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Million-dollar sweepstakes are all the rage these days among state governments, so it is not so surprising that the rulers of baseball now have a high-priced lottery of their own. The first drawing in the great baseball sweepstakes appropriately took place on Nov. 4 in New York's Plaza Hotel—where a draft beer costs $1.95—and within 48 hours there was a million-dollar winner. Right-handed Relief Pitcher Bill Campbell, who last season was paid $22,000 by the Twins, signed a contract with Boston that during the next five years will put $1,075,000 in his kick. "This is the beginning of the new era," said Campbell's agent, LaRue Harcourt, an economics professor at Cerritos ( Calif.) JC.
Campbell's windfall came 11 months-after Arbitrator Peter Seitz, ruling in the Andy Messersmith case, overturned baseball's reserve system, forcing the owners into an open-market situation. Thus, between wails about the ruling, the owners had to devise a way to apportion the negotiation rights to players who had played out their options. Twenty-one major-leaguers and three minor-leaguers fell into that category for this year's draft. Under the formula worked out by the owners and the Players Association, the negotiation rights to a free agent could be selected by 12 teams. The drafting dozen—plus the player's former club—could then bid to sign him.
The first player chosen 12 times was not a Reggie Jackson or a Bobby Grich, but Catcher Gene Tenace, late of the A's. That was because Tenace is considered "signable," the owners' term for a player who commands a lower price than some of the bigger names. Nonetheless, Tenace stands to get at least three times the $41,000 he earned in 1976.
Campbell, whose salary rose almost 750%, is the only one to sign to date, but Third Baseman Sal Bando, also formerly of the A's, was reported leaning to Milwaukee last week, and Third Baseman Richie Hebner had supposedly boiled his options down to returning to Pittsburgh or moving to Baltimore.
The other signings are expected to take longer. In a rented conference room in Providence, R.I., agent Jerry Kapstein—whose 10 free-agent clients include Tenace, Second Baseman Grich (ex-Baltimore), Outfielder Joe Rudi ( Oakland), Pitcher Don Gullett ( Cincinnati) and Reliever Rollie Fingers ( Oakland)—is sifting through sealed bids. Meanwhile. Jackson ( Baltimore), who expects to sign for about $3 million, was getting enthusiastic responses from the Expos, Dodgers and others. When all the haggling is over, seven or eight players will join Campbell in the millionaire category. Another six or seven should become $100,000-a-year men of means.
Campbell becoming a millionaire, Grich turning down an $800,000 offer from Baltimore to become a free agent and Jackson talking $3 million are indications enough that management is reacting to the free market just as the players hoped it would. "I thought the owners were smarter than this," groused Oriole Pitcher Jim Palmer. "I thought they'd show more restraint."
The Campbell story is evidence that players now can become very rich—even without trying hard. It began in spring training, when he asked for a raise to $30,000. Twins President Calvin Griffith said no. "I was willing to sign for that right into May," says Campbell. "Then I decided to take my chances and play out my option." It turned out to be an astute gamble. After two seasons of contrasting performances—in 1974 he had 19 saves and eight wins, but the next year he dropped to 4-6 with five saves—the 28-year-old Campbell was the best reliever in the majors in 1976. He had a 17-5 record and 20 saves in 78 games.
Because lottery rules forbade teams from talking to the free agents about money before the selections were made, pre-draft discussions centered on the players' willingness to work in certain cities. "Teams would call up and ask if I'd talk," says Campbell. "But St. Louis flew me there and took me to Mr. Busch's mansion. They asked me if I would give them the first shot if they drafted me first, and since they seemed more interested than anyone, I flew to the draft resigned to playing with the Cardinals. I also flew there thinking that somehow the owners would get together and say, 'O.K., this has gone too far, we need a ceiling,' and that what we were talking about was a lot more than what I'd get."
Soon after the draft was finished at 12:30 p.m., he knew otherwise. Harcourt met with St. Louis, then at three o'clock sat down with Red Sox Assistant General Manager John Claiborne. Two and a half hours later, Campbell was almost certain he was headed for Boston. "Claiborne and I exchanged some figures and found we were in the same ball park," says Harcourt. "We met again that night and, except for a few details, had a deal."
The contract calls for $250,000 as a signing bonus, then $165,000 a season. "I think we may have gotten a steal," says Claiborne. "If he had wanted to get into a bidding war—Bill only talked seriously with two teams—he might have been able to get a lot more."