row at which Vasquez had been traded. The major disappointment of the week was that Bobby Bonds wasn't traded. It just wasn't in the cards.
As general managers put on poker faces (from left: McKeon, Herzog, Dalton, Kennedy), agent Harcourt pulled strings.