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The Big Payoff?

by Tom Verducci

Posted: Wed March 25, 1998

Sports Illustrated Just before spring training began, the Mariners pushed the Dodgers to make a trade that would have sent lefthander Randy Johnson to Los Angeles for righthander Ismael Valdes, lefthander Mark Guthrie and second baseman Wilton Guerrero. After unsuccessfully trying to substitute righthander Ramon Martinez for the younger and cheaper Valdes, the Dodgers walked away from the deal. "The reason I was told," says Seattle general manager Woody Woodward, "was that they didn't want to take on more dollars."

The Dodgers may be less hung up about adding to their payroll now that ownership of the team has passed from the O'Malley family to Rupert Murdoch, the global media giant who has been known to overpay sports announcers, never mind the athletes who actually play the games. Major league owners welcomed Murdoch into their club last week by a 27-2 vote, with only the Braves' Ted Turner, himself a global media giant, and the White Sox' Jerry Reinsdorf voting nay. (The Mets abstained.) If some owners feared that Murdoch might use the long reach and deep revenues of his News Corp. to create a superteam in Los Angeles, they could find out quickly whether those apprehensions are justified. Murdoch could authorize the acquisition of Johnson as well as the signing of catcher Mike Piazza to the richest contract in baseball history even before the paint is dry on his new parking spot at Dodger Stadium.

Mike Piazza
Now that Murdoch owns the Dodgers, Piazza could become the game's first $100 million man.    (Bill Frakes)

A source familiar with the Johnson trade negotiations says Murdoch's arrival "makes it more likely" that the Big Unit will be a Dodger. Still, Woodward says L.A. general manager Fred Claire never suggested that he would be more willing to pull the trigger after the sale of the club was approved.

Seattle scout Stan Williams continues to shadow the Dodgers just in case talks are rekindled. He's keeping an eye on Valdes, 24, who missed a start last week because of soreness in his throwing elbow.

Johnson, 34, has simmered ever since the Mariners told him last November that they would not talk about re-signing him because they don't think they will be able to afford him when his contract expires after this season. Now there are indications that his anger and uncertain future could become corrosive to the team. Johnson, who is 53-9 in his last 83 starts, recently told manager Lou Piniella that his situation is distracting him on the mound and that he wants to be traded as quickly as possible.

Like Johnson, Piazza could be a free agent after this season. He first gave the Dodgers a Feb. 15 deadline to negotiate a contract extension but amended that to Opening Day because of the ownership change. Piazza's agent, Dan Lozano, says he has not discussed contract terms with the team, though Piazza, 29, is believed to be seeking a seven-year deal worth nearly $100 million. "Mike would like to retire with the team he signs with," Lozano says.

Issue date: March 30, 1998

The Big Payoff?

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