Skip to main content
Original Issue

Ball of Confusion

With an imposed salary cap in place and court battles looming, baseball spins out of control

It was a joyous Christmas Day at the Smith house in Houston. Tal Smith, president of the Houston Astros, gave his son, Randy, general manager of the San Diego Padres, a sculpture of an old-time baseball player. Randy gave his father a sculpture too, this one of Stan Musial, as well as a baseball anthology. Every ornament on the Christmas tree was baseball related, as was much of the dinner conversation—after all, the Astros and the Padres had just agreed to a 12-player trade that would be announced in a few days.

From his new book, Tal read aloud a poem, which assured that all would be right with the world again when Babe Ruth returned from a suspension and started hitting home runs. "The game is the thing," Tal said later. "No one is bigger than the game. Let's hope that the beauty of the game transcends what's going on now."

What's going on with the game today is confusion, anger and mistrust. The relationship between major league owners and striking players is as acrimonious as ever (negotiations have ceased and aren't scheduled to resume), general managers struggle to figure out the revenue-sharing plan and salary cap implemented by the owners on Dec. 23, and nobody—not owners, G.M.'s, players or fans—knows whether major leaguers or replacement players will suit up on Opening Day.

Normally this is the time when the hot-stove league heats up, but instead of talk about National League RBI champ Jeff Bagwell, there's talk of the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board). Instead of assessing the new lineups of the Astros and the Padres, whose Dec. 28 trade was the biggest in 37 years, baseball people are focusing on how the deal affects each club's status under the cap.

Here's what the holiday season brought:

•The Texas Rangers traded slugger Jose Canseco to the Boston Red Sox for a prospect and a 36-year-old leadoff hitter; the Chicago White Sox sent ace Jack McDowell to the New York Yankees for a pedestrian Double A pitcher; and the San Francisco Giants dealt their best starting pitcher, John Burkett, to Texas for two minor leaguers—all because those three stars were due to become free agents and would demand hefty new contracts that few teams could afford to pay.

•White Sox designated hitter Julio Franco, coming off his best year (.319, 20 homers, 98 RBIs) in 13 seasons, signed a contract worth $3.5 million to play in Japan in 1995 because he wasn't sure major leaguers would be playing next spring.

•The Seattle Mariners knowingly overpaid (three years, $15.5 million) outfielder Jay Buhner (.279, 21 homers, 68 RBIs) to pacify their fans, the local media and their superstar, Ken Griffey Jr., who said he would ask to be traded or eventually leave as a free agent if his outfield mate was not re-signed (box, page 63).

•In their blockbuster deal with the Padres, the Astros traded six players, three of them starters, in order to knock approximately $5 million off their payroll (box below). A month earlier they also traded starter Pete Harnisch to the New York Mets for two minor league pitchers, thus saving another $3 million.

All this while the industry was effectively shut down by a strike.

"Everything we do seems to tarnish the game," says Montreal Expo general manager Kevin Malone. "We keep doing everything we say we can't afford to do." The Buhner signing by the Mariners, whose small-market ownership has cried poverty for years, was "ludicrous," according to one National League general manager, who, like most baseball executives these days, prefers anonymity when speaking frankly on the troubled state of the game. An American League executive agreed, saying, "Who ever bought a ticket to see Jay Buhner play? Nobody." The Astro-Padre trade, which sent infielders Ricky Gutierrez and Craig Shipley, outfielders Derek Bell and Phil Plantier, and pitchers Doug Brocail and Pedro Martinez to Houston for infielders Ken Caminiti, Andujar Cedeno and Roberto Petagine, outfielder Steve Finley, pitcher Brian Williams and a minor leaguer to be named or $50,000, was greeted this way by one agent: "Who cares'? None of them is going to play until '96 anyway."

It is the most chaotic period in major league history. "I don't believe anyone thought this could deteriorate to the point that it has," says the Baltimore Orioles' Peter Angelos, the one owner who has been bold enough to take a public stand against his colleagues' veiled attempt to break the union. One general manager says he is so disgusted by the events of the last five months that he's thinking of getting out of baseball and becoming a basketball scout. The owners and players have reached a state of gridlock that perhaps can be broken only by Congress, a body that creates more than its own share of gridlock. There are so many questions crying out for answers, but representatives of both the owners and the players have so few to offer. "I'm out of predictions," says Atlanta Brave president Stan Kasten. "When you're 0-fer on predictions, you stop."

Here are some of those questions:

Are the owners serious about using replacement players?

Absolutely. Yet most general managers don't like the idea and have done little planning for it. "A few minutes at lunch" is how much thought Randy Smith has given it. Can you blame him? Most replacement players would be nonunion, low-level minor leaguers, journeymen Triple A players who have no future as major leaguers, or former big leaguers whose careers seemed to be over. Former pitcher Doug Sisk, 37, who had major surgery on both knees in 1989 and hasn't pitched in the majors since '91, says he wants to play. "It will be a travesty, it stinks, I hate it," says one National League G.M. of the replacement-player scenario. "I'm not sure if we'll have enough bodies for a team."

Teams won't subject their best prospects to the pressures and repercussions that crossing a picket line would invite. Yet some young players who think they have a major league future might be asked to cross the line. "If I was in that position, I'd shoot myself," says one agent. "I'll advise my guys that it's better to never play in the big leagues than to play a little under these conditions."

What will the quality of play be like with replacement players?

Awful. Baseball is arguably the hardest game to play, and to play it well usually requires years of tutoring in the minor leagues. "Hey, I could have played in the big leagues when I was in Double A," says free-agent outfielder Andy Van Slyke, who was not re-signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. "But I would have looked like a Double A player in the major leagues."

Replacement-player games could also feature replacement umpires, the owners having decided to lock out umps until negotiations for their new contract are completed. "Maybe we'll have replacement concessionaires and replacement bases—just draw them in the infield dirt—and replacement paychecks," says Van Slyke. One American League executive even believes a couple of managers who are former players will choose-not to cross a picket line. If so, then some teams will have to find replacement managers.

What will happen if the Toronto Blue Jays and Orioles don't field teams?

What a joke that would be, playing the American League schedule without one or two of its teams—but it could happen. The law in Ontario, which applies in the Blue Jays' case, is strict: No worker can replace one who's on strike. And the Blue Jays have said they won't challenge that law. Toronto president Paul Beeston has also said his club, still baseball's reigning champion by virtue of its 1993 World Series victory, won't play home games in Buffalo, Syracuse or anywhere else, nor will it play all its games on the road.

Angelos, who made most of his fortune as an attorney representing trade unions, says the Orioles will not field a scab team. "This is a major league franchise—that doesn't mean Triple A or Double A or rookie ball," he says. "To expect major league fans to accept less than major league baseball is unrealistic and, I believe, will ultimately prove to be foolhardy. These are the best players in the world. There are no replacements. That's a hallucination."

What's more, if Baltimore played replacement games without shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., his streak of 2,009 consecutive games would end just 122 short of breaking Lou Gehrig's record. Ripken says he has no intention of crossing a picket line, and Angelos wants no part of a plan that would jeopardize the streak.

Under terms of the American League constitution, the league supposedly can force the Orioles to play. "And how is it going to do that?" Angelos asks defiantly.

Will union players cross the line?

Some will, but Major League Baseball Players Association boss Don Fehr says, "Anyone who thinks there will be an appreciable number is wrong." The owners are counting on many players' breaking rank, but Kansas City Royal reliever Jeff Montgomery doubts that will happen, saying, "What has been forced on us is not right. That strengthens our resolve."

Astro pitcher Greg Swindell, who makes $4 million a year, is the rare exception who has indicated publicly that he may be wavering. "I have very few friends in baseball right now that I'm close and personal with anyway," he told KRIV-TV in Houston. "I've got house payments, I've got ex-wife payments, I've got a five-year-old, a three-year-old and a seven-week-old. So it's a tough decision." Two club sources predict that half of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a very young team with relatively low salaries, will report. It's unlikely, however, that very many veterans from around the majors will cross, especially during spring training. The first paycheck isn't due until April 15.

Any major leaguers who do report and any others who serve as replacements will have to answer to their peers after a settlement is reached. At the very least, scabs figure to be ostracized by poststrike teammates, with whom they spend nearly eight months a year. Any player, especially a marginal major leaguer, will find it difficult to stay in the game when he is an outcast on his own team.

Will ticket prices be reduced for replacement-player games?

They had better be. The fans have already taken a terrific beating from the game, and even the owners admit that charging major league prices for a minor league product would be idiotic. Acting commissioner Bud Selig, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers, is among the owners who have said they will slash prices, and the rest of the clubs are sure to do so. While they're at it, owners should consider cutting the prices of concessions and parking.

How has the strike affected the marketing of major league baseball?

Ken Schanzer, president and CEO of The Baseball Network, which is in its second year as the game's national television marketing arm, says that advertisers are as confused and anxious about the status of the '95 season as anyone else. Some advertisers (such as True Value Hardware) who were scheduled to join TBN this year have already taken their business elsewhere. Schanzer's group has been in constant touch with the remaining sponsors. "You can't ask me to apply precision when the people in the game can't apply precision," he says. "The complexity of this thing is overwhelming."

What happens if, say, the Cleveland Indians' replacement players go 5-22 the first month, then the strike is settled. Will those games count, as the NFL scab games did after a players' strike was called in 1987?

Probably, although it's wise to remember what happened to the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions in '87. The Giant front office put together a horrid replacement team that went 0-3, and the regular players never recovered.

One way to soften the effect of scab games on the standings would be to break the season into two parts: replacement games and regular games, with playoff' representatives from both.

Are owners flooding the market with free agents in an attempt to lower salaries?

It's as if a dam has burst. Even before the owners' salary-cap implementation, high-salaried and low-production veterans were being released and waived in record numbers. The implementation plan, which created a new category of restricted free agents affecting players with four to six years' service, set 63 more players loose. The flooding of the market hurts players such as Bob Tewksbury, late of the St. Louis Cardinals, and former Ranger Kevin Brown, who were the top pitchers available among the free agents under the old collective bargaining agreement.

Now, thanks to the owners' new unilateral scheme, the following pitchers are also free agents: Kevin Appier of the Kansas City Royals, Steve Avery of the Atlanta Braves, Andy Benes of the Padres, Alex Fernandez of the White Sox, Ken Hill of the Expos and Ben McDonald of the Orioles. Granted, because they're only restricted free agents, their current teams have 10 days to match any other team's offer, but Tewksbury now faces much greater competition in the marketplace, and his price will certainly drop, as will those of many other players. "There are going to be quality players out there at reasonable prices," says Malone.

A particular challenge for Malone is that three of the new restricted free agents—Hill, centerfielder Marquis Grissom and reliever John Wetteland—as well as rightfielder Larry Walker, a free agent under the old system, are Expos, and he will have difficulty signing them even at reasonable prices. Although they had the best record in baseball when the strike started on Aug. 12, the Expos, according to Malone, lost $15 million (U.S.) in 1994.

Can this dispute be solved at the bargaining table?

It will take a miracle. Some owners say that Fehr doesn't listen to them, refuses to negotiate and, instead of dealing with the issues, delivers sermons on the history of baseball labor relations. "I'll tell you in two words what's holding up this dispute: Don Fehr," says a source close to management. "The problem with Don is that he doesn't have a 'yes' gene." Fehr says that it's the owners who have refused to negotiate and that they have been intent for more than a year on imposing their salary cap and breaking the union. Since negotiations broke off and the salary cap was implemented, each side has filed a complaint with the NLRB accusing the other of failing to bargain in good faith. A ruling from the NLRB is not due until February at the earliest. Until then meaningful negotiations appear unlikely.

Will baseball's antitrust exemption be repealed by Congress?

It's a real possibility, now that the owners have imposed a salary cap and another season is in jeopardy. Here's a chance for Congress to act as savior, and if House leadership takes up the cause, repeal might get done before the end of January.

Both Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who's about to take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and powerful New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan support repeal of the antitrust exemption, and with such bipartisan support, a bill repealing exemption should sail through the Senate. In the House, however, new Speaker Newt Gingrich and Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who will be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, arc looking for bigger fish to fry—President Clinton, for example—and prospects for repeal in that body are less clear.

If the antitrust exemption is repealed, will the players go back to work?

Not necessarily. If the exemption were removed, the players would immediately seek an injunction in federal court against the owners' implementation of the salary cap. Then they would file an antitrust suit seeking treble damages dating to the start of the strike. The cases could be tied up in court for years, and the players have no intention of returning to work if it means giving up their right to strike, a demand the owners might make before allowing them to play. Still, the players say, repeal of the exemption alone might cause the owners to back away from their demand for a salary cap and thus increase the likelihood of a negotiated settlement.

"I've always been anti-involvement of government in our lives, but I couldn't think of a more appropriate time for the government to step in than now," says Van Slyke. "Then it would be over, we'd all be back in spring training. We have replacement senators and congressmen now, right? Well, it's time for them to do the right thing."

That goes for everybody in baseball, too.




The tumult (clockwise from left) made Buhner rich, kept Selig and Fehr at odds, put Ripken's streak at risk, set Avery free and sent Franco packing.








































Throwing Curves

"To expect major league fans to accept less than major league baseball is unrealistic and, I believe, will ultimately prove to be foolhardy. These are the best players in the world. There are no replacements. That's a hallucination."

—Oriole owner Peter Angelos, on why he will not field a replacement team

"I have very few friends in baseball right now that I'm close and personal with anyway.... I've got house payments, I've got ex-wife payments, I've got a five-year-old, a three-year-old and a seven-week-old. So it's a tough decision."

—Astro pitcher Greg Swindell, on why he might cross the players' picket line if the strike continues into next season

The Misfit

Eyebrows were raised throughout baseball on Dec. 21 when the Seattle Mariners gave free-agent outfielder Jay Buhner a three-year, $15.5 million contract to re-sign with them. In eight years as a major leaguer, Buhner (19, at right) has not batted .280 or hit 30 home runs or driven in 100 runs in a season.

Here is a sampling of some of the other players who are making about the same money as Buhner. (Salary figures are the annual average over the life of the contract.)

Player, Team

Avg. Salary


John Olerud, Blue Jays


AL batting champ (.363) in '93

Gary Sheffield, Marlins


Threat to win Triple Crown

Greg Maddux, Braves


Three straight Cy Youngs

Jose Rijo, Reds


2.63 ERA since joining Reds in '88

Roger Clemens, Red Sox


Three-time Cy Young winner

Jay Buhner, Mariners


Close friend of Ken Griffey Jr.

Tom Glavine, Braves


Three straight 20-win seasons (1991-93)

Barry Larkin, Reds


Prototypical major league shortstop

Bret Saberhagen, Mets


Two-time Cy Young winner

Randy Johnson, Mariners


Three-time AL strikeout king

Gregg Jefferies, Phillies


Hit .342 and .325 last two seasons