Publish date:

Bawl Players

As big bucks proliferate, more and more stars are suffering from salary envy

ON NOV. 22, 1989,THE BASEBALL AXIS TILTED. That's the day the Minnesota Twins made outfielderKirby Puckett the game's first $3 million-a-year player. Just six days later,the Oakland Athletics agreed to pay outfielder Rickey Henderson roughly thesame amount. But Henderson and Puckett didn't remain atop baseball's financialheap for long. Their milestone signings opened the floodgates, and today, 16months later, those two stars are among 40 players making at least $3 million ayear. The list is now topped by Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, whosecontract extension signed on Feb. 8 will pay him an average of $5.2 millionover four years.

To say the least,being eclipsed by others has affected Puckett and Henderson differently."It doesn't make any difference to me," says Puckett of the two scoreplayers who have since landed better deals than his three-year, $9 millioncontract. "I'm not doing too bad. I was the highest-paid player for about24 hours, and it felt good. At the time I didn't know how long it would last. Iknew there was a great possibility that I'd open the way for a lot ofcontracts."

By contrast,Henderson, last season's American League MVP, now says he was having secondthoughts about his four-year, $12 million contract almost from the minute hesigned it, and last summer, after teammate Jose Canseco received a five-year,$23.5 million package, Henderson openly complained that he was underpaid. Inrecent weeks his displeasure has deepened. He stayed away from the A's trainingcamp in Phoenix until March 7, eight days past the date he was asked by Oaklandto show up and one day after the mandatory major league reporting date. Andwhen he did arrive, he immediately informed the A's that they had until the endof spring training to renegotiate his contract. "It's pride, period,"Henderson said. "I don't think my contract is fair. I don't think I'm 40thor 50th on the list. If nothing happens by the end of spring training, then Iwill have a decision to make." Was that a threat to take a hike? Hendersondidn't say.

As baseball'sgold rush continues, Puckett's acceptance of the good fortune of his fellowplayers seems both honorable and sensible. Plenty of dough for everyone. Smilesall around, right? Alas, not quite. "Nobody is happy," A'svice-president Sandy Alderson says, exaggerating only slightly, "except theguy who signed the last contract."

Indeed, Hendersonis far from the only player grousing about being left in the financial dust byhigher-paid—and often, at least in his case, by lesser—contemporaries. Thecause of discord is not whether baseball players are making enough money.Rather, it's whether a player is making more money than the next guy, or thenext 20 or 30 guys, depending on how long ago he signed his contract. Each newmega-million-dollar deal brings forth a new order in baseball's version of theFortune 500, and as marquee players have been bumped farther and farther downthe salary rankings, many of them have had their egos bruised, their prideinsulted.

The malcontentsinclude not only veterans, who are eligible for free agency when theircontracts expire, but also players with less than 2¾ years of major leagueexperience, who basically have to take the salary that their clubs assign them,and those with from 2¾ to six years of service, who can't yet become freeagents but can go to arbitration, a process that matches what they think theyare worth against what their clubs think they are worth. The arbitrator mustpick one figure or the other. In recent days, as the nation celebrated thefirst return of troops from the Persian Gulf and continued to cope with arecession, here is, in addition to Henderson's ultimatum, what baseball had tooffer in the way of spring training diversion:

•On March 1, adeadline imposed by the Chicago Cubs' Ryne Sandberg for the club to work out acontract extension passed, and Sandberg, the game's best second baseman, saidhe may become a free agent when his contract expires after the 1992 season.Chicago offered Sandberg, who is now making $2.65 million, a three-year dealaveraging $4.3 million a year, and he turned it down.

•On March 4, lastseason's National League MVP, Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Barry Bonds, wasstill sulking in camp over having lost his arbitration hearing two weeksearlier. Bonds, who was paid $850,000 in 1990, was awarded the $2.3 millionproffered by the Bucs instead of the $3.25 million he had requested. Hedemonstrated his unhappiness by brusquely chasing away cameramen, verballyjousting with a club p.r. man, arguing with mild-mannered outfield coach BillVirdon and getting into an expletive-laced screaming match in the outfield withmanager Jim Leyland. All in 30 minutes. "I feel like Darryl Strawberry inNew York," Bonds said. "There's nothing Barry Bonds can do to satisfyPittsburgh. I'm so sad all the time."

•On March 5,Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Armstrong and catcher Joe Oliver, neither of whomis yet eligible for arbitration, walked out of camp after they were unable tocome to terms with the club, which then renewed their contracts. Armstrong, whowon one game after the All-Star break last season, received a 100% salaryincrease to $215,000, and Oliver, who hit .231, was given a 58% raise, to$185,000. Oliver's walkout lasted two days, but as of Monday, Armstrong had notreturned to work. "I'd rather make $30,000 on a tuna boat," hesaid.

•On March 7, twoother players ineligible for arbitration, Texas Rangers pitchers Kevin Brown(12-10 in 1990, 50% raise to $327,000) and Kenny Rogers (eight blown saves in23 save opportunities, 105% raise to $287,500) left camp after their contractswere renewed by the Rangers. (Both players returned a day later.) That sameday, upon reporting to the A's, Henderson was presented with a mason jar,labeled RICKEY APPRECIATION FUND, in which teammates and staff had stuffedsmall bills and change.

•On March 8, JohnSmoltz, an Atlanta Braves pitcher who is not yet eligible for arbitration,walked out of camp because the Braves had renewed his contract for $350,000(14-11 in '90, $102,500 raise) the day before. Smoltz returned two dayslater.

Amid theacrimony, some of the aggrieved players have actually found a few sympatheticears. Referring to Henderson's squabble with the A's, Bruce Ogilvie, aCalifornia-based sports psychologist who has been a consultant to several NBAand NFL teams, says, in effect, that Henderson, one of the premier players ofhis time and a future Hall of Famer, doesn't want the Danny Darwins and BillDorans and Mike Witts cluttering up his neighborhood.

"It turns outto be an enormous ego struggle," Ogilvie says. "It's hard to visualizepeople making $3 million and not being happy, but it's important to note thatit is not the amount but where it ranks them. If 10 people earn more money thanthey do, that's what's relevant to them. They see this as lessening theirvalue. This is the only way they can define themselves."

Harvey Dorfman,the Oakland organization's psychologist, agrees. "What Rickey can seeclearly is that he has gone from being the second $3 million man to being the40th," says Dorfman. "And if that is the way society is going to judgehim, he wants to ensure that that judgment is corrected. It is not a moneyissue. His need is for recognition."

O.K., the diseasehas been diagnosed, so what's the cure? "I know what the problem is,"Dorfman says. "Ethics versus market value. I don't know how to solve theproblem."

Ah, yes, ethics.Although it is human nature to chafe under inequities and to cast covetousglances at the riches of others—especially when owners exacerbate hard feelingsby agreeing to renegotiate contracts in some cases but not others—someobservers find the cacophony of complaints and ultimatums abhorrent. "Egosand greed have taken over baseball," says Philadelphia Phillies generalmanager Lee Thomas. "Getting what you deserve is one thing, but the ego tohave to be the highest-paid player in the game is another. It's sick, and we'vebrought it on ourselves."

It is a sign ofthe changing times that the disgruntled players, the two MVPs in particular,are even getting bashed by some of their peers. "How can a guy making $3million be underpaid?" Chicago White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk says,referring to Henderson. "They [complaining players] can go kiss my ass.Whose fault is it? Rickey just signed last year, didn't he? Players don't wanta one-year contract because they want a guarantee. So they get a three-year,and after the first year, they find that other guys have jumped ahead of them.I'm not defending the owners or ragging the players, but if you sign afour-year contract, there's a reason you did it—and that was security."

As for Bonds, heevokes little sympathy from a fellow Pirates outfield star, Andy Van Slyke."I don't understand why there's tension in camp. We're coming off adivision title, and people are making millions of dollars," Van Slyke says."I don't care if you're the highest-paid player on this ball club or thelowest-paid player on this club. You should have nothing to complain about, andit's unfortunate that we do have people in this camp who find themselves havingto do that."


"I'm withRickey one hundred percent," says Chicago White Sox shortstop OzzieGuillen. "He deserves more money. To me, Rickey Henderson is the bestplayer in baseball."

Bonds has asupporter, too, in Mets outfielder Hubie Brooks. "If I was working at U.S.Steel, making $39,000, and the guy next to me, doing the same job and not doingit as well, was making $49,000, and I've got four kids and he has two...ofcourse I'm not going to sit back and accept it," Brooks says. "I knowthe public gets mad and jealous. I can understand it. But it's not like thePirates are going to give the money to the homeless if they don't give it toBarry Bonds."

Still, the pointisn't whether teams can afford to meet the recalcitrants' demands. It's thatthose unhappy souls should accept that as long as salaries keep rising andmultiyear contracts are negotiated, some worthy players will be caught leaningthe wrong way. It's a matter of timing. And even when that happens, theresulting injustices have to be kept in perspective. It should be rememberedthat, as Fisk notes, players who sign long-term contracts lock themselves intosuch arrangements in return for the security of an income that is guaranteedeven in the case of slump or injury.

Indeed, thoseelite players who bide their time until their contracts are up could actuallybenefit by doing so. What will Detroit Tiger outfielder Cecil Fielder be worthwhen his $1.5 million-a-year deal expires after this season if he has another40-50 home run year and salaries keep snowballing? And what of Baltimore Orioleshortstop Cal Ripken Jr. ($2.33 million in '91)?

In any case, adeal is a deal—or, when it comes to players who submit to arbitration, rulesare rules. In sports perhaps even more than in other businesses, playing by therules should be the norm. As players try to weasel out of their contracts oroverturn arbitration awards, the cases of Puckett and Henderson stand asdisparate examples of how to handle seeing good fortune come to others. Thosetwo stars have shown that there is both honor and shame among the ranks ofbaseball's rich and famous.



 Bonds(opposite, top) lost his cool, Armstrong (above) walked out, Henderson (below)reported late, and Sandberg said he might try free agency. 



[See caption above.]



[See caption above.]



Puckett (top) shrugs off his drop in the rankings, and Ripken's patience may be rewarded.



[See caption above.]



Van Slyke thinks the discord in the Bucs' camp is altogether unnecessary.