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Steve Swisher, a light-hitting catcher for the Cubs, had just lined one of Wayne Garland's pitches to the deepest recesses of Scottsdale Stadium, Chicago's spring training headquarters, when the fan in the floppy hat seized his opportunity. "You bum, Garland!" he bellowed at the Indians' wealthy young pitcher. "You're not worth $2 million, you're worth 50�!" He exaggerated, as fans will. Garland, who won 20 games for the Orioles last season, certainly is worth more than 50� in today's bull market. But can a man who never won more than five games until 1976 be worthy of the $2.3-million, 10-year contract the Indians gave Garland following last winter's re-entry draft of free agents? There are those who say that for a contract of such heroic dimensions, Garland could win at least 20 games every season for the next decade and still be overpaid.
Like much else that occurs in spring training, the Arizona fan's insult was heavy with portent. The millionaire graduates of re-entry may expect to hear such gibes all summer long, because they have a lot to live up to. And most of them know it. "The pressure will come from the fans," concedes Sal Bando, a liberated Oakland A whom the Brewers have made $1.7 million richer. "But I have a lot of pride. I'll work even harder. If anything, this experience has humbled me. I'm conscious of not putting on airs."
Ballplayers' wages, unlike our own, are pretty much a public matter. The fan often knows down to the spare change what his favorite leftfielder is earning. It can be argued that this should be so, because by paying his way into the ball park, the fan is largely responsible for the payroll. If that leftfielder is not earning his keep, then he surely merits the fan's epithets, particularly in a year in which ticket prices are being raised by 16 major league teams.
Perhaps more significant than the dollar amounts of the new contracts is their duration. Money has long been considered the prime motivator in professional sports. The athlete was accustomed to giving his all in hopes of getting a wage increase next year. He was well aware that if his team did well, he would get more than if it did poorly. And even if he played on a losing club, he was supposed to put on a strong salary drive. But will the free agents put out now that they have signed all those long-term contracts?
In some ways, the security the rest of us crave is detrimental to a professional athlete. "Regardless of what the athlete says, if he has total security and is put in a tough spot, he may go through the motions and say, 'The hell with it, I've got mine,' " says Dr. Thomas Tutko, a widely respected sports psychologist. "It is the very nature of a ballplayer not to participate when all is lost, not to put out totally. You keep people insecure, and you keep the competitive edge. Now the player is asking not only for security, but for security as a millionaire. That introduces a host of other problems that have never been faced before."
In Tutko's opinion, one of these problems will be strained relations between the newly secure athlete and his employers. "These players with the multiyear contracts will automatically assume they know everything," he says. "You can't tell them anything. Success does not breed maturity. Only a handful of people who have talent also have sensibility and maturity. Athletics is slowly but surely destroying itself, and it won't get any better. Greed knows no end.... The tragedy is that you can actually buy a pennant today. The Yanks should win it all this year, and if they do, it will be a prime example of what I'm talking about. To me, it would be unbelievably disgusting."
The gloomy contentions of Tutko and others that a certain amount of financial insecurity is vital to athletic achievement seems a bit overstated. Anyone who is employed is in a competitive situation, and if there is any truth to the argument that to give a man security is to dull his competitive edge, not many among us would want our employers to get wind of it. The players, both those in the chips and out, argue that money has little to do with what they accomplish on the field.
"I enjoy the game too much to let my financial status get in the way," says another former Oakland player, Gene Tenace, whom the San Diego Padres signed to a six-year, $1.6 million contract. "I'm an athlete," says Garland, the $2-million pitcher. "I do my best whether I'm making $20,000 [which is about what he earned a year ago] or $2 million. I don't want to embarrass myself out there."
Bill North, one of the few Oakland players who did not get away (yet), harbors no resentment against his better-heeled former teammates. On the contrary, he extols their virtues. "A lot of the guys who used to be on the A's got to where they're at today because of their competitiveness," North says. "They're aggressive by nature. Money has nothing to do with how hard they try. They've got pride. If there ever was a time when they were going to let down, it would have been last year, when a lot of them were playing out their options at a 20% cut in pay. But I never saw Joe Rudi let down, or Don Baylor. I don't see those guys being motivated by money. Heck, we're all insecure about our abilities. We're not going to let anybody beat us."
The question remains, how can any of them play well enough to be worth, in the eyes of the fan, such inflated figures? Even the finest of the free agents—Rudi, Don Gullett, Dave Cash, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson—are not on a statistical par with the best players—Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer—of their own generation, much less the great players of other eras. Among the lesser free agents, Garland had a sore arm throughout spring training, so the Indians may have to wait before capitalizing on their considerable investment. Gary Matthews, lured from the Giants to Atlanta by Ted Turner's millions, reported to the Braves some 20 pounds overweight. Paul Dade, signed by the Indians for $100,000, has a grand total of seven big-league hits. Richie Hebner, hired by the Phillies for $500,000, hit .246 and .249 for Pittsburgh the last two seasons. Bobby Grich, formerly of the Orioles and now of the spendthrift California Angels, who are paying him $1.5 million for five years, is a .262 lifetime hitter. The fans, he said this spring, will probably expect him to hit at least .290. But how can they expect even that much from players whose records offer virtually no evidence of greatness, whose real talent is in their phenomenal timing, their good luck in having been in the right place at the right time?