The two players who grabbed center stage were Bruce Hurst and Nolan Ryan, not only because of their considerable pitching skills but also because they inspired the Singing Cowboy to get back in the saddle again. Last month Gene Autry, who turned 81 in September, told Bavasi, "I have a lot of money to spend and not a lot of time [to live], and I want a World Series ring."
Just before the meetings Autry blew up at Angel general manager Mike Port for allowing the Kansas City Royals to sign catcher Bob Boone for $883,001, or $1 more than the Angels had paid him last year. Autry then announced that he had ordered Port to sign Hurst and Ryan "no matter what the cost."
Port knew Hurst would never sign with the Angels as long as Doug Rader, a man not noted for his savoir faire, managed the team. Hurst was trying to decide between a three-year, $4.7 million offer from the Red Sox and a $4.6 million deal with the Padres. So the Angels offered him $5 million. When that didn't sway him, Jackie Autry instructed Port to raise the ante to $5.6 million. Boston responded with $5.5 million, and the Padres $5.25 million.
Hurst finally decided to sacrifice $350,000 and cast his lot with San Diego. "This is America—you have the right to choose." he said. "I really think San Diego is the best place for my family."
Most of Hurst's close relatives live in Southern California or near his hometown of St. George, Utah, which is only a short plane ride from San Diego. Hurst was also impressed with San Diego owner Joan Kroc's ban on alcohol in the clubhouse. Further, he has privately expressed dissatisfaction with the indifferent manner in which Red Sox management treats players' wives, handles travel arrangements and runs its clubhouse.
The bidding for Ryan was just as outlandish. According to Texas general manager Tom Grieve, Ryan's negotiations with the Rangers, Giants and Houston Astros "were stuck at right about $1.1 million or $1.2 million for one year." Then California offered Ryan, who will be 42 on January 31 and who had a 54-58 record for the Astros over the last five years, $3.8 million for two years. The Angels subsequently increased their offer to $4 million for the same number of years, but Ryan, who lives in Alvin, Texas, settled on a one-year, $2 million deal with the Rangers. "First and foremost I'm a Texan," Ryan said after signing. "I don't want to move my family."
After seeing the sums that Hurst and Ryan commanded, Oakland Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson felt relieved to have signed righthanded pitcher Mike Moore, formerly of Seattle, to a three-year, $3.95 million contract before the meetings began. "We're fortunate," said Alderson. "If he'd waited and come here, we probably never could've signed him, because the bidding would have gone out of sight."
One possible reason for the bonanza is the fact that two arbitrators, in separate decisions in September 1987 and August '88, found the owners guilty of collusion to restrict the free-agent market in the 1985-86 and '86-87 off-seasons. A decision on '87-88 is pending. Most owners, however, claim that those decisions had nothing to do with last week's generous offers.
"The collusion rulings didn't prompt some teams to run out and reopen the market," says one member of the Player Relations Committee. "Things had already been turning. The Dodgers started it last year by signing Kirk Gibson [$4.5 million over three years] and paying big bucks [$987,500 a season for two seasons] to Mike Davis. The Giants also signed Brett Butler away from the Indians, and the Yankees signed Jack Clark away from the Cardinals. Now, we're back where we were a few years ago."
Says Barry Rona, director of the Player Relations Committee, "Was what happened collusion? No. Was there peer pressure to exercise restraint? Yes. But there were no orders. This is a business of trends. The trend was to not sign free agents. Now the trend is to go out and spend. Some teams did it and had success, and others are following."