Al Rosen looks at his new roster and smiles. Since the end of the 1990 season, the general manager of the San Francisco Giants has signed centerfielder Willie McGee, the reigning National League batting champion; Dave Righetti, one of the game's best lefthanded relievers; and lefty Bud Black, who will bolster the starting rotation. The 1991 Giants are much improved.
Al Rosen looks at his balance sheet and cringes. The three free agents each signed a four-year contract at a total cost to Giants owner Bob Lurie of $33 million—$13 million for McGee, $10 million each for Black and Righetti. The 1991 Giants are much more expensive.
"If we don't draw people next year, [these signings] could be very harmful," says Rosen. "In our market, fans turn off rapidly if we're not in the hunt. If we tell the fans that we don't want to win [by not spending], they stop coming and we lose revenue. It's a Catch-22."
The Giants, of course, are not alone in their dilemma, which explains the six-day feeding frenzy at baseball's winter meetings last week in Rosemont, Ill., where 20 free agents were signed at a cost of around $122 million. How preposterous did it get? Pitcher Matt Young, whose .395 career winning percentage is the third lowest among all active pitchers with 50 or more decisions, signed a three-year, $6.35 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. Outfielder-first baseman Franklin Stubbs, a lifetime .236 hitter, was heavily pursued. The Milwaukee Brewers "won" Stubbs, signing him for three years and $6 million. Said one agent, "These owners can't spend their money fast enough."
The Giants were the biggest spenders, but Rosen, playing the free-agency game to the hilt while hating every minute of it, said afterward, "For 100 years, we've been trying to find a way to destroy this game, and we finally found the key."
The sweepstakes began on Oct. 31 when the Philadelphia Phillies preempted catcher Darren Daulton's free agency by signing him to a three-year contract worth $6.7 million. Daulton's career batting average is .227. On Nov. 8 the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Darryl Strawberry to a five-year, $20.3 million deal, which, in light of recent signings, appears positively prudent. On Nov. 9 (dubbed Black Friday by some G.M.'s) Rosen signed Black (83-82 lifetime), whose $10 million deal "shocked me, shocked everyone," according to one American League general manager. On Dec. 5 Pittsburgh Pirate owner Carl Barger said glumly, "I thought the early signings were an aberration, but...."
They weren't. They served instead to jump-start a spending spree that's far from over. As of Sunday, several top free agents were still available, including Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch. On Dec. 7, as part of the collusion settlement over an arbitrator's finding that the owners had improperly curtailed the players' rights to free agency, 15 "new-look" free agents were set free: Jack Clark, Chili Davis, Brett Butler, Gary Gaetti and Dave Smith, among others, were given until Jan. 29 to entertain bids. And next year's potential free-agent crop is loaded; by then, what will Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden and Frank Viola be asking for?
At the winter meetings, just as at last year's gathering, the agents were the real stars and money was all anyone talked about most of the time. By the fourth day, it had become so depressing to San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine that he and Toronto G.M. Pat Gillick got together and—in 24 hours—engineered one of the biggest trades in baseball history. The Padres sent second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter to Toronto for shortstop Tony Fernandez and first baseman Fred McGriff. Said McIlvaine later, "I was tired of reading about who the next 10-millionaire would be. So we thought we'd give everybody a good old baseball trade."
But money was still the name of the game, and the meetings provided the best opportunity yet for owners and G.M.'s to start spending the bucks from baseball's four-year, $1.48 billion television contract, signed before the 1990 season. Yet even as the teams were dishing out the loot to the players, CBS, which is committed to pay $1.08 billion, was already asking for a rebate from Major League Baseball to help the network ease the pain of losing an estimated $100 million dollars on its baseball broadcasts this year. ESPN, which will pay the remaining $400 million, wasn't thrilled with its ratings either—or with its reported $53 million in losses.
How quickly things change. Two weeks ago the Associated Press reported that in 1989 the 26 major league teams had record combined pretax operating profits of $214.509 million, an increase of 23% over 1988. And that was before the new TV contract kicked in. Bonanza time. But already, many baseball executives are looking ahead with concern. Where, they wonder, will they be in the winter of '93, when the current TV contract runs out, especially if the next contract were to shrink? Player salaries in 1990 averaged $597,000, an increase of $100,000 over '89. If salaries were to continue to rise at the post-collusion rate, the average could approach $1 million by the 1994 season. (And this would come on top of the serious hit—$10.8 million per team—that owners will take as a result of the most recent collusion settlement.) Is baseball looking at serious financial trouble by '94?