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Original Issue

Dark Days for Baseball

Gloom and doom—and free-agent moola—made for the grimmest winter meetings in memory

The sun rarely appeared last week in cold, rainy Louisville, site of the baseball winter meetings. Inside the Gait House Hotel, the headquarters for the gathering, the mood was equally gloomy. It was as if all that is unsavory in baseball swept through the main lobby and the conference halls and contaminated even the most ardent devotees of the sport. It seemed clear that the national pastime had hit rock bottom.

This was never more evident than when Jim Abbott, one of the American League's best pitchers and the game's most inspirational player, was dealt from the California Angels to the New York Yankees. The trade, which should have made a huge splash, was buried in newspapers and television reports beneath disturbing stories about Cincinnati Red owner Marge Schott's racist comments, about monstrous free-agent contracts, about the reopening of the collective bargaining agreement and a possible lockout next spring, and about the renewed challenge in Congress to baseball's antitrust exemption.

The economic news at the meetings was dismal on many fronts: Attendance dropped last season for 18 of the 26 teams. Pitcher Steve Howe, a seven-time offender of baseball's drug policy, got a two-year contract, a 250% raise per year, to $4.2 million, from the Yankees following a season in which he worked 22 innings. CBS and ESPN can't wait to be free of their four-year, $1.5 billion commitment to televise baseball, which expires after next season.

The grim view of the game was shared by many people at the winter meetings, including Andy MacPhail, general manager of the Minnesota Twins. Baseball has been his life, but in Louisville he admitted that he was worried. "At times I'm ashamed and embarrassed about some things that have unfolded," said MacPhail. "I wonder if it's appropriate to participate in something that has almost become decadent. Everyone in the game would benefit if they would take one step back and understand the fundamental elements of the game that made it such an integral part of America. We should not jeopardize that, but that's what we're doing. We're infecting the game with acrimony—and there's no reason for it. Someone has to take the first step. Someone has to have the courage to say, 'Hey, this is wrong.' We're perverting one of our institutions. We have a responsibility to put it back on the right course. What got us into this mess is all parties acting in their own self-interest. If we keep doing that, this game is going right down the toilet."

These 10 episodes from the winter meetings gave display to the sorry state of the game:

1) Two Native Americans walked into the press room late in the afternoon of the second day of the proceedings, went to the podium and removed the official Major League Baseball logo that served as a backdrop. One of them condemned baseball because of the racist, insensitive remarks made by Schott. Then he pleaded for the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs and other teams with racially based nicknames to change those names.

Later that day the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with a five-man entourage assembled behind him, lambasted baseball for what he considers to be its abysmal record of hiring minorities for senior management positions. "If baseball doesn't get its house in order," he said, "it will face a boycott or have its antitrust exemption challenged." Jackson also said a coalition will be formed to insure that more minorities are hired to fill key posts by April 1993.

One member of Jackson's group was Frank Robinson, the assistant general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. "Al Campanis made everyone aware [of the discrimination in baseball], but not enough progress was made," Robinson said in reference to comments made by Campanis in 1987 when he was general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "After a while it was swept under the rug. But this time, people are so upset. Jesse isn't going to let this blow over."

2) A story in the Louisville Courier-Journal on Dec. 6 reported that Texas Ranger outfielder Jose Canseco, while in a Chicago bar, reportedly slugged a man and broke his nose after the man supposedly said something unflattering about Canseco's female companion. Another report stated that Canseco tried to make a financial settlement with the man, but that the man refused. Canseco was ultimately arrested and charged with battery. "I was set up," Canseco said.

Maybe he was, but when one of the game's top players gets arrested—again—it sends another lousy message to fans. And baseball's image isn't helped when, according to a man who was on a commercial flight to Louisville with zillionaire-to-be free-agent Barry Bonds, Bonds was loud and abusive on the plane; among other complaints, Bonds wailed that the Yankees had insulted him with the five-year, $36 million offer he had turned down a few days earlier.

Baseball has few heroes these days. It is no wonder that in a recent ESPN survey of 100 children aged 10 to 12, only six named baseball as their favorite sport, and only four named a baseball player as their favorite athlete.

3) Yankee general manager Gene Michael left the winter meetings to return to New York, where he spent the day driving free-agent pitcher Greg Maddux around New Jersey suburbs, showing him golf courses and houses; that evening Michael wined and dined Maddux, entertaining him with a Broadway show, all the while silently pleading with Maddux to accept $34 million from New York.

Two days later Maddux signed a five-year, $28 million deal with the Braves. Maddux, this year's National League Cy Young winner, said he wanted to play for a contender, not the Yankees, a common sentiment among the 1992 free-agent class. "I think the chaos in the front office there is self-explanatory," free-agent pitcher David Cone said upon signing with Kansas City after spurning the Yanks.

4) Bill White, the National League president, looked like a player caught in a rundown as he raced from one conference room to another on Dec. 7. In order to attend a meeting concerning the tangled issue of the ownership of the San Francisco Giants, White ran out of the owners' meeting that was considering the sticky issue of an early reopening of the current labor agreement, as provided for under the four-year contract the owners signed with the players in 1990. (The owners ultimately voted to reopen negotiations, which raised the specter of a possible lockout before the '93 season.)

White hates this kind of stuff. He accepted the job as league president in 1989 because he thought it was a baseball job, and he loves baseball. Instead, he found that it's a frustrating, powerless, paperwork job. That helps explain why White can't wait for his term to end in March 1993, at which point he will resign.

White isn't the only one in the upper reaches of baseball's hierarchy who is fed up with the politics of the game. "I feel like a punching bag," said an official from the commissioner's office. "Every time I get up from a hit, I get smashed again."

5) On Dec. 7, at 11:25 p.m., the Milwaukee Brewers announced that they had offered free-agent infielder Paul Molitor salary arbitration. The announcement offered hope that the Brewers could re-sign Molitor, who had played all 15 of his big league seasons in Milwaukee and has been a hero and a community leader there. Brewer general manager Sal Bando was briefing the media about Molitor's situation when representatives of the Toronto Blue Jays blew through the door and announced that they had signed Molitor to a three-year contract for $13 million. All color vanished from Bando's face as the Blue Jays walked off with his best player. The Brewers' best offer had been a meager one-year, $2.5 million contract.

This was a prime example of a wealthy, big-market team overpowering a struggling, small-market team. Molitor said last summer that if he were ever to win a world championship, "I want it to be in Milwaukee. Any place else just wouldn't be the same." But the Brewers couldn't afford to keep him. Contenders last year, they won't be in 1993.

6) At two in the morning on Dec. 8, in the lobby bar at the Gait House, Dennis Gilbert, the agent for Bonds, and Larry Baer, the executive vice-president from the ownership group that is buying the Giants, were frantically running in and out to make copies and send faxes. They were finalizing a deal that would pay Bonds $43.75 million over the next six years, the largest contract in baseball history.

Deals used to mean trades, but now they usually mean free-agent signings. In Louisville there were five trades (most of them small potatoes) and 36 free-agent signings to contracts totaling more than $230 million. Agents seem to be running baseball. "I hate to say this about a fellow agent," said one player representative, "but I just rode down in the elevator with Bonds and Gilbert. I think I'm going to puke. But I still have my wallet."

7) That night the official signing of Bonds was announced. A nine-man entourage made up of Bonds, his father, Bobby, Gilbert and six others in thousand-dollar suits entered the press room. Bonds looked like a heavyweight champion parading to the ring before a title fight. All nine stood at the podium.

"I can't help but thinking," said one American League general manager afterward, "that Bobby Bonds is going to be the hitting coach for the Giants, and Dusty Baker is going to be the manager—all because that's how Barry wants it."

8) The DO NOT DISTURB sign seldom left the door handle of Oriole manager John Oates's room when he was in Louisville. There's no harder-working baseball man than Oates, but he spent most of the meetings out of sight. "I like to talk about baseball, but no one is talking about baseball," he said dejectedly.

It was a waste of time for Oates to attend the meetings. Baltimore had no meaningful conversations with any team because they are in the process of being sold, thereby paralyzing any major player movement. This is the fault of club owner Eli Jacobs, who made his fortune buying and selling businesses. That has been his plan for the Orioles: Jacobs bought them for $70 million in December 1988 and put them on the market in June '91 for a reported $200 million. In the last six months financial woes in his other businesses caused a number of banks to file suit against him, so Jacobs is holding out on the Orioles: He won't sell them, except for a maximum price, but he won't improve them by spending a lot of money on players. "Hey, good news," one former Baltimore employee said as the meetings convened. "Eli didn't get sued today."

9) Free-agent third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, one of the heroes of the Minnesota Twins' 1991 World Series victory, was wandering through the lobby of the Gait House looking for a job. Despite the heavy spending on free agents in Louisville, many of the remaining free agents—there were 89 as of Monday—will be jobless come the end of January.

For every $4 million-a-year player, there are two decent players who can't find a job and many more young players making the minimum salary of $109,000.

10) On the afternoon of Dec. 9, Bud Selig looked tired and dazed: He's the owner of the Brewers and has been the acting commissioner since Fay Vincent was forced to resign on Sept. 7. Selig also serves on seemingly every major committee in baseball. He's a man who can bring people together, who leads by consensus, but that's very difficult to do with the 28 major league owners, some of whom dislike each other as much as they dislike the Major League Players Association.

Standing at the podium in the press room, Selig spoke softly and deliberately, without passion, as he gave updates on the Schott situation, the reopener, divisional realignment and the search for a new commissioner. "This business cannot operate without a strong commissioner," he said. "My seven-year-old granddaughter Emily understands that."

Only moments after Selig addressed the press, there was another shocking bit of news: Carl Barger, president of the Florida Marlins, had suffered a heart attack in a hallway just outside a conference room and died. It was a tragic ending to a miserable winter meeting.

In the last few years baseball talk has rarely been about the game itself. "We all grew up reading box scores and figuring batting averages," said Stan Kasten, president of the Braves. "We have to get back to that." That prospect has never looked less likely than it did last week.



When you sign a $43.75 million contract, as Bonds did, an entourage comes with the deal.



Despite the wining and dining, Michael couldn't get Maddux to play in New York.



Boorish behavior, like Canseco's barroom brawl, has kids looking elsewhere for heroes.