At dawn on Nov. 13, Mark Langston stirs in his bed in a Santa Monica, Calif. hotel, content in the knowledge that he is at the top of baseball's most wanted list. After six seasons as a pitcher for Seattle and Montreal—86 wins, 76 losses and 1,253 strikeouts—he has become a free agent in an auction in which even the low bid figures to rank with the highest outlay ever made for a player.
A few miles east, in Brentwood, Langston's agent, Arn Tellem, bounces around the bedroom of his house as if he were electrified. He snaps his hips, slices the air with his elbows, rotates his arms with glee. "I feel like Secretariat waiting for the bell," he says. "I feel like Magic Johnson ready to explode on a three-on-one break. I feel like Keith Richards...."
Langston just feels like falling back to sleep. He has come down to L.A. from his home in Bellevue, Wash., to be near Tellem while the agent sets up a series of rendezvous with the owners and general managers of half a dozen teams. Ironically, today Seattle makes the first offer.
The Mariners could have signed Langston back in February for three years at $5.4 million. But the owner at the time, George Argyros, wanted to run the team on the cheap. In late March the Mariners seemed ready to shell out that sum, but it was too late. "No thanks," said Tellem. "Now we want the same $6.7 million Dwight Gooden got from the Mets."
Tellem was in the catbird seat. He had a 28-year-old lefty who had led the American League in strikeouts three times. If Langston were to become a free agent after the '89 season, the bidding had to take off.
The Mariners offered Gooden's deal in May. "O.K.," said Tellem. "But it's got to be retroactive to the start of the season."
No way, said the Mariners.
"Fine," said Tellem. "Give me the deal Roger Clemens got from Boston: three years at $7.5 million."
Langston wondered if he should settle for $7.1 million. Tellem advised him to wait. Argyros wouldn't. Langston was dealt to Montreal, where he finished the season 16-14. In August he turned down the Expos' three-year, $9 million offer. "Montreal had gone into a tailspin," says Tellem, "and Mark wanted to play on a contending team."
By the time the real Langston sweepstakes are set to begin in L.A., the Mariners have a new ownership, led by Jeff Smulyan, who bought the team in August. Smulyan opens the bidding by faxing a proposal to Tellem's office: three years, $10 million. Tellem, who over the next two-plus weeks will give a reporter a daily account of his dealings on Langston's behalf, won't consider anything less than five years. "Ideally," Tellem says, "we're looking for five years at $17.5 million."