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Until 1979, Ed Farmer's relief-pitching accomplishments were a lot closer to minor than major. Since being drafted in 1967 by the Cleveland Indians, he had played for 18 different teams; he had been sold once, released outright twice, signed as a free agent thrice and traded five times.
Then, in '79, he had 14 saves for the Chicago White Sox and in 1980 he had 30, one more than he'd had in his slightly more than four previous major league seasons put together. Thus, when his contract came up for renewal last winter, Farmer felt that his $130,000 salary was miserably low and even his employers agreed. The problem was that the Sox thought the $495,000 Farmer wanted was outlandishly high. Still, he pitched last season for $495,000 and he didn't have to become a free agent, threaten to hold out or throw a tantrum to get the loot. How did Farmer spell relief? A-R-B-I-T-R-A-T-I-O-N.
Farmer's case should be instructive to Ken Oberkfell of St. Louis, Omar Moreno of Pittsburgh and Gary Alexander of Cleveland, the most notable of the players who are expected to file for salary arbitration, which begins next week.
The Basic Agreement reached by players and management in 1976 established the right of players with between two and six years of experience in the majors to take salary disputes to binding arbitration. A player with six or more years could become a free agent. While free agency has gotten most of the credit—or blame—for driving salaries to astronomical heights, arbitration has quietly played nearly as important a role. In effect, it has compelled many clubs to "buy out" their best young players' right to arbitration with hefty multiyear contracts.
The key to arbitration is that mystical quantity: comparability, which is what hot-stove leaguers argue about all winter. Who's better? And by how much? In making his decision, the arbitrator in Farmer's case, Theodore J. St. Antoine, considered, among other things, Farmer's age (31), his stats, the salaries of other relievers and the fact that Farmer, a native of the Chicago area, had something of a hometown following. After hearing all the evidence, St. Antoine set Farmer's value at $400,000.
The rules dictate that each side submit an unalterable bid indicating what it feels the player is worth. The arbitrator must choose the figure closer to his own. The White Sox offer in arbitration was $300,000. Farmer's lawyer, Steve Greenberg, submitted a bid of $495,000, which was closer, by just $5,000, to St. Antoine's figure than the team's offer was. "It isn't the club's or the player's figure that's important," explains St. Antoine. "The critical figure is the breaking point."
In Farmer's case Greenberg worked out his bid with the help of his wife, Myrna, and another lawyer, Arn Tellem. Myrna liked the number $650,000. Greenberg thought the arbitrator would find Farmer was more comparable to the Pirates' Kent Tekulve at $400,000 than the Braves' Al Hrabosky at $647,000 or the Cardinals' Bruce Sutter at $975,000. He also guessed that the White Sox' bid would match their final pre-arbitration offer of $300,000.
Greenberg, it turned out, was right on the money. At the door of the hearing room, the White Sox offered $350,000. "The closer people get to zero hour," says St. Antoine, "the more realistic they become." "No way," Farmer told Greenberg as they went in. "Let's go for it all."
Most cases do end in compromise; of the 98 cases filed before the 1981 season, only 21 reached the hearing stage. Players seem to prefer the security of multi-year contracts for less money to arbitration's dicey one-year deals. In the first years of arbitration, the clubs won most of the cases. But since 1979 the players have had the edge. Nowadays even some losers win. For example, Mike Norris won 22 games in 1980, but lost in arbitration. Norris wanted $450,000 and the A's countered with $325,000, which was still $285,000 more than he earned the year before.
For Farmer, Steve Kemp and Sutter, arbitration has been a gold mine. Farmer won $35,000 at his first hearing in 1979. That same year Detroit's Kemp chose not to go to arbitration and got $75,000; in two hearings since, he has moved up to $210,000 and then to $600,000, which was too rich for the Tigers. They traded him in November to the White Sox, who were willing to pay the tab. Sutter, the 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner, demanded $700,000, twice what the Cubs had offered and nearly five times what he had been making. The arbitrator found for Sutter. The Cubs met that price for one year, but knowing it would set the minimum for a future long-term contract with Sutter, dealt him to St. Louis at the '80 winter meetings.