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"I don't think he understands the depth of the game," says Dick Wagner, president of the Cincinnati Reds. "He probably has overshot the runway with his efforts. I think it has become more of a vendetta to bring baseball to its knees rather than to truly recognize the overall picture."
"I have great respect for Marvin," says American League President Lee MacPhail, who really does. "But if he disappoints me in any area it is that I wish sometimes he were more concerned with the overall welfare of the game and not just one segment of it."
And so, for the third time in the past eight years, the men who own the teams are headed for another showdown with their players, championed by Miller. The word strike is being used once again to describe something other than a ball thrown across the plate, and the possibility exists that this season, like that of 1972, will not open as scheduled.
The basic issue, as league officials and club owners grudgingly acknowledge, is that since the reserve clause, which permitted a team to renew a player's contract in perpetuity, was overturned in 1976, the owners, for the most part, have been unable to exercise any sort of self-restraint in the pursuit of free agents. An apex—or nadir—may have been reached in the "reentry" draft of 1979 when the Houston Astros agreed to pay Pitcher Nolan Ryan a million dollars a year for four years. Ryan, who is 33, had a 16-14 record last season and is barely above .500 for his career. He has also been bothered by arm and leg injuries the past few years. As a native Texan and as the game's most renowned strikeout pitcher, he is a box-office draw, but, a million dollars....
Ryan is at least famous. In the latest draft, a relative unknown like Pitcher John Curtis (10-9, 4.17 ERA) agreed to a long-term contract with San Diego worth nearly $2 million, and San Francisco signed Rennie Stennett, who hit .238 last year, drove in 24 runs and has a bum leg, for $3 million over five years. When nondescript and damaged talent attracts millions simply because it is available, the system, the owners argue, is out of whack, knowing full well that it is out of whack because they can't control themselves.
Only the most intransigent among them assigns full blame to Miller for what has happened. The owners simply have not been able to live with the system they provoked and he created. "I don't think Marvin foresaw the extremes," says MacPhail. "No one had any conception that anything like this could happen, neither management nor the Players Association. Some of these future commitments to players are equal to the value of the franchise." "For too long, the owners called the tune, and now we're paying the fiddler," says Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett with rare insight.
It is at times such as these that baseball people invoke the "Good-of-the-Game" principle. And to insure that the game stays good, they are proposing in the current negotiations that a salary structure be imposed on players with less than six years' service and that player compensation be provided for teams losing a free agent. Maximum salaries proposed by the owners: for a first-year player—$40,600; second year—$53,000; etc., up to $153,600 for a six-year player. The compensation formula is complicated and "subject to negotiations," but, in essence, it calls for the team signing a "premium" free agent to provide the team losing him with a player from its 40-man roster. Fifteen players could be protected—as in expansion drafts—so the selectors would be somewhat limited, although there might be good pickings among the leftovers.
In this way, the owners suggest, the deprived team would at least receive a second-line player to compensate for its grievous loss of a star. Under the old Basic Agreement, which expired Dec. 31, the player's former team was entitled only to an amateur draft choice in compensation. The California Angels, Ryan's former team, could well wind up with a high school boy as a replacement for the strikeout king. "It's harder to build in baseball than it is in basketball and football," says MacPhail, accurately enough. "You need time to develop a team. If you lose a starting pitcher, you don't want a high schooler."
It should be observed that the "Good-of-the-Game" doctrine is the only one which is applicable here. When an arbitrator reinterpreted the renewal clause five years ago, and a federal court upheld him, a player was free from then on to move as he pleased as soon as his contract expired and he had played out his option year. The 1976 Basic Agreement, arrived at after months of haggling, imposed limitations on that movement, among them the requirement that a player must have at least six years' experience before being free. The owners have been quick to point out that this arrangement was only "experimental." Their new compensation proposal, they add, is far less restrictive than the rules governing the movement—virtually nonexistent—of free agents in professional football and basketball.
"I hate the word 'compensation,' " says Ray Grebey, the tweedy, energetic former General Electric negotiator who, for the past two years, has been the head of the owners' Player Relations Committee, a management consultant arm of the major league power structure, organized, in part, to play catch-up ball with Miller. "I prefer 'improved player-selection rights.' "