Wade Boggs emerged from the elevator at 9:30 last Friday morning with the polished glaze of a well-vacationed banker. The Boston third baseman and American League batting champion was there, on the ninth floor of the offices of the American Arbitration Association in midtown Manhattan, to seek his market value. He was also there to bat cleanup in that grand old winter game of arbitration. His was the last and most important case to be heard this season.
In the following hours, representatives for the Red Sox and for Boggs tried to convince arbitrator Tom Roberts that Boggs deserved to be either extremely rich—the club was offering $1.35 million for 1986—or extremely richer—he was asking $1.85 million. Either way, Boggs would set a new record: most money awarded, arbitration, season.
As Boggs strode across the carpeted floor toward the reception desk, though, his immediate concern was not his place in baseball—or financial—history. No, first things first for Boggs, one of the most superstitious players in all of baseball. He wanted to know his fate at once.
"What room are we in?" he asked the receptionist.
"Thirteen," replied Evelyn Duffy, who assigns the hearing areas.
"Oh, my god," said Boggs, who wilted like the Red Sox in August. "I don't believe it."
A lot of people didn't believe the awards they were handing out in this, the heaviest season for arbitration since baseball instituted the process in 1974. Ed Lynch, a Mets pitcher on the fringe of the starting rotation, won his case and $530,000, while teammate Ron Darling, who would be the ace of the staff if it weren't for Dwight Gooden, lost his case and was left with $440,000. Pitchers Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers and Bret Saberhagen of the Royals, each with two years under his belt, were given $1 million and $925,000 rewards, respectively.
This was Boggs's second trip to arbitration. A four-year vet with two batting crowns and a lifetime .351 average, he made $1 million last year after whipping the Red Sox before an arbitrator no longer serving baseball. The Red Sox, who had offered $625,000, tried to shred Boggs statistically during that hearing, and he dreaded going back to arbitration. But he wanted a raise after batting .368, hitting in a record 135 games and finishing third in the Gold Glove voting. He would accept a small one if it was tied to a multiyear contract with a no-trade clause. Boston, in fear of being eternally stuck with its own players, said no to the no-trade. Hello, impasse. "Wade's not a happy camper," said William E. Moore Jr., a Boggs representative.
The bottom lines were drawn. Coordinated Sports Management Group, Inc., which handles Boggs, crunched stats and dollars and arrived at the $1.85 mil figure. The club's submission stood between two offers it had made early in its negotiations with Boggs, which began at the end of the season. At the hearing, the player's camp—pitched by two agents, one lawyer, a clerk, a statistician, three Players Association reps, Boggs and a hometown friend of his from Tampa—claimed Wade was an exceptional performer, worthy of the contracts accorded Mike Schmidt or George Brett Or Dale Murphy. On the other side of the conference table, the owners' team—Red Sox G.M. Lou Gorman, hired gun Tal Smith and his assistant, two labor lawyers, another statistician and officials from the Player Relations Committee—also pointed to Schmidt and Brett and Murphy, saying they had been in the league much longer than Boggs before they had earned big bucks. The hearing took 4½ hours in all.
As good a hitter as Boggs is, the salary he was seeking did seem a little unbelievable. "I wonder what Ted Williams would ask for," mused Gorman just before the door to Room 13 closed.
When Roberts handed down his decision two days later, Boggs's triskaidekaphobia proved to be well-founded: He would have to make do with the $1.35 million. (Roberts, the busiest adjudicator over the years, earned $400 for exercising his judgment.) The last case in this winter's cattle-call-cum-crapshoot proved once again that in the arbitration game it doesn't so much matter who wins or loses but how high the stakes are raised. Arbitration, the owners believe, is the main culprit in the dramatic escalation of players' salaries.
How strongly does management feel about the process? "Compared with arbitration," says Bill Bergesch, general manager of the Reds, "I think free agency is not so bad."
The most illogical decisions of the week involved the Mets' pitchers. Lynch and Darling. Clearly, Darling, 16-6 as the No. 2 starter, is a better pitcher than Lynch, 10-8 and projected as a No. 6 starter. Since Lynch's award was announced first last week, Darling seemed a cinch to win later. The Mets tried to head their Yalie off at the pass with a $550,000 offer the day before the hearing. Darling eyed the number coldly. "We figured, after taxes, Ronnie was risking only $39,000," said his agent, Steve Kaufman. C'est la guerre. Ultimately, Lynch's length of service (almost three years more than Darling's), Darling's comparability to such pitchers as the Cardinals' Danny Cox (who negotiated a $380,000 deal) and the state of mind of the arbitrator, Roger Abrams (who earlier that day had decided in favor of a player, Cleveland's Brett Butler) may all have conspired against Darling.
Of the 162 players who filed for arbitration, only 35 actually went all the way, with such stars as Gooden ($1.32 million), the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela (three years, $5.5 million) and the Yankees' Don Mattingly ($1.375 million) settling with their clubs. "It wasn't worth the extra money for all the negative things that would come out of it," says Mattingly, "for the ball club and myself."
Since the beginning of arbitration, management has won 123 cases, players 101; the owners wound up 20-15 this year. But that is not the bottom line. In order to be in the ball park, owners offer bigger bucks than they feel are justified given the players' relative inexperience. And if they lose a large award, the practical effect is that they must pay much more to other players in the long run. Even Boggs sensed this. "If I win I'm the bad guy—Mister One-Point-Eight-Five," he said. "I'm pushing the salaries out of whack."
An average of 21 cases were aired from 1974 to '83, and a total of 23 cases were heard the past two seasons. So why so many now? Some agents attribute the jump to the owners' playing hardball. The clubs seem more willing to force a confrontation.
Kansas City, though, took it on the chin this year. Charlie Leibrandt, who was 17-9 in '85 after spending time in the minors in '84, got a whopping $545,000 raise to $770,000. Saberhagen (20-6), the AL's Cy Young winner and World Series star, got a $765,000 raise over the $160,000 he earned in '85. And Royal slugger Steve Balboni won his case, getting $525,000, up from $205,000. Did the fact that the Royals are the world champs influence these decisions? Without a doubt. But to the Royals, a club in a small market, those numbers aren't easily absorbed.
Sometimes, of course, arbitration can get downright ugly. The Players Association has filed a grievance on behalf of Dave Van Gorder, who hit .238 last season, against the Reds and Bergesch, claiming that they threatened to trade or release the catcher unless he withdrew from arbitration. But Van Gorder, who is represented by the same people who handle Boggs, went ahead with his case and won all of $150,000, twice what the club offered him. Bergesch denies making any threats.
The Phillies even went to the mat with catcher Alan Knicely, who was asking for $140,000. When the arbitrator sided with the club, Knicely ended up the low man on the arbitration totem pole at $80,000.
Arbitration has come a long way from the time when a second baseman named Mike Edwards actually asked for less money ($50,000) than the A's offered ($58,000). But that was long ago, way back in 1980.
By the time Roberts had reached his decision on Sunday, Boggs was in Key West. He had opened up another can of worms and had gone fishing.
A ROYAL PROCESSION, ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK
Kansas City may have won the World Series, but the club lost badly at the arbitration table. In all three cases, the players cashed in. Saberhagen turned his Cy Young Award into a $765,000 raise. Leibrandt, only recently a minor-leaguer, saw his salary grow by $545,000. Balboni got $320,000 more than he made last year. You have to pay a price to be a winner, and the Royals just paid it.