Once the initial shock and outrage passed, the only thing for baseball fans to do was take comfort in an old and undeniable fact of life: Some people are simply meant for each other. A mysterious force of nature draws together the most loathsome among us, forming a bond between Don King and Mike Tyson, Brooke and Andre, Regis and Kathie Lee, Alan Dershowitz and almost anyone he defends, and now Jerry Reinsdorf and Albert Belle.
The George and Reggie of this generation.
While the five-year, $55 million free-agent deal that Belle signed with the Chicago White Sox on Nov. 19 was generally considered an affront to common sense and decency, it leaves all right-thinking fans with something to look forward to. Now when the notorious Belle climbs a Comiskey Park light tower and starts swinging his corked bat at the little green men who distracted him from his pregame routine, we can turn with perverse delight toward the owner's box and wonder how much Belle would have been worth to the White Sox had he come with all his marbles.
What else can you do but laugh? The signing took place two weeks after an owners' meeting in which Reinsdorf was the driving force behind killing a labor agreement because, as he told SI after the Belle deal was announced, "we need some meaningful salary restraint and sharing of revenues, so everyone has a chance to compete." It was like listening to Bill Clinton espouse campaign-finance reform or Lou Holtz say he really doesn't want to break Knute Rockne's record. How could Reinsdorf say such a thing without giggling uncontrollably?
Salary restraint? Belle's annual salary is $2.5 million more than that of the second-highest-paid player in the game, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners, who signed his four-year, $34 million contract less than a year ago. Reinsdorf didn't disrupt the pay scale in major league baseball. He destroyed it. Together, Belle and White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas will earn approximately $18 million next season, which exceeds the payroll of four small-market teams, among them acting commissioner Bud Selig's Milwaukee Brewers. As owner of the Chicago Bulls, Reinsdorf also signed Michael Jordan to a one-year, $30 million contract last summer, meaning Reinsdorf is to the salary structure of players what Ricki Lake is to the literacy rate among teens.
"There's hardly anyone in the game who hasn't made a signing that everyone thought was stupid," Reinsdorf said. Cynics view Reinsdorf's actions as anything but stupid. He helped zap the six-year labor agreement, retroactive to the 1996 season, that was tentatively reached between the owners' negotiator, Randy Levine, and Donald Fehr, head of the players' union. The deal would have included a luxury tax on payrolls of more than $51 million in 1997, more than $55 million in '98 and more than $58.9 million in '99, and granted players service time for the 1994-95 strike, making 11 of them free agents. Reinsdorf not only avoided paying a projected $3.1 million levy on the White Sox's estimated $59.8 million payroll and a $2.8 million revenue-sharing payment, but he also kept star pitcher Alex Fernandez, who would have been one of those free agents. The Florida Marlins, among others, were poised to make a run at the 27-year-old Fernandez, who was 16—10 with a 3.45 ERA in 1996.
"I know [signing Belle] isn't going over well outside Chicago, but inside of Chicago is what I'm worried about," Reinsdorf said. "I've already called a number of other owners, and they say they understand. The small-market teams should know I've always been with them. I've always been a leader in the push for revenue sharing. Hey, I think the system stinks, but for now it's the system we're all operating under, and I've got to remain competitive."
Belle, who hit .311 with 48 homers and 148 RBIs last season, will give the White Sox a dangerous bat in the cleanup spot behind Thomas (.349,40 homers and 134 RBIs), to form potentially the most potent one-two punch since Mantle and Maris. Signing Belle to such a lavish deal will sell tickets for Reinsdorf, but it will cost him credibility. To his peers Reinsdorf would not have appeared more duplicitous if he had been caught in a hot tub with Fehr. At least we can thank Reinsdorf for one thing: There will be no talk of collusion.
Reinsdorf says he did some research before bidding for Belle and determined that another owner was about to make an overwhelming offer to the former Cleveland slugger. In Reinsdorf's mind, all he did was beat a competitor to the punch. "It was either going to be me or someone else in this position," said Reinsdorf. "If I was not positive that someone was going to give him that kind of money, I wouldn't have done it. This is like testing the atomic bomb: We can stop, but we can't make the Russians stop."
As much as anyone, Reinsdorf has been blamed for the absence of a labor agreement since the previous one expired after the '93 season. The Belle signing, ironically, might have pushed the owners closer to a deal out of sheer revulsion at Reinsdorf's brazen double-talk. "You can make your own judgment, but any owner who breaks the market like this, it makes you scratch your head," said Cleveland general manager John Hart.