Philadelphia Inquirer - April 5, 1980

A vote for the players in free agency compensation furor

 

By John Nadal, Associated Press

 

LOS ANGELES – It was only five years ago that the courts ruled that any baseball player could become a free agent at the expiration of his contract.  Now the owners want to, in effect, end free agency for all but the superstar.

 

So here’s a vote for the players in the latest, and certainly most serious, hassle in major league history, a hassle that could leave the 1980 season in ruins.

 

The players decided last Tuesday to strike for the remainder of the exhibition season, then return to open the regular season next Wednesday.  But they’ll review the situation on May 22, and a walkout at that time seems likely.

 

It’s been made clear by both the Major League Players Association and team owners that free agent compensation is the major roadblock standing in the way of a basic four-year agreement to replace the one that expired last Dec. 31.

 

Both sides appear adamant in their stands.

 

The owners want compensation for a lost “highly sought” free agent whereby the signing team, after protecting 15 players, would lose a player to the team originally losing the free agent.

 

The players, meanwhile, say, in effect, “Why should we relinquish something we already have” – no compensation in such cases.

 

In 1975, it was ruled that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents and that so was anybody else upon expiration of his contract.  The next year, the players made a couple of major concessions by agreeing that a player would have to be a major leaguer for six years before becoming a free agent and that he could negotiate with only as many as 13 teams.

 

Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Players Association, makes a number of rather significant points when he elaborates on this situation….

 

In most cases, players need three or four years of seasoning before they reach the majors.  When you add in another six years at the big league level, most players have no say as to where they’ll play for nine or 10 years.

 

When a player qualifies for free agency, or decides to take that route, he’s not a kid anymore.  Again, bear in mind that prior to this time, a player has to, essentially, take or leave what he’s offered.

 

In the case of the superstar, it wouldn’t matter that a team could protect 15 players and then lose somebody.

 

The top-flight player will command rich offers, compensation or not, but what about guys like Jay Johnstone, Freddie Patek, Joe Morgan, Rennie Stennentt or John Curtis?  These were among the players who signed free agent contracts during the most recent off-season.

 

Do you think that, say, the Dodgers would have signed Johnstone had they been able to protect only 15 players before giving someone up?  The San Diego Padres, Johnstone’s former team, would have probably had an opportunity at one of the young Dodgers prospects, like outfielder Rudy Law, infielder-outfielder Mickey Hatcher or infielder Pedro Guerrero.

 

The point is, would the Dodgers have made what essentially would have been such a “trade” – Johnstone for Law?  No way.

 

Would the Angels have signed the 35-year-old Patek and risked losing somebody after protecting 15 players?  No way.  Ditto the Astros and Morgan, the Giants and Stennentt and the Padres and Curtis.

 

Miller mentioned Lee Lacy of the Pirates, who has never been a full-fledged regular but was in demand when he played out his option with the Dodgers after the 1978 season.

 

Where would the above-mentioned six players go under terms of the compensation the owners propose?  Perhaps nowhere.  Maybe they’d be stuck because no team would risk the compensation in such cases.

 

The players might accept a compromise here, but only if a team could protect a lot more than 15 players.  Fifteen players really isn’t too many when you check out a roster.  That doesn’t leave room for many young prospects, not to mention other proven players.

 

Is it greedy for the players to want the free agent system to be continued, a system given full sanction by the courts?

 

Incidentally, from the beginning, it wasn’t the players who offered multimillion-dollar contracts to free agents; it was the owners.

 

The owners say they’re worried about the future, that a few elite teams will eventually dominate down the road because they’ll have all the top talent.

 

Perhaps that’s true, but only last year three of the four division winners – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore – didn’t rely at all on free agents.  And the year before, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Kansas City won without such measures.

 

 

And this year – well maybe there won’t be a this year.... 

Phillies scene:  Exit Harrelson, Anderson, Bird, Eastwick

 

By Jayson Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer

 

CLEARWATER, Fla. – There is no stranger day in any baseball season than the day in spring training when the final cuts are made.

 

For every guy staying, there is another guy going.  For every guy smiling, there is another guy not knowing whether to snarl or cry or hold it all in.

 

For those just watching, it is a ride on an emotional Ferris wheel.  You joke with the survivors, nod your head sympathetically with the casualties.

 

Yes, there is no stranger day in a season than this one.  And yesterday, that day came in for the Phillies.

 

l

 

Bud Harrelson was sitting on a folding chair in street clothes, watching a few last hitters take batting practice.

 

“What’s your situation?” two men asked him.

 

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But everybody keeps asking me, so I guess something must be up.  It’s the numbers, right?  I guess we can all count to 25 can’t we?”

 

A few minutes later, a group of about eight reporters was interviewing another player when suddenly, Dallas Green’s voice bellowed over their shoulders.

 

They turned to find Green and Paul Owens standing in the middle of the locker room.  An uncomfortable-looking Harrelson shuffled at their side.

 

Green tried to say all the right things as he announced he was releasing Harrelson.  But the words didn’t sound soft coming from that 2 million-decibel voice they probably could hear in Tarpon Springs.

 

“It’s always difficult to do something like this to a class guy,” Green said.  “But we want to go with young kids….”

 

It was a painfully awkward scene – Green going on to announce the other cuts.  Harrelson shifting sadly trying to decide if he was supposed to keep standing there or not, the entire population of the locker room being forced to observe it all.

 

Finally, Harrelson just drifted away, shook a few hands and walked out the door.  He deserved a classier end than the one Green provided.

 

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It was only the beginning for George Vukovich, 23, outfielder.

 

He was the unlikeliest of candidates – a nonroster player who hit .293 at Reading last year – and a left-handed-hitting outfielder, something the Phillies seemed to need about as much as they needed another bicycle caravan.

 

Even George Vukovich said he never expected to be here.  He just wanted to show them he could play so they would remember him, he said.

 

“But then they made that second cut and all of a sudden I’m still here,” Vukovich said.  “They said everyone had a shot, but I really wasn’t thinking of myself at the beginning.  But as time went along, I played well in the games, and I began to figure maybe I did have a good shot.”

 

The irony of Vukovich’s situation is that the Phillies left him exposed in the minor-league draft last winter.  Any team in baseball could have picked him up for about the same money that Dave Parker makes in one day.  No one bit.

 

“I was in Venezuela the day of the draft,” Vukovich said.  “I guess I was a little disappointed at the time.  I thought then that it would have been nice to get picked up by somebody, since I hadn’t made the (Phillies’ 40-man) roster.  But as it turns out, hey, here I am.”  He broke into a very large smile, an “Is this really happening?” kind of smile.  For every Mike Anderson, whose promise was never realized, there is a George Vukovich, seeing his first sunrise.

 

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Only a few stalls down, Doug Bird’s locker was starkly empty, like the neighborhood’s haunted house.  Somebody might have lived there once, but you sure couldn’t tell by looking at it.

 

The Phillies informed Bird on Thursday they were trying to trade him.  So he just packed up and left.  They had told Rawly Eastwick the same thing, but Eastwick came back yesterday, worked out, threw in the bullpen, even did his running.

 

Then he dressed at his locker, taking it very philosophically.  With reason.  He is guaranteed $235,000 a year for the next three seasons, no matter what.

 

“The only thing they told me was, they wanted to go with a couple of young guys,” said Eastwick, who is 29 but never has stopped looking 21.  “I wouldn’t say I’m that old.”

 

Green said he had come to Clearwater with high hopes for Eastwick, hopes that he would “show the drive, the competitiveness, the ability I was looking for in a ballplayer.”

 

But, Green said simply, “I just did not see that.  He reverted back to where he was before….  Frankly, I just feel the kids outpitched him.”

 

You think the signs are invisible.  But the athlete always sees them.

 

“You can tell sometimes by the way the coaches act,” Eastwick said.  “You can look in people’s eyes, look in their faces, and tell something’s different.

 

“I had the feeling a little bit this spring.  But then, I’ve always had that feeling since I’ve been in Philadelphia.”

 

You want to feel sorry for people who can be this unwanted at age 29.  But it is the nature of this game that for every winner there is a loser.

 

It is just that you never see it more graphically than on that strange day in spring training when they make the final cuts.

 

 

NOTES:  Paul Owens said that Toronto has expressed interest in Eastwick, Bird and Mike Anderson, who also was cut yesterday.  The Angels also have told scout Jim Baumer they are looking for pitching….  Along with Eastwick’s $235,000 a year, the Phils are committed to pay half of Bird’s estimated $150,000 salary for the next two seasons unless someone picks them up.  “These decisions are costing the organization a lot of money,” Green said.  “But Paul (Owens) has backed me up 100 percent.  Maybe that’s why I like him.”….  It is John Vukovich’s 15th season in baseball, but the first in which he will actually start a season with the Phillies….  The Phillies almost traded two top prospects for Baltimore’s Billy Smith. Thursday the Orioles released him.  Owens expects somebody to claim him but no longer sounds interested himself….  Owens denies rumors he was offered Ken Griffey by the Reds for Randy Lerch and Keith Moreland.

Next, a strike by the fans?

 

By Frank Dolson, Sports Editor

 

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Major league baseball’s real problem may have just begun.  It isn’t on the field, and it isn’t even on the negotiating table.  It’s in the hearts and heads and pocketbooks of the people who have been buying tickets for baseball games at a record clip in recent years.

 

Last season, 21,178,419 fans paid their way in to see the 12 National League clubs, topping the previous high by more than a million.  And, despite the mess in Oakland, 22,371,979 turned out to see the 14 American League clubs, 1.8 million more than the previous record.

 

That’s the crazy thing about the current baseball crisis; the game seems to be booming as never before.  Big league salaries have never been higher.  Big league attendance has never been higher.  TV revenue has never been higher.  And, of course, ticket prices have never been higher.

 

Getting fed up

 

But there are danger signals.  The public is getting fed up.  Working men and women who are struggling to make ends meet can’t find much sympathy in their hearts for athletes with long-term, multimillion-dollar, guaranteed contracts who drive expensive cars, live in lavish homes, get four to five month a year off and go out on strike.

 

It doesn’t matter that there may be some very good reasons to strike, or that a great deal of the blame belongs to the owners.  The public doesn’t understand, and doesn’t particularly want to understand.  The baseball strike has become an emotional issue with many of those millions who bought tickets last season.

 

“I’m very, very concerned (about public reaction),” Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter said after his Thursday morning meeting with the team, “and I think any player in his right mind would be concerned about it, too. I tried to emphasize (to the players) that it’s very important for all of us to talk baseball from now on and let (Marvin) Miller and Ray Grebey talk about the labor problems.”

 

Criticism likely

 

“I think the players will have to expect to get some criticism because people equate their own jobs and the money they’re (big league players) making,” Phillies general manager Paul Owens said.  “There’s naturally going to be a feeling there.”

 

“The whole public is alienated against the players now,” said John Stearns, the Mets player rep.  “I called my parents in Denver the other night.  My mother said she was listening to a talk show there.  All the fans were against the players.”

 

As if to back up Stearns’ statement, a newspaper headline the next morning in St. Petersburg, where the Mets train – or, at least, trained before many of them went home – read, “Fans are united in their disgust.”

 

“I think we all agree (big league baseball) salaries are getting to the point they’re too high,” Stearns said.

 

Certainly the ticket-buying public agrees.  Letters keep coming in, and they all deliver the same message:  Look out.  We’re fed up.

 

From what I’ve seen, the great majority of those letters contain both emotion and reason, a rare combination indeed.  They are written by people who care about baseball, buy whose love of the game is being put to the ultimate test.

 

An open letter

 

This “open letter to Philadelphia Phillies players,” written by Harry E. Stewart of Malvern, Pa., is typical:

 

“Baseball has always been the best example of the Horatio Algers, Jack Armstrongs and Frank Merriwells combined.  Baseball, the living proof that the little guy who worked hard, persevered and had guts could succeed.  Baseball, a game where you could take your son and ask, ‘Who do you want to grow up to be like?’  But not any more, not any more.

 

“Today, the Philadelphia Phillies have at least five regulars who make more than the President of the United States.  The whole first team makes more (apiece) than the mayor of the city that supports them, and they’re all on long-term contracts.  But, they’re still not satisfied!  They are now threatening to strike because they don’t feel that an owner should receive adequate compensation when another owner is stupid enough to pay a baseball free agent more than the President….

 

“Well, you aren’t heroes any more!  You are simply a bunch of spoiled fatcats….  So be it, if you strike, we’ll strike….:

 

 

There have been many other letters like that.  I think it’s safe to predict there won’t be 43.5 million tickets sold at big league ballparks this season.