By Comparison, Ulysses is a breeze. The lease agreement for a new car? A snappy bit of creative writing. That essay answer on your Russian Lit final? Nothing less than a monument to clarity and brevity. To find the height of arcane verbiage look no farther than Rule 10 of the rules governing Major League Baseball, in what is known as the Blue Book. The corresponding entry explains the waivers system—the procedures that pertain to certain player transactions—in a way that makes the Magna Carta look like part of the Jackie Collins oeuvre. Not even those in the know profess to fully understand it.
"Archaic," says Chicago Cubs general manager Ed Lynch, a law school graduate.
"If you read the Blue Book," says Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski, "it's a little hard to comprehend because it's almost like—what's the word?—surreal."
"From what I hear," says Nancy Crofts, the National League executive director of player records, who is baseball's foremost authority on the matter, "many clubs don't even bother reading it anymore."
For 15 years Crofts has served as the chief administrator of all league transactions. She is the proverbial bird on the waiver wire, and even she has difficulty quoting the Blue Book. "To tell you the truth," she says, "I've got the book open on my desk right now. I'm no different than a general manager. I don't want to make a mistake, either."
There are actually five waiver periods of varying length during the year, but none as loony as the one that runs from Aug. 1 until the day after the regular season ends. Most moves this month are inspired by a midnight Aug. 31 deadline—anyone acquired thereafter is ineligible for postseason play. With 22 players having switched teams by week's end since the so-called trading deadline on July 31, the market is anything but quiescent. You know what they say about the foundation of a championship team: You've got to have good starting pitching, strong defense up the middle and a former CIA cryptographer to master the nuances of the daily waiver report, known as the Player Transfer Sheet, which spits out of every club's printer at 2 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday.
"It's confusing, especially to the average fan," Lynch says. "You have to be careful. The worst nightmare of any front-office person is losing a player [by mistake]. We're all paranoid about it."
Baseball people paranoid? You mean just because Major League Baseball maintains a gag order against speaking in detail about the waivers system and threatens violators with a secret fine? (Psst! It'll cost any Aldrich Ames of the national pastime up to a quarter million bucks if he's caught spilling the waiver beans.) Just because clubs wind up, or stick other teams, with players they don't want only to spite their competitors? Just because the skills general managers need to manipulate the system—in waiverspeak, "blocking," "masking" and "sneaking"—happen to be the same ones needed for three-card monte?
The Cliffs Notes version of the waivers system, as it pertains to player movement beginning Aug. 1, goes like this: A player cannot be traded unless he has passed through major league waivers—that is, gone unclaimed by another club for three business days. If a club claims that player, his team can withdraw the waivers and keep him, or it can release or trade him to the claiming team within 48 hours. If more than one team makes a claim, the claiming club with the worst record in the player's league is the only one that can work a deal for him.
In this wacky world clubs fight over lefthander Terry Mulholland, a 12-game loser with a sore knee, and righthander William VanLandingham, a rarely used pitcher only Vanna White could love, while three-time RBI champion Albert Belle sails through unclaimed. "It's just part of the mental gymnastics we go through in this job," San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean says. "There's a lot of gamesmanship involved."