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.