"Reinsdorf took positions over and over again that were in the best interest of the game, even if it meant a sacrifice to the White Sox," says Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, whose club was part of the large-market caucus. "I was across the table from him on [revenue sharing], but I came to admire his integrity because he was so unselfish. He felt that going into labor negotiations, we had to have additional revenue sharing before we could ask the union to do something about controlling salaries. He felt we could not be two-faced about it."
Once the revenue-sharing formula was settled, Reinsdorf warned his fellow owners that there could be no turning back. "I said that if a strike occurred, it could wipe out all of 1994 and maybe the 1995 season, too. That was my warning. The Chicago White Sox were making a lot of money then. We had $40 million in the bank, so we could have lived with the system that was in place. But I needed to know that we were not going to quit in the middle. It was at my urging that we adopted a rule that said it would take a three-fourths majority to settle if a strike did occur. I thought once the union realized we were strong, common sense would prevail, and a reasonable deal could be negotiated."
It couldn't. The players struck, the strike dragged on, an impasse was reached, and the owners tried to hire replacement players to open the 1995 season. Judge Sonia Sotomayor prevented those replacement games from being played. A new revenue-sharing plan was adopted by the clubs, but nothing changed to stem the rise in salaries. From Reinsdorf's, and the White Sox', point of view, the strike had been a significant net loss—and the fans were as mad as hell. Nowhere was the post-strike drop in attendance more precipitous than on the South Side of Chicago, where the average gate fell from 32,000 a game to 22,700. It continued to slide in 1996, averaging 20,700 per game.
"I had to make the fans fall in love with the team again," Reinsdorf says. "My original plan was to unload all the high-salaried guys except for Frank Thomas and trade for young players, rebuild the ball club. To get the payroll down [from $44.8 million] to $20-$22 million. If we drew a million fans, my accountant had it figured out we'd make a $5 million profit. It would have been the smart thing to do. Then I got nervous. What if I destroyed the franchise? I thought if I signed Albert Belle I'd excite the city."
Instead, he excited the league. Within days after the Belle signing, the previously rejected agreement that had been hammered out by Levine and Fehr was ratified by the clubs over Reinsdorf's objections. (The agreement, it is widely believed, would have been ratified whether Reinsdorf had signed Belle or not.) "I knew we were caving," Reinsdorf says. "Selig told me we couldn't fight anymore."
"There's no question the Belle move contributed to the escalation of salaries," says Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "Roger Clemens's signing for almost $8 million a year [with the Toronto Blue Jays] was a product of the Belle move."
"People were stunned by it," says Lucchino. "It was a very, very loud noise that was heard by a lot of people."
Others, though, are equally certain that if Reinsdorf hadn't ponied up $55 million over five years for Belle, the Florida Marlins would have. "If anyone knows the market value of players, it's Jerry Reinsdorf," says Harrington. "He knew other clubs would pay Belle that kind of money."
That's where the market was going, but no one had expected Reinsdorf to lead it there. "Who got to the World Series last year?" he asks. "It was the highest payroll [the Yankees] against the second-highest payroll [the Braves]. Spending money won't guarantee that you win, but if you don't spend money, you're guaranteed not to win."
So he's spending money because, more than anything, he'd like to bring the World Series to Chicago. The White Sox payroll of more than $54 million is the third highest in the American League. To break even, the team must either draw 3 million fans—it is on pace to average a bit more than half that—or draw 2.5 million and make the playoffs.