Moments after Joe Morgan said he wanted to promote Mo Vaughn recently, Boston Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman walked into the clubhouse and was immediately confronted by reporters who cornered him outside the manager's office door.
Morgan was calling for Vaughn, and now everyone wanted to know what Gorman was going to do about it. Caught off guard, the GM became flustered. No, there were no immediate plans to call up Vaughn, he said. Yes, it would be nice to have him, but you'd have to make room on the roster. No, it won't happen tomorrow.
As more and more reporters descended upon him, Gorman finally blurted, "What do you want? I don't have a magic wand over here."
He soon found one, though. After a brief meeting with Morgan behind closed doors, Gorman emerged to say that perhaps something could be worked out. He then walked back to his office, picked up the phone and called up Mo Vaughn.
After being mostly applauded for his aggressive forays into the free-agent market last winter moves that made the Red Sox preseason favorites in the American League East Gorman is suddenly faced with the most intense scrutiny of his seven-year term, with the well-heeled Sox so far failing to play up to expectations.
"Sure, there's more pressure," he said. "When you're committing that much money to players, there's going to be more pressure. But the thing is, no matter how much you're paying, the money can't play for you. Once that game starts, the money can't play."
The pressure is fairly rare for Gorman, who, since coming from the Mets in 1984, has been more than a general manager to the Sox. He has become almost an ambassador, spreading his unlimited good cheer on behalf of the team. This high visibility has worked for and against him. He has received well-deserved credit for helping the Sox win three division titles the last five years. But he also has borne a large part of the criticism when the worm has turned.
The Blue Jays' pre-emptive strike on Tom Candiotti last week a move that conceivably could bury the already staggering Sox only heightened the impression that Gorman has been in a slump of sorts since last July, when he traded three prospects (right-hander Greg Hansell, outfielder Ender Perozo and catcher Paul Williams) to the Mets for Mike Marshall, whom he thought was needed since Dwight Evans had secretly told management he was retiring because of back problems.
Soon after that, apparently in a response to Oakland acquiring Harold Baines and Willie McGee for the playoffs, Gorman made perhaps the worst deal of his tenure. He traded infielder Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for middle reliever Larry Andersen. Andersen appeared in 15 games, then went to San Diego as a new-look free agent. Bagwell is hitting .279 in Houston and is the front-runner to win National League Rookie of the Year honors.
"Did you know that Bagwell was going to hit like that? Did anybody know? Nobody knew that Bagwell was going to hit like that," Gorman said recently. "I'd make that deal a hundred times if I had to do it over again. We wouldn't have won the division without Larry Andersen. You had to make that deal."
It is the performance of this year's team, however, that has him feeling the most pressure. After he committed to a combined $28.65 million for Matt Young, Danny Darwin, Jack Clark, Tom Brunansky and Greg Harris all of whom were free agents the players have performed nowhere near the expectations raised by such gaudy figures. Young is on the disabled list indefinitely with a partial tear in his rotator cuff. Darwin is 3-6 with a 5.16 ERA. Clark and Brunansky were hitting .222 and .206, respectively, going into the weekend. Harris, who was sent to the bullpen after a month and has since returned to the rotation, is 6-10.
Although it is unfair to judge those decisions on a little more than half a season, the Sox roster remains hopelessly unbalanced, almost as if the team was assembled without a plan. Phil Plantier, who has nothing more to prove in the minor leagues, was sent down again recently because there is simply no room for him. Vaughn had been ready for weeks before he was called up. He is playing at the expense of Carlos Quintana, who has been basically limited to playing against left-handers despite a .300 batting average. "Mala situacion," said the Q. "It's a bad situation."
It could be argued that what has happened to the Sox is what many people in baseball fear these days. Flush with television revenue that exceeds $30 million annually and ever-burgeoning attendance Fenway Park has been filled to 92 percent of capacity this season the club went into a spending frenzy that would be unthinkable for such small-market teams as Minnesota and Seattle.
In some cases, the moves seemed to defy logic. Brunansky was given an $8 million deal (two years plus an option) even though no other team was bidding on him. Harris, 35, received two years at $2.5 million on the basis of a season that seemed an aberration when compared to the rest of his undistinguished career.
"We felt we needed some offense and we thought Clark was going to help us in that area," said Gorman, ticking off names. "And I still feel like he's going to help us. Joe and I met with him and he told us that he would be prouder to wear the Red Sox uniform than any other uniform he had ever worn in his career. I was very impressed with someone who wanted to be with the team that badly.
"Harris was an effective starter for us last year and I thought he would help us again over the next two years as a starter or middle reliever. And I still think that, too. The thing is, we wanted to improve our team and we made the moves that we thought would do that. Same with Bruno we think he's going to be a very effective player for us over the next few years."
In some ways, Gorman is a victim of the times. "These days, a general manager is just a guy with his finger in the dike," said Giants general manager Al Rosen, who was criticized for spending $33 million on free agents over the winter. Since the advent of free agency 15 years ago, the general manager has gone from being a figure of almost ultimate authority to one with relatively little power over players.
Once secure in their positions, GMs are now being held accountable by owners for wildly escalating salaries. Not only that, they are responsible for understanding multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts and executing the various rules that have sprung up like weeds around the game. "I think in some ways now you don't need a general manager," said White Sox GM Ron Schueler. "You need an attorney.
Gorman is at a disadvantage in two ways. The first is that he learned his trade in an entirely different era, before money had come to dominate the sport. After a six-year hitch in the Navy, he got his first job by hanging out at the 1960 winter meetings, which were held in Tampa that year. Late one afternoon, Gorman ducked into the hotel bar. He reached over to light a woman's cigarette. The woman turned out to be the wife of Howard Roth, the man who eventually hired him for his first job, running a Giants rookie league team in Lakeland, Fla. Gorman climbed the baseball ladder from there, taking jobs under men like Harry Dalton and Frank Cashen.
"It was definitely more fun in those days," said Gorman. "If you wanted to make a trade, you made a trade. Now there are so many rules. You can't believe how many rules they've got these days. Rules for this. Rules for that. It's almost impossible to make a deal."
Gorman is at a second disadvantage because he is basically on his own in this increasingly complex environment. He said his assistant of two years, Elaine Weddington, is, "very, very bright," but Weddington has almost no baseball experience. The club has one of the finest scouting departments in baseball, but director Eddie Kasko, perhaps the brightest baseball mind in the organization, works out of Richmond, and understandably, the department's main concern is just that, scouting. Gorman's isolation became even more evident last fall, when one man he considered an adviser, former special assignments scout Steve Schryver, was fired underneath him by team executive John Harrington. Gorman was promised a hire that never came, and the team eventually promoted one of its scouts, Erwin Bryant, as an assistant in player development.
Meanwhile, the Sox still have problems with the rules; recently they failed to anticipate the need to open up a spot on the 40-man roster and were unable to call up a starter when Mike Gardiner was placed on the disabled list.
It may be because of the uncertainty of his position that Gorman has deferred to Morgan more frequently on baseball matters. The most recent example was the decision to call up Vaughn. Gorman had wanted to wait until he could trade Marshall. Instead, he agreed not only to call up Vaughn but to send down Plantier, whom he had wanted to keep on the roster.
"Whatever Joe wants to do, I do for him," Gorman said. "My job is to help him get the players he wants to put together the best team possible."
"It almost seems like he doesn't have any real power," one player said of Gorman. "It's like Joe is going to get whatever he wants. And any of the real heavy decisions are going to come from upstairs."
That is probably an overstatement. Gorman is still the most visible figure in the organization. He is one of the most prolific talk show figures around. Every month, it seems, he is honored or feted or asked to speak all over New England. He is still very much part of the Red Sox.
Recently, though, Gorman has seemed to enjoy his job less and less. Always quick to accentuate his successes and downplay his failures, he has been more defensive than usual about his role in putting together this year's team. Twice last week, he snapped at reporters who were simply asking him about possible moves.
For some time, Gorman has been planning to write a book on his 31 years in baseball when he retires. Asked if he might be nearing that point because of all the frustrations he faced, he laughed and said, "No, not yet. I felt when I came here that if you could come here and win a world championship, you could turn this area upside down. We should have done it in '86. And I still think we can do it.
"But not the way we're playing now."