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ON NOV. 22, 1989, THE BASEBALL AXIS TILTED. That's the day the Minnesota Twins made outfielder Kirby Puckett the game's first $3 million-a-year player. Just six days later, the Oakland Athletics agreed to pay outfielder Rickey Henderson roughly the same amount. But Henderson and Puckett didn't remain atop baseball's financial heap for long. Their milestone signings opened the floodgates, and today, 16 months later, those two stars are among 40 players making at least $3 million a year. The list is now topped by Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, whose contract extension signed on Feb. 8 will pay him an average of $5.2 million over four years.
To say the least, being eclipsed by others has affected Puckett and Henderson differently. "It doesn't make any difference to me," says Puckett of the two score players who have since landed better deals than his three-year, $9 million contract. "I'm not doing too bad. I was the highest-paid player for about 24 hours, and it felt good. At the time I didn't know how long it would last. I knew there was a great possibility that I'd open the way for a lot of contracts."
By contrast, Henderson, last season's American League MVP, now says he was having second thoughts about his four-year, $12 million contract almost from the minute he signed it, and last summer, after teammate Jose Canseco received a five-year, $23.5 million package, Henderson openly complained that he was underpaid. In recent weeks his displeasure has deepened. He stayed away from the A's training camp in Phoenix until March 7, eight days past the date he was asked by Oakland to show up and one day after the mandatory major league reporting date. And when he did arrive, he immediately informed the A's that they had until the end of spring training to renegotiate his contract. "It's pride, period," Henderson said. "I don't think my contract is fair. I don't think I'm 40th or 50th on the list. If nothing happens by the end of spring training, then I will have a decision to make." Was that a threat to take a hike? Henderson didn't say.
As baseball's gold rush continues, Puckett's acceptance of the good fortune of his fellow players seems both honorable and sensible. Plenty of dough for everyone. Smiles all around, right? Alas, not quite. "Nobody is happy," A's vice-president Sandy Alderson says, exaggerating only slightly, "except the guy who signed the last contract."
Indeed, Henderson is far from the only player grousing about being left in the financial dust by higher-paid—and often, at least in his case, by lesser—contemporaries. The cause of discord is not whether baseball players are making enough money. Rather, it's whether a player is making more money than the next guy, or the next 20 or 30 guys, depending on how long ago he signed his contract. Each new mega-million-dollar deal brings forth a new order in baseball's version of the Fortune 500, and as marquee players have been bumped farther and farther down the salary rankings, many of them have had their egos bruised, their pride insulted.
The malcontents include not only veterans, who are eligible for free agency when their contracts expire, but also players with less than 2� years of major league experience, who basically have to take the salary that their clubs assign them, and those with from 2� to six years of service, who can't yet become free agents but can go to arbitration, a process that matches what they think they are worth against what their clubs think they are worth. The arbitrator must pick one figure or the other. In recent days, as the nation celebrated the first return of troops from the Persian Gulf and continued to cope with a recession, here is, in addition to Henderson's ultimatum, what baseball had to offer in the way of spring training diversion:
?On March 1, a deadline imposed by the Chicago Cubs' Ryne Sandberg for the club to work out a contract extension passed, and Sandberg, the game's best second baseman, said he may become a free agent when his contract expires after the 1992 season. Chicago offered Sandberg, who is now making $2.65 million, a three-year deal averaging $4.3 million a year, and he turned it down.
?On March 4, last season's National League MVP, Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Barry Bonds, was still sulking in camp over having lost his arbitration hearing two weeks earlier. Bonds, who was paid $850,000 in 1990, was awarded the $2.3 million proffered by the Bucs instead of the $3.25 million he had requested. He demonstrated his unhappiness by brusquely chasing away cameramen, verbally jousting with a club p.r. man, arguing with mild-mannered outfield coach Bill Virdon and getting into an expletive-laced screaming match in the outfield with manager Jim Leyland. All in 30 minutes. "I feel like Darryl Strawberry in New York," Bonds said. "There's nothing Barry Bonds can do to satisfy Pittsburgh. I'm so sad all the time."
?On March 5, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Armstrong and catcher Joe Oliver, neither of whom is yet eligible for arbitration, walked out of camp after they were unable to come to terms with the club, which then renewed their contracts. Armstrong, who won one game after the All-Star break last season, received a 100% salary increase to $215,000, and Oliver, who hit .231, was given a 58% raise, to $185,000. Oliver's walkout lasted two days, but as of Monday, Armstrong had not returned to work. "I'd rather make $30,000 on a tuna boat," he said.
?On March 7, two other players ineligible for arbitration, Texas Rangers pitchers Kevin Brown (12-10 in 1990, 50% raise to $327,000) and Kenny Rogers (eight blown saves in 23 save opportunities, 105% raise to $287,500) left camp after their contracts were renewed by the Rangers. (Both players returned a day later.) That same day, upon reporting to the A's, Henderson was presented with a mason jar, labeled RICKEY APPRECIATION FUND, in which teammates and staff had stuffed small bills and change.