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It has become more and more obvious that money makes the world of baseball go around. The game may have been Fantasyland when we were kids, but now it's free agency and TV millions and superstations and supercontracts. There are few villains and few heroes—just a lot of people trying to make the best buck possible while playing by the rules. Like most of us.
So it was no surprise that the big headlines out of last week's winter meetings in Houston involved free-agent reliever Bruce Sutter, who became the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with a six-year, $9.6 million deal courtesy of Atlanta's Ted Turner and his superstation, WTBS; Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, who has a chance to top Sutter's contract but is torn between remaining with the Cubs and moving to San Diego, Atlanta or Kansas City; and Rickey Henderson, who finally signed with the Yankees nearly 24 hours after the meetings closed—and almost 72 hours after the Yankees and A's, who said he was costing too much, agreed on the trade that sent Henderson east with a five-year, $8.6 million contract.
Leftovers: The Braves may have added Sutter, but Bob Horner needs surgery on his right wrist and might very well miss '85.... Sutcliffe, Fred Lynn, Ed Whitson and Don Aase are the key free agents still on the loose.
As major league owners tried to come to grips at Houston with a potentially explosive superstation situation—what to do about broadcasts that invade other teams' territories—the most likely scenario to emerge was one of compromise: The superstation forks over a modest share of the profits, and baseball as we know it survives.
The superstations in question are Atlanta's WTBS, whose owner, Ted Turner, also owns the Braves; Chicago's WGN, whose owner, the Tribune Company, also owns the Cubs; and New York's WOR and WPIX, which provide Met and Yankee broadcasts, respectively, for cable systems. The team owners are annoyed because, they say, they can't land a profitable national cable contract if the superstations offer so much baseball so cheaply. They get no compensation when a game is beamed into their turf, and they feel such broadcasts hurt attendance and local ratings. They're also furious that Turner and WGN can route baseball cable profits into Braves and Cubs player contracts, like the $9.6 million deal Turner made with free agent Bruce Sutter and the fortune he is reportedly offering the Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe.
"It's not baseball, it's two networks bidding for talent," says White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn, the TV maven who helped negotiate baseball's record $1.2 billion national TV contract. "Baseball is incidental to them."
By a 25-1 vote the owners gave commissioner Peter Ueberroth authority to deal with the superstations. Ueberroth reportedly has devised a formula for getting compensation from them. "It's just a drop in the bucket, but it's a start," said one owner. Turner reportedly has agreed to go along with Ueberroth's formula; WGN hasn't made any decision.
Said Einhorn: "I could have had the best superstation in the world, but I had to get along with the rest of the people in baseball. You can't have total anarchy."
Signals, the guy kept sending out signals. New commissioner Ueberroth spent his first winter meetings staking out an identity and taking every opportunity to contrast himself with Bowie Kuhn, the guy who used to be accused of starching his underwear.