During a recent trip to the east coast of Florida, there was a opportunity to visit and have dinner with some good, extremely successful Baltimoreans, Jean and Frank Cashen in Port St. Lucie, John Schuerholz in West Palm Beach.
Frank, who is still running the Mets, just moved into a beautiful new home in Port St. Lucie, about five minutes from the Mets' spring training camp. John, longtime general manager of Kansas City, is now in his first year as general manager of the Atlanta Braves, after being hired away from the Royals by Ted Turner. Both were born, raised and educated in Baltimore and got their start in baseball with the Orioles' organization.
Since these were primarily social visits with old friends, much of the conversation concentrated in that area rather than business, although it was only natural that baseball worked its way in there occasionally. And, when it did, the surprising thing was how little of the talk had to do with the actual game itself, and how much involved money, along with the off-field duties that dominate so much of a general manager's time today. I also sensed a genuine concern by both about the direction in which their game is headed.
"It's amazing how much time you spend on contracts and other financial considerations," Cashen said. "We faced a decision with Darryl Strawberry after last season and decided not to go beyond what the Dodgers paid him as a free agent because we honestly believe we have a chance to be at least as good a ball club without him. I was vilified by the media for letting him get away.
"Now, Frank Viola wants a long-term contract. He has bone chips in his elbow and at this point we don't know how much he will be able to pitch or if he will need surgery. Dwight Gooden wants the same money the Red Sox gave Roger Clemens. If we decide we can't give in to both, I'll be vilified again. The amazing thing is that in spite of the fact that the game is generating more money today than anybody ever thought possible, nobody seems to be having any fun."
When Cashen's sentiments were mentioned to Schuerholz later, said, "Frank is absolutely right. Nobody is happy. The owners aren't happy because they have to pay these outlandish salaries; the players aren't happy because no matter how much they make somebody else always seems to get more; general managers don't like it because they have to spend so much of their time negotiating; the fans probably aren't crazy about these huge salaries while their cost to attend games keeps going up. It's a vicious circle.
"Somebody asked me the other day what were the biggest changes I've noticed in my 25 years of working in the game," Schuerholz said. "The money thing is obvious. But, two others that stand out to me are the major roles that agents have come to play, and the nature of dealing with the media. So much of a general manager's day is spent with one or the other.
"Our relationship with the media used to be fun. There weren't that many of them, and you got to know each other well. Now, it seems that there are so many, they sort of come at you in waves all day, and you really have to be conscious of not saying something to make you or your ball club look bad. There is no off-the-record stuff anymore. You're always on stage and you have to be very careful in choosing your words. It is not only time-consuming, but it can get a little stressful."
What is the answer to the money situation in baseball?
"A lot of people are worried about it," Cashen said. "Under conditions that exist right now, we'll have to find some way to control the salary escalation spiral, or the smaller markets just won't be able to compete indefinitely. But, this is such a great game it wouldn't surprise me to see another source of revenue kick in down the road. Maybe pay TV will become popular and save us. We'll either have to control salaries or develop additional money."
You know one thing that pushed money talk aside and got things back to baseball wherever we went during our stay in Florida? Jim Palmer's comeback, which was then still in progress. Cashen, Schuerholz, every fan we met asked about it, and were following it with interest. If nothing else, Jimmy deserves points for generating some baseball talk during spring training.
Another thing that got my attention on the trip was that while the Orioles are in their second year of being the nomads of spring training, other organizations are having, or have had, new state-of-the-art complexes built for them by various Florida communities. You couldn't ask for better facilities than the Mets have now in Port St. Lucie, the Royals near Orlando, the Twins in Fort Myers, etc. It can make a difference in the way a team is able to prepare itself for the season.